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The Human Centipede

If you’re a big cinema fan, no matter how big a fan you are, as with books, music, art, anything, you will hear about a piece of work that immediately prompts you to question your level of enthusiasm. Certain films, when you hear a little about their plot, specific scenes, if they arrive with a little notoriety, may goad you, the viewer, into testing your mettle and sitting through what has promised to be a potentially difficult undertaking.

The Human Centipede is such a film. It’s a couple of years old now, but, I confess, that’s the length of time it’s taken me to brave it. Not that I’ll be watching it again, which isn’t to suggest it is a bad film: it isn’t, and that fact only adds to the problematic nature of it.

Before watching this, I asked myself why I had demurred for so long. Well, who wants to watch a film containing savage humiliations of a hitherto unseen and deplorable nature? Plenty, judging from the drooling (and often – terrifyingly – underwhelmed) missives plonked on messageboards. There is absolutely no need to watch it. The compelling aspects are few. But, in the end, it was akin to being tormented: what could be so bad? Aren’t you up to it? I was and I wasn’t.

A crazed German surgeon has fixed on an idea: he will select three people to kidnap (unwitting tourists soon tied up on beds in a well kitted-out operating theatre in his basement, subject to the informative preamble of a sadistic. baroque slideshow detailing their soon-to-arrive fate) and stitch together as one whole being, rectum to mouth, to form a crawling mass that he will treat as a pet (one ‘memorable’ scene following – and it’s played for the uneasiest of uneasy laughs – the attempts of the debatable surgeon trying to coax the maddened front member of his project to ‘fetch’ his newspaper) and whose subsistence will be, well…the guy at the front gets the best meals, shall we say. All three will be in shameful, nightmarish bondage to this lunatic’s dominion and must get used to regurgitative diets and captive mortification.

That’s the nub of it. A horridly mesmerising, pitiful attempt at an escape is made. You get to see those not at the head of this unthinkable creation actually eating that which has moved through the person in front’s system. There is no shirking the unimaginable here. But nor is there any sense of glorifying in any of it either: the director, you can’t fail to notice, is very serious about all of this. He is not going to give you an easy ride; splayed hands are often useful.

Just at the point you might hope for some fantastical, ridiculous u-turn into easily-digestible splatter or meaningless torture porn, the nightmarish, sequential narrative fails to blink and moves on, slowly, determined to play it straight. Stare at this and it stares back: defiant and unflinching, gathering an assiduous, pervasive insanity.

Director Tom Six has produced a film possessing an unusually elegant, flat aesthetic for a horror film. Everything is shot crisply with no rigorous sub-genre sensibility. This, of course, makes everything that much more unbearable. The visuals are sophisticated family drama or thoughtful indie. This doesn’t chime with the material and creates an interesting dichotomy.

The Human Centipede: horrific, unswerving, at times virtually impossible to watch and deeply unsettling. But also weirdly moving at times and, I suggest, valuable (not so much torture-porn as torture-anorak): if you consider cinema mere entertainment, or if you prefer film that negotiates scarcely mapped terrain, either way, here’s something to pose you some uncomfortable questions. You don’t need the answers (there may not be any) but they’re worth mulling over. Although you’d be forgiven for looking away now and again. It’s the gaps between the watching and the failing to watch that pose serious ruminations and provide plenty to ponder.

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Categories: Uncategorized
  1. April 27, 2011 at 11:17 am

    It’s an interesting review, but it’s still a film I’m avoiding. It sounds so utterly repulsive and I can’t help but wonder if his talent for direction could have been applied to something equally provocative but less stomach churning.

    I grew up on horror so I’m no stranger to it. Still, while I’m of course fine with it being made and distributed there’s not enough in this premise to tempt me into the theatre (or online DVD store).

