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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

The Human Centipede (First Sequence)

Inhuman Nonchalance

I debated with myself for quite a while: Should I endure The Human Centipede (First Sequence)? (And if I did, would that mean I would have to see the sequel, Full Sequence, when it’s released next year?) I knew I wouldn’t be able to unwatch it afterward. The trailer horrified me… and not in a good way. It was the thing to ask of fellow critics at press screenings of other films this past spring: “So, have you seen The Human Centipede yet? The answer was typically either “Ick, yes” or “Dear God, no.”

I gave in. I’d skipped all the press screenings so I watched at home via IFC on Demand (where it’s still available; the DVD release has just been announced for October). In fact, I watched it twice: the first time weeks ago, and again just this morning.

You’ve heard the premise, I’m sure: A mad scientist who has long dreamed of conducting an insane experiment finally gets the chance to do so, and surgically connects three people together, ass to mouth, in a chain of one conjoined digestive system: a human centipede.

The film is simultaneously more horrific than it sounds, and less. On a basic blood-and-guts level, it’s not very gory at all — your imagination is, as always, far more effective at anticipating what such horrors you will witness than what actually ends up onscreen. But your imagination is also terribly, terribly good at filling in what is implied by what we see. What must be going through the heads of this madman’s victims? What must be going through his head.

Centipede isn’t in the least bit concerned with such questions. I’ve been pondering why this is for weeks now. Which has been a trial, because it means I’ve had to think about this contemptible film for weeks. I have not enjoyed having to think about this film for weeks, because it is — I have only now realized — the horror equivalent of what I called Grown Ups recently: sociopathic.

Perhaps Dutch writer-director Tom Six believed he was being clever when he assumed, for his film, a cold, clinical perspective, one that lets us truly appreciate neither the profound terror American tourists Lindsay (Ashley C. Williams) and Jenny (Ashlynn Yennie) and Japanese tourist Katsuro (Akihiro Kitamura) are experiencing nor the profound pleasure Doctor Heiter (Dieter Laser) is experiencing. Oh, Six depicts such things for us, but only at a distance, in a nearly documentary way. The filmmaker himself appears to take no stand at all on what he is offering us. Six has absolutely nothing to say with this movie. He has no message, no thesis, no meaning. This is as unthinking a movie as it is an unfeeling one.

Horror films often enrage me when their morals are so regressive: punishing young people for wanting to have sex, for instance, or for actually having sex — see Hostel. I may disagree vehemently with such a moral, but at least it is a morality. There is no morality of any kind in Centipede.

Horror films often impress me when they take on the perspective of innocents at the mercy of utter madmen, such as do exist in the world, and so become visceral experiments in fear and tenacity — see Wolf Creek and Cube — or when they attempt to deconstruct just what it is that creates a madman in first place, by taking on the perspective of the law-enforcement personnel who try to stop them: see Seven and The Silence of the Lambs. There is a value, I believe, in exploring the impact that seemingly inexplicable violence has on those it touches, and certainly there is a value in trying to understand what makes some people commit such awful crimes, inflict such awful pain upon other people. Sometimes movies such as these do end up more salacious or more titillating than their ostensible themes may suggest should be the case. But there is still a morality to these movies, too.

But the only perspective Six has here is: Sometimes humanity vomits up a monster on the level of Dr. Mengele… and isn’t it interesting what such a monster can get up to? The Human Centipede might as well be compiled from Nazi footage of human medical experiments, for all its casualness. I cannot say that I don’t understand how anyone who isn’t mentally ill could have conceived of this movie in the first place, because I do understand it: I’m a writer of fiction