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The Human Centipede (First Sequence)

May 18, 2010

Not quite as bad as I had anticipated. There will be spoilers here.

The Human Centipede (First Sequence) was made in 2009 and managed to generate quite a decent buzz following its showings at various horror movie festivals. Now enjoying a wider North American release thanks to indie distributor IFC Films, I would venture that it is in some American theatres at the time of this post. The film was written and directed by one Tom Six, a hitherto unknown Dutch filmmaker, by all accounts making his first foray into the horror genre and citing the early work of David Cronenberg as the inspiration for this particular film (bonus points there, sir). The film first came to my attention via a rather disturbing teaser trailer that is far different in approach and tone to the more conventional later trailer that is also out there. The teaser was mostly comprised of a prolonged close-up shot of a girl sobbing with her face buried in what transpired (upon reading up on the film) was the ass of another person. Not just buried, but surgically attached, mouth to anus, and held in place with large stitches and some grubby looking bandages. Reading up on the grotesque premise of The Human Centipede and then being confronted by this image of long, drawn-out suffering and distress was an experience quite unlike anything I’ve felt from a film preview in a long, long time. Not since furtive, childhood glances at horror movie trailers in the 1980s have I been so haunted by a mere glimpse of a film. However, it turns out that this teaser trailer was completely bereft of any of the dark, unhinged humour that runs throughout the movie and which certainly softens the blow of the premise.

Set in rural Germany, the movie opens with a brief epilogue in which we meet the uber-creepy Dr. Josef Heiter and he’s up to something sinister in the woods near his home. Next we meet Jenny and Lindsay, two young women seemingly fresh out of college and travelling in Europe. Jenny and Lindsay are portrayed as two excruciating and irritating young women, seemingly lost in rural Germany on their way to Cancun. Their car breaks down in the woods one night and they are forced to walk in the rain until they come to an isolated house where the door is answered by hungry-looking reptile of a man, Dr. Heiter. After inviting them in with the promise that he’ll call a breakdown service, the good doctor casually informs the girls that he hates people before slipping them a mickey. They awake strapped to hospital beds in the basement of Dr. Heiter’s home and then things really get going. Once a third captive arrives, a young Japanese man, the doc delivers a lecture to his prisoners accompanied with diagrams on an overhead projector in which he introduces himself as a retired surgeon of world-renown, famous for his work separating conjoined twins. The doc has this utterly fucking insane dream to attach people via their gastric systems (read: ass-to-mouth); he’s been practicing on his pet dogs, they all died, but he’s more than confident that he can successfully perform his zany scheme on humans. So he does.

The greatest movie villain in years, Dr. Josef Heiter

Dr. Heiter is played with delirious abandon by German actor Dieter Laser. His excellent performance carries much of the film and infuses the proceedings with a demented black humour. I’m going to assume that Tom Six didn’t go as far as to name the character “Josef” after Josef Fritzl, the Austrian man who also had a terrible secret in his basement, but instead is alluding to Josef Mengele. At any rate, Heiter is quite deliberately German, a mad scientist archetype with shades of Nazi, eventually even wearing jackboots and carrying a riding crop. In much the same way that this character is there to bring the chuckles and ease the impact of the inhuman, scatological events, the other characters have been crafted in quite a deliberate way so as not to be very sympathetic. That’s not to say you welcome their hideous fate, it’s just not quite as upsetting to watch if they had all been people you really cared about and rooted for. The front section of the centipede is a Japanese man who doesn’t speak any English or German. His dialogue is delivered all via subtitles and he meets his fate with more belligerent rage than pitiful despair. The girls are a different story and the actresses portraying them certainly had the boldest task here. They were required to spend half the film topless with their mouths seemingly buried in other people’s asses. Reportedly, and unsurprisingly, many actresses walked out of readings for the film when they fully understood what the roles would involve. Tom Six had to eventually conceal the exact details of the script in order to get both performers and financial backers to agree to the film. Ashley C. Williams, apparently a decorated stage performer, plays the role of Lindsay and is presented as something of a protagonist despite being the, ahem, centerpiece of the human centipede. Lindsay and Jenny are annoyingly insipid at the outset of film and this helps ease the viewer into the perverse and exploitative body horror they are subjected to although their later predicament becomes genuinely gut-wrenching.

