The Human Centipede (First Sequence) (2009)

*. Here your commentator takes a deep breath.
*. Yes, you can say a lot of bad things about this movie, all of them true. It’s vile. It’s disgusting. In a perfect world it would never have been made.
*. If it were just a despicable film though I don’t think it would have had the kind of impact it’s had. The worst movies ever made are almost entirely unknown because nobody’s seen them. People did see The Human Centipede, and indeed among a certain segment of the population it became quite popular. So all of the venom directed against it suggests that there was something there, aside from the obvious.
*. Leaving aside the obvious, the premise, for just a moment, I’ll say I thought this was a reasonably well-made movie. It looks good. The house, both interiors and exteriors, is well presented. There are a few style points. Some of the suspense sequences are effective. The scene where Lindsay is trapped in the swimming pool is harrowing. Dieter Laser turns in a memorable camp performance as the Nazi Dr. Heiter. In brief, I don’t think the movie offends to make offence a skill, but it does show evidence of at least some talent at work.
*. On the downside: Tom Six can’t write dialogue. The plot is full of what have become conventions, starting with the flat tire (Kim Newman: “underneath an extremely repulsive concept, this is a relatively conventional horror movie”). The cast outside of Laser, though making sacrifices for their art above and beyond the call of duty, aren’t very good.
*. So, a mix of good and bad. I’d even say that for a film of this kind the good outweighs the bad. Then we have the premise. Which is that the mad doctor performs a reverse-Siamese operation on three young people: crippling them and joining together their gastric system by attaching them mouth-to-anus, thus forming a “human centipede.”
*. It’s an appalling idea, and I suspect much of the film’s notoriety initially arose from it being one of those movies that you watch on a dare, and maybe watch again with someone so you can see their reaction to it. In this way it’s no different than the “2 Girls 1 Cup” video (official name: Hungry Bitches).
*. In fact, I think Hungry Bitches, a porn video where two girls share vomit and excrement, is very much a relevant title in the context of a discussion of The Human Centipede. Obviously both movies feature girls being forced to eat shit, and both are also a kind of porn.
*. You really can’t miss that here. Look at the way Heiter straddles over the one girl (after giving her the date-rape drug Rohypnol) while injecting her with a hypo, and then sighing with what is clearly orgasmic release. And the training scene where he yells at Katsuro (the “head” of the centipede) to “Feed her! Feeeeeeed her! Hard!” and barks at Lindsay to “Swallow it bitch!” needs no further comment.

