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There are many types of bad movies, but a special place in movie hell must be reserved for those which believe that shock is a substitute for substance. Now, I admit that many people would not have high hopes to begin with for a film called The Human Centipede, but bear with me.
Horror films are extremely popular in contemporary America. However, those enjoying the most box-office success would be better described as revulsion films; the so-called torture-porn or “goreno” movement, which comprises the films of Eli Roth and Neil Marshall (among others) as well as the Saw franchise, have raked in more money than Goldman Sachs over the past decade and their popularity only continues to grow. What defines these films is a focus on the spectacle of degradation, most of the time to the exclusion of almost everything else, including arguably vital things like plot, dialogue and character development. Characters in these films are almost universally flimsy and two-dimensional, more dime-a-dozen stereotypes than actual character about whom the audience can be bothered to care.
But that’s part of the point: we don’t want to care that much, because the purpose of the film is that watching those characters get tortured is oddly titillating. There’s nothing introspective or even interesting in these films: the point is that they go somewhere that normal films don’t go, or at least they purport to. Unlike, say, the earlier films of David Cronenberg, another hallmark of the torture-porn movement is a lack of chutzpah when it really counts. Polanski once said that you can’t describe a man being executed without showing his head being cut off; it’s exactly this sort of ethos that the torture-porn genre seems unable to muster. It’s all about scare tactics and the accoutrements of pain and evil: there’s always a greater focus on the instruments of torture than the havoc they actually wreak.
Having said all this, try to imagine the most knee-jerk setup possible for a film in this genre. Well, there’d be an evil doctor, of course—German, most likely. And why not have (yet) another film start off with naïve American coeds flouncing their way across Europe? Then a car breakdown, at night, in the rain—excellent.
This is exactly how The Human Centipede, directed by Tom Six, begins. First, we are introduced to Dr. Heiter (Dieter Laser, who looks like Christopher Walken after a bad facelift) who is clearly both German and evil, waiting to capture a live human subject on the side of the highway. Then we meet the protagonists, two silly American girls (Ashley Williams and Ashlynn Yennie) wearing too much makeup and not enough clothing. They try to drive to a nightclub, get lost, and suffer a flat tire. You have seen this part of the movie before.
Let’s cut to the part of the movie you haven’t seen. Naturally, the girls end up at Dr. Heiter’s villa of horror, where they are promptly drugged, tied up, and told that they will soon be part of his greatest work: the Human Centipede. The good doctor plans to join together his captives via their digestive tracts, end to end. I needn’t elaborate—whatever you’re picturing is pretty much what happens. After discarding one male subject and finding another (Akihiro Kitamura), the surgery, such as it is, begins. Talk about a healthcare crisis!
Sure enough, Dr. Heiter’s sick fantasy comes true, and the three characters do indeed get stitched together. Then we watch them suffer as the Doctor (who is repeatedly referred to as a “Nazi”) plays cruel games with them, and as nature takes its inevitable toll. Again, I don’t need to elaborate. Bodily functions have rarely been more terrifying, and, if that’s what you’re into, this film does some audacious things. The problem is that it’s all spectacle and no substance—Six’s screenplay is so superficial it could be attributed to Paris Hilton. There’s plenty of gross-out to go around, but that’s it.
The captives eventually rebel, and salvation seems close. There’s a standoff between Heiter and Kitamura’s character, and it is here that the film really fails. Kitamura’s character—the “head” of the centipede, if you will—declares at the crucial moment that Heiter is in fact a kind of God, and that his own suffering is well-deserved because of some vague past transgressions. He then cuts his own throat, leaving the two women to fend for themselves while sutured to his dead body. Eventually, everyone ends up dead except for the girl in the middle of the centipede. She whimpers pitifully (she can’t talk, remember) as the camera tilts up to the sky and the shot fades out.
Though the film’s premise could be daring in different hands (old-school Argento?) Centipede wastes whatever potential it has as a concept because of its total lack of introspection and philosophical depth. We are supposed to think seriously about Dr. Heiter and his Nazi-like way of seeing humans as nothing more than pliant animals. We’re also meant to understand Kitamura’s character’s suicide as some sort of transformative moment, rather than just an easy way to eliminate a hollow character. But it’s really hard to think seriously about anything in a film that feels more like a bad cartoon than anything else. That a sequel is already in production is hardly surprising. The Human Centipede demonstrates that our current appetite for schlock and awe at the movies seems to have trumped any other aesthetic consideration.