There are strong elements of sexual sadism and domination in Heiter’s treatment of his captives. He attempts to train his new human centipede like a dog, administering punitive beatings and locking it (them) in a cage. Due to a presumed combination of budget constraints and physical practicality however, The Human Centipede is not terribly gory or grisly. Strategic bandages prevent the viewer from seeing exactly how the mouths are attached to the anuses and some minor make-up effects around the cheekbones of the actors play a more suggestive role in conveying what has happened to the victims. A scene of coprophagy, accompanied with Heiter’s terrible, roaring approval, is mercifully muted by our inability to see precisely what is happening. That said, the film remains impressively sick and twisted. The Human Centipede eschews the glossy, vapid look that inflicts many of the formulaic, nonsense movies mass-marketed as horror to western audiences and instead is shot in an intriguingly clinical, sterile way. The filmmakers also claim that a real surgeon was consulted to add authenticity to the script who, despite being initially very reluctant to involve himself and demanding his name not appear in the credits, became fascinated by the idea and enthusiastically devised a procedure which he stated would actually work. Although perhaps guilty of reading far too much into this gross body horror movie, I detected some possible commentary on the world of contemporary porn. The characters all come from nations that produce notorious pornography. Germany is, for better or worse, infamous for it’s scatological porn. Japan is also known for outlandish and twisted pornography. Although the USA has a massive and successful adult film industry that is almost mainstream in many ways, there remains a significant amount of American pornography that features extensive female degradation, including scenes of “ass to mouth” sex acts. Did Tom Six make this movie in order to hold a grubby, smeared mirror up to society’s predilection for warped smut?

"Everybody CONGA!"

Originality is king in this day and age and writer/director Six deserves plaudits for delivering a refreshingly depraved and unsettling film that hearkens back to the best body horror of yesteryear. The Human Centipede wasn’t quite as horrifying as I was expecting and didn’t provide the viewing challenge that I had anticipated but the initial effect the film had on me before I had even watched it stands as a testament to its brilliant and terrible premise and to the way in which it was marketed in the very early stages (the official trailer is not nearly as good as the teaser). This film does what it’s supposed to do and it does so with some darkly comic thrills that offset the guilt and voyeuristic grubbiness of watching such sleazy, exploitative madness. It may not be mind-rape of the decade, but it’s a far superior example of the genre than the vast majority of the safe, bland crap they’re calling “horror” these days.

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4 comments

  1. Well done. I’m a little more open to the possibility that I might think about considering watching it. Though I’m a little disappointed that it wasn’t as awful a viewing experience as we expected.

    I read that the sequel is already in the works. Here’s the interview:

    http://www.thefilmyap.com/2010/04/23/tom-six-writerdirector-the-human-centipede/

    Choice quote:

    “Yeah, when I wrote the first one I had so many ideas that I could use. I felt like the whole idea was so sick that I had to get the audience used to the idea first. Now with the second one I can use all of my ideas, because the idea is already there. In the sequel it’s going to be 12 people (in the human centipede) and there are going to be some really crazy storylines in the sequel. I don’t want to spoil it yet, of course. At festivals I always tell everyone that this movie will be “My Little Pony” compared to the second one.”


  2. Hey, it wasn’t as awful as I was expecting, don’t quite know the impact it’s gonna have on you yet.

    Only one way to find out….


  3. Yeah, I heard about the plans for the sequel. I might have mentioned it above but the review started running away from me a bit.

    It would be too much of a spoiler of the first film to state exactly why I’m not that excited about the possibility of the sequel though.


  4. […] When Tom Six announced his intention to make a sequel to his notorious 2009 body horror film, The Human Centipede (First Sequence), he promised that the follow-up would contain “all the blood and shit” that was largely […]



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