*. I assume someone has pointed out the sexism of having the male being the head of the centipede, and thus the one who doesn’t have to eat any shit. I wonder if the misogyny (a word that I think Six, an enemy of political correctness, would despise) fails to bother people, given how much else there is to be offended by.
*. The porn angle also suggests we look again at the label of torture porn. The sexual/fetish feel to the proceedings (already discussed) was not lost on the adult industry, which quickly had its own fun with the concept. But what about the torture part?
*. Roger Ebert: “It’s not death itself that’s so bad. It’s what you might have to go through to get there. No horror film I’ve seen inflicts more terrible things on its victims than The Human Centipede.” I think I’d say the same, but in furtherance of what moral point?
*. In his seminal torture-porn essay, which was published a couple of years before this film came out, David Edelstein remarked that “Some of these movies [Hostel and Wolf Creek were his main examples] are so viciously nihilistic that the only point seems to be to force you to suspend moral judgments altogether.”
*. I think that word nihilism is the key. You can’t have moral judgments in a nihilistic universe. And nihilism is clearly where twenty-first century horror has been heading. Think of the explosion in zombie films, the main argument of which is (as I have argued elsewhere) that we should just go out and start shooting other people in the head. “I don’t like human beings,” Dr. Heiter says. This is the philosophy of the zombie apocalypse. As Kim Newman observes, “clearly, misanthropy is in style”: “the message of the twenty-first century is that Other People are Shit.” Or they’re made to eat it.
*. For further evidence, look at the normalization of the dark ending, where movies like the Paranormal Activity films, or Rec, or Eden Lake, or Sinister, or The Witch, have all or most of the good/innocent characters killed at the end and evil triumphant. I guess in this one Heiter dies too, but two of the three centipede segments have preceded him and Lindsay is left suffering an even bleaker fate.
*. What we’re talking about here is something more than just an attempt to up the ante for jaded audiences. It’s an outright rejection of any system of moral values (in particular, those associated with faith and family) and a declaration of war against humanity. I’m not being prudish about this, but I am genuinely curious as to how widely adopted the message of “I don’t like human beings” and “Other People are Shit” has become. We seem to have lost our belief in life being worth anything, and indeed take pleasure (the pornography of torture and cruelty) in rubbing everyone’s nose in it. I think this is what Ebert meant when he refused to give The Human Centipede any stars and said it “occupies a world where the stars don’t shine.” There is no order in its universe, no justice human or divine. And it is not an outlier in this regard.
*. Just on the matter of justice, it may be worth noting that Six’s inspiration for the concept was an idea he came up with for punishing child molesters. How this led to a film where innocent people are tortured in this manner seems like a fair question. Indeed, it’s not just innocence that is destroyed, but it is Lindsay’s return to rescue Jenny that is her downfall. No good deed can go unpunished.
*. One defence of the movie that’s often made is to argue that it’s really a comedy, but if so I can’t see what it’s sending up. Satire is a moral tool, and if The Human Centipede is satirizing the excesses of contemporary horror movies, on what ground is it standing when it does so? I think there may well be comic elements in it, but it seems to me that the laughter is just as heartless as the cruelty, and really part of the same mindset.
*. By the same token, Six’s statement that it’s an anti-fascist film is even thinner. Heiter is just a stock villain. This movie has no politics.
*. So much for general reflections.
*. It was originally marketed as “100% medically accurate.” It isn’t, but then The Texas Chain Saw Massacre wasn’t an account of a true crime either. These are just ad lines. But the appeal to truth works.
*. I know it’s pointless to ask, but still: just what is Heiter up to? I realize he hates human beings, but he seems to have had some genuine attachment to his “beloved 3-dog.” So what was his point with all of this? I suspect he thinks he’s an artist even more than he wants to play God (if there’s a difference). In what may be a relevant bit of trivia, those are Six’s own paintings decorating his house.

*. We’re into the world of medical horror again. I wonder if this counts as a real trend or if it just seems that way. Most horror movies are aimed at young audiences, and most young people have little experience with the authentic horrors of the medical system. Nevertheless, it’s such a real and powerful anxiety it probably still resonates. For what it’s worth, Six claims he has a fear of hospitals and I found the (mercifully brief) operation scene here tough sledding. I really can’t stand this stuff.
*. I feel like Katsuro’s big speech at the end should mean something, relating to or explaining his suicide. But I can’t figure out what it might be. At that point, his situation is the furthest it’s been from hopeless.
*. Our standards for what we find disgusting are fluid. Eighty years ago Dracula and Frankenstein were considered shocking. The Exorcist had people throwing up and running for the exits. In twenty or thirty years will we look back at The Human Centipede as something quaint and humorous? I think it’s at very possible. Just on a second viewing I found it had lost most of its shock value.
*. Will it become a cult film? Maybe (that is, if the label “cult film” still means anything). But I’m not sure Six helped it in this regard with the remakes. Or at least he didn’t with The Human Centipede III (Final Sequence). Some people rate the second entry highly.
*. Newman found it “never quite as outrageous as it threatens to be,” and I think that’s true. At the same time, I think it is pretty explicit. About the only place where they avoid showing us more is in the operation scene. Much is made of the fact that we never actually see shit, but given the premise how could we? Unless it’s coming out of Jenny, and that wouldn’t mean anything. I think Six makes it clear when the “feeding” is taking place.
*. Perhaps after a while we’ll see this as less a game-changer and more of a representative film of its time, along the lines I’ve already mentioned. It’s typical of a generation of horror that no longer tries to do much along the lines of suspense or even shock but instead just presents us with an experience of suffering that we have to endure. Is there a value in that? I endured it but I don’t think it made me a stronger or a better person. And worse was to come.

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