  2. April 27, 2011 at 11:35 am

    Yes, completely understand, Max. It is utterly repulsive…and yet it’s also a very sophisticated piece of provocation, easy to watch in many ways, and very competently shot. Too competently, some may argue, for such a film. It’s an uneasy exercise for sure. After watching the succulent sections of Uncle Boonmee, simultaneously fantastical and emotive and magical, and then moving onto this, done equally sumptuously at times, it feels like an aggressive stance. ‘This hell deserves optimum representative form’ and so on. Well, it creates a bit of a schism re: your own unavoidable horror references as you watch, the grubby immediacy of Texas Chainsaw, for example, and the garish grue-ecstacy of Saw and Hostel and so on. This is shot a bit like Halloween: a lot of classically framed scenes. I daresay many a fetishist was in raptures: I just found it an interesting combination of visuals and narrative pacing.

    Digressions aside, I find it hard to enthusedly recommend this to anyone already bearing reluctance. It will flush out most uninitiated viewers within the half-hour, but even the horror fan of old such as yourself will probably prod disgustedly at the eject button by midway. My brother, who cites around five horror films in his all time top ten, including Evil Dead: The Director’s Cut (which, if you haven’t seen it, is truly disgusting – in that already vile (albeit great) scenes are simply dwelled upon far too long – and is to be avoided) refuses to watch this.

  3. April 27, 2011 at 1:40 pm

    Interesting that such talent should be applied also to so unlikely a premise.

    I’d expect frankly if this were actually done for one or both of the women to choke to death on their own vomit after the first feeding. Still, perhaps I’m overthinking it.

    Evil Dead’s fine as is. It didn’t remotely need a director’s cut. But then beyond Blade Runner (and I’ve heard Kingdom of Heaven) very few films do.

  4. April 27, 2011 at 2:11 pm

    Oh no, Max, you’re not overthinking it at all. Such musings have much further to go given the chance….

    Indeed. Evil Dead needs no tinkering or further directorial intervention – it’s already virtually perfect. Though Evil Dead II is certainly a worthy – if much dafter – companion piece.

    I love it when a film is savaged only for the director to mourn at the absence of a ‘definitive director’s cut’ etc. Would that they could all take their work back into the cutting room forever. Blade Runner is a good example to cite. Still many a ‘Deckard’s voiceover’ fan out there, grumpy at the idea that this ‘Ford under duress’ narrative aid should be questioned…

  5. April 27, 2011 at 2:41 pm

    I think people tend to forget that Blade Runner was hailed as a masterpiece long before anyone saw the director’s cut. I prefer the definitive version that was finally released on DVD but the original is still a great movie.

    The main issue was the ending. The voiceover though was far from a disaster. It played to the genre roots of the film and did so I think fairly successfully. If a voiceover is good enough for Double Indemnity I don’t see why it shouldn’t be for Blade Runner and I think that was in part the logic that underlay using it (that and making the whole thing a bit more audience friendly and less dark obviously).

  6. April 27, 2011 at 2:43 pm

    Forgot to say, as I recall Evil Dead II is basically a remake of Evil Dead with more money and a lot more humour.

    Both are very good, though in quite different ways. I wasn’t so grabbed by the recent Drag Me to Hell. Ok, but not amazing. Too conscious of its own inspirations.

  7. April 27, 2011 at 3:24 pm

    I hear that, in some quarters (shame on them) the original guise of Scott’s masterpiece was harumphed at. Outrageous. I don’t mind Ford’s ‘couldn’t give a shit’ narration as, happily, the lugubrious drawl of a delivery perfectly suits the noirish feel. On the ending, are you referring to the off-cuts from The Shining that were spliced in?

    Side point: I quite like voiceovers. What can I say…although the voiceover in Vicky Cristina Barcelona is hilariously wrong on reflection. Apocalypse Now? The Thin Red Line? Barry Lyndon? Badlands? (Malick again.)

    Evil Dead II is exactly that, a flashier, looser remake. Groovy.

  8. April 28, 2011 at 8:10 pm

    I watched it out of curiosity a few months ago (it was on TV; I didn’t do anything as determined as rent/buy/download it). I thought it was morally reprehensible: and the japanese character’s (his name escapes me) rant towards the end about honour and duty was a disgusting and reductive exploitation of cultural stereotypes.

    Having said that: I agree with your excellent review that as a piece of film making it’s valuable: the unwavering dedication to the horrific: the strange post-production colour-changes of skin-tones and the vampiric performance of the German doctor were all interesting.

    I think the way this story is told is more important than the story itself.

    Tomcat.

    • May 3, 2011 at 1:55 pm

      Cheers Tomcat. Yes, the ‘rant’ in question did seem excessive: you do have to wonder how much of the captive responses in the latter section of the film were a part of the surgeon’s warped misconceptions. Not that that excludes, particularly, the directorial inclusion of such. I think with such films dialogue can detract and dilute; once you start giving characters expositional speeches you’re on a potentially sticky wicket. You’ve got to be careful.

      On one of your other points, I could’ve spent longer on the visuals, the chlorinated effect, the bleached hues and so on. I do think it’s a visually dazzling film in many ways.

      ‘I think the way this story is told is more important than the story itself.’ = 100% agree with you.

  9. Mary Gilbert
    April 30, 2011 at 12:06 pm

    Given our previous exchanges on violence in the cinema you won’t be surprised that I won’t be looking out for this one. In fact I quite like horror movies of the creepy variety – The Shining being the classic and the original Japanese version of The Ring which stayed uncomfortably with me for quite a while. Perhaps hypocritically I’ll also admit to a sneaking penchant for Friday 13th but this was probably because I was teaching horror films at the time and it provided an excellent example of `the final girl’ so typical of 70’s slashers.In your face sadistic and gruesome horror is something I can’t watch perhaps because I feel the director is making me somehow complicit an as a consequence I feel personally corrupted and diminished by the experience
    As for voice overs, I’ve always liked the end of Blade Runner with the outakes from The Shining though I know it’s very un-pc to say so. The wonderful Sunset Boulevard has Joe’s voiceover from the grave and another favourite of mine is the voice of Fellini’s alter ego in I Vitelloni as he recounts the life of his group of mates in dull post WW2 Rimini.

    • May 3, 2011 at 2:09 pm

      I’m not surprised, Mary, and I totally understand your reasonings outlined. Did you watch the original Texas Chainsaw perchance? I feel there’s s scene in that that led to torture porn, directly, albeit in a glacial trickle-down. I know you have the ‘revenge’ torture films (Last House On The Left, I Spit On Your Grave) and the ‘revenge-for-revenge’ horror efforts (Nightmare On Elm St, Halloween etc) but the actual rubbing-your-face-in-it aspect was born in Tobe Hooper’s grimfest, I’d suggest. And your comment about complicity is entirely borne out if other responses to Human Centipede and Hostel are anything to go by. Many people consider these films akin to roller-coasters; they prompt glee and what I can only describe as a vicarious outlet for some folk.

      I loved The Ring, though I much preferred the genuinely terrifying follow-up, which I will never, ever forget and the prospect of watching it again, alone at 2am, fills me with pure fantods….

      The Shining is indeed a classic as you say and it’s funny looking at the reviews far and near: now, of course, it’s touted as possibly Kubrick’s best film by many revered critics (David Thomson certainly puts his money on it as ‘Kubrick’s one great film – not sure about the singularity of that statement but still) but was mocked for its leery grand guignol excess at the time.

      Hey, i’ll watch any version of Blade Runner you care to screen! But I’d take the director’s cut, if I had to pick one…

      Sunset Boulevard: I’d forgotten that one! I have yet to watch I Vitelloni, shamefully…

  10. May 3, 2011 at 3:14 pm

    Ring (the Japanese original) is spectacular on a number of levels. The sheer unfairness when they work out a solution that makes sense, but just isn’t right, is breathtaking. It takes the film to another level. I’m being a bit careful here as some might read this not expecting a discussion of the plot of Ring.

    I actually didn’t like the sequel as much, but it’s definitely still good.

    • May 5, 2011 at 2:41 pm

      I think the conditions to my viewing the follow-up were favourable to multiple nightmares thereafter and may have rendered it more powerful than it actually is. I do recall making strange noises of disquiet as the face came out of the screen, for example. Brrr.

      Ring was a memorable experience. The warped snaphots and the accompanying soundtrack jolt…perhaps I need to rewatch it. The US remake is a travesty, newsflash.

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