“[muffled cry]” —The Human Centipede
At political conventions, they call it “red meat.” In the lead-up to the night’s keynote address—or, in the case of Sarah Palin ’08, the keynote address, too—a succession of speakers are brought on stage to fire up the audience. This is not a time for soaring language or elegant turns of phrase, but searing-hot rhetoric, served to an audience that eagerly scarfs it down, even if it ultimately clogs the arteries or poisons them with salmonella. Same thing goes for about half the slate at Midnight Movie sections like the (excellent) one at the Toronto Film Festival: Between servings of Argento or Miike or surprises from audacious newcomers, red meat is usually what’s on the menu. And while the crowd might roar their terrible roars and gnash their terrible teeth, all that laughing and screaming is thin validation for the movie itself, which has proven little beyond a facility for cheap rhetoric.
All of which is to say that The Human Centipede (First Sequence) is a lousy movie—and, to damn it further, a common lousy movie, no matter how deeply its gimmicky conceit has penetrated the culture. It’s not the grossest horror film ever made—though its sequel, muted somewhat by surveillance-cam-quality B&W photography, gives it a real shot—and it’s far from the most disturbing, despite the presence of a homemade organism that relies on coprophagia for sustenance. (It should be noted that actual centipedes have more refined taste, though if someone were to attach them pincer to telson, they’d have to evolve or perish.) So what is it? It’s an Internet meme, existing as a thought experiment for 99 percent and a late-night dare for the remainder. It’s 2 Girls, 1 Cup: The Movie.
Still, ideas have power, and The Human Centipede’s vision of a three-sectioned human organism with one long digestive tract is irresistibly silly, especially when diagrammed—or crafted into a necklace. The phrase “100% medically accurate” is one of the film’s few instances of genuine wit, and it proves even funnier in the sequel, which follows a Human Centipede super-fan who idolizes Dieter Laser’s mad scientist, but tries to fuse four times as many bodies with none of the professional expertise. The simplicity of the concept makes it funnier, still: It’s two wavy lines in parallel, a child’s drawing of the human being, totally and hilariously disregarding the miraculously, irreducibly complex machine that is the body. To quote George Costanza’s justification for peeing in the shower at a health club: “It’s all pipes!”
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Minus the high concept, the filmmaking and performances in The Human Centipede have a straight-to-DVD artlessness to them, a quality laid bare in the early going, before the plot elements are… um… stitched together. In a reasonably clever twist on the expected horror tropes, Lindsay (Ashley C. Williams) and Jenny (Ashlynn Yennie), two American tourists in Germany, don’t fall into the madman’s deviously calibrated trap so much as inspire one by appearing on his doorstep. While taking the scenic route to a nightclub via a forest out of a Brothers Grimm story, Lindsay and Jenny blow a tire in their rental car and do what any normal people would do—walk straight into the woods until they find something. They luck out by stumbling upon an isolated villa, but its owner, Dr. Josef Heiter (Laser), proves to be a sour host. Even before he reveals his derangement, his contempt for humanity isn’t well-hidden; he’s as antisocial as Norman Bates, but infinitely more confident in his misanthropy.
After drugging Lindsay and Jenny and stashing them away in his well-equipped medical ward, Heiter determines that the truck driver he kidnapped is “not a match,” and shoots him right in front of them. When they wake up again from in their hospital beds, the third segment arrives in Katsuro (Akihiro Kitamura), a Japanese tourist destined for a spot at the front of the centipede, by far the most desirable spot. (And does that stop him from complaining? No, it does not.) After outlining his credentials as a go-to separator of Siamese twins, Heiter lays out his vision as a creator of “Siamese triplets,” an experiment he first attempted with his beloved Rottweilers and will now try on them. Happily, writer/director/producer/editor/dilettante Tom Six doesn’t show the operation—which involves severing knee ligaments and surgically altering the faces of the back two-thirds to accommodate the proper mouth-to-anus alignment—but there are plenty of scenes of the trio shuffling around on all fours, moaning in (two-thirds muffled) protest.
Without Laser’s casting as the mad scientist, The Human Centipede may not have advanced further than the ligament-slicing stage of its cult development, but any fun to be gleaned from the film is due entirely to his mesmerizing presence. With a face that suggests melted candle wax—or maybe Christopher Walken after going on Christian Bale’s diet for The Machinist—Laser’s Heiter is clearly meant to evoke Nazi doctors and their notorious experiments (classy reference, that), but he’s such a deeply strange actor that he seems removed from the species entirely. His reasons for creating the centipede are partly sentimental (he loved those dogs) and partly borne out of sadism and contempt, but there’s something else, a professional enthusiasm, that gives Laser’s performance such a giddy kick. He wants his 100 percent medically accurate blueprint to work, dammit, even if said blueprint looks drafted at Hollywood Upstairs Medical College.
Six has said in interviews that The Human Centipede is intended in part as a twisted World War II allegory, with Americans, a Japanese, and a German, and the sequel expands to Great Britain, another major player in the war. That seems like a lot of flim-flammery, because the metaphor is immediately and irrevocably confused no matter how many different ways you look at it, but some thematic justification for the film might have helped. In previous columns, I’ve happily defended horror movies far more unsettling than this one, because they have a guiding intelligence and craft behind them that transcends stomach-turning mayhem for its own sake. The best I can do is consider it a feminist allegory, since the two women in the chain are the ones who can’t speak, but that’s a stretch.
So where does that leave the film? To a stature much smaller than the phenomenon it’s inspired. The truly indelible scenes in The Human Centipede number precisely two: Dr. Heiter explaining his crazed vision through transparency projection and later shouting “Feed her!” enthusiastically as Segment One releases to Segment Two. The rest is just junk-movie fodder, the figurative feeding of shit to a culture that’s sometimes clever enough to get some creative sustenance out of it. And if it weren’t so clever, we’d simply die of malnutrition.
November 10: Anaconda
December 1: Diggstown
December 22: The Cook, The Thief, His Wife And Her Lover