What does it say about me that I can view a 90-minute movie about three people surgically joined ass-to-mouth called “The Human Centipede” and not think it completely over the top?
Actually, it says quite a lot about some of the old-fashioned horror techniques of Dutch writer/director Tom Six that a movie with that premise is even worth watching. And, take it from me—someone constantly bemoaning the awful state of the mainstream horror film these days—“The Human Centipede (First Sequence)” is worth seeing.
The set-up is classic horror cliché: Two young, pretty, horny American tourists (Ashley C. Williams and Ashlynn Yennie) get a flat tire in the rain and stumble onto a house in the middle of the woods where they ask to use the phone. Unfortunately, the house has paintings of conjoined twins on the walls and is owned by a mad German surgeon who has just buried his beloved three-dog centipede experiment in his yard. Now he’s looking to move up a couple rungs on the evolutionary chain.
Enough plot summary—you probably have already heard that much otherwise you wouldn’t be reading this. A high concept that simple, that diabolical, and that stomach-turning doesn’t come along very often. Kudos to Six and his eight-person cast for squeezing every ounce of dread and black humor out of it.
The movie is teeming with symbolism. The doctor, whose name—Heiter—is only one letter away from Hitler, is obviously a reference to the ghastly Nazi experiments on humans during WWII. The fact that a Japanese man is thrown into the mix not long after is not a coincidence. But what is the film really trying to say? Can there be a coherent statement to be derived from this kind of parody?
I don’t think so, but “The Human Centipede” is undoubtedly having fun with these stereotypes and it adds an extra charge of no-they-didn’t bewilderment, which the movie already has in spades.
What surprised me the most about the movie was that it really made fantastic use of the mounting dread the audience was feeling knowing that this depiction of the centipede (already incredibly graphic in our imagination) was coming.
Dr. Heiter (a fiendishly funny Dieter Laser) goes through a little presentation of the process for his captor’s (but mostly our) benefit and the effect is chilling because start thinking more specifically about what we are seeing.
Also, as part of the centipede, the two American girls who were so annoying at the outset gain a sort of humility and dignity that they didn’t have when they were able to talk. I’m still undecided about whether that was by design or not…
Through it all, “The Human Centipede” has a surprisingly tame level of gore. Or at least it seems that way, all things considered. One thing that keeps it from being revolting is the aniseptic art direction of Heiter’s lab/home and the artfully framed cinematography. This may be a low-budget film, but it doesn’t revel in the sadistic, filthy grime of say, a Rob Zombie film. It definitely has a high-class look to it and is more reminiscent of a David Cronenberg film like “Dead Ringers.”
That, I suppose, is kind of obvious considering both movies are about brilliant surgeons with bizarre fetishes. But don’t mistake this for being Cronenberg in theme. The level of emotional complexity and moral ambiguity in Cronenberg films are way beyond this movie.
That said, “The Human Centipede” delivers on more than it should. It’s visceral when it needs to be, funny when you think it shouldn’t be, and has one thing most modern horror flicks almost never have—a horrifying and truly satisfying ending.
“The Human Centipede” thrives on being in the moment with scares like a more traditional horror film: People stuck in an awful situation trying to get out of it. The difference is, once these victims are stuck, it changes everything about what it means to be alive. Is there a worse nightmare than being in a situation where you become essentially inhuman, have no control over your body, and are trapped by the very idea of survival? Barring any heroics (which the movie is thankfully devoid of), is death preferable?
If you decide to brave “The Human Centipede,” you’ll be thinking about that nonstop. Kudos to Six for delivering a real horror film.
The Human Centipede (First Sequence) is in theaters in limited release and on demand now. Check here for on-demand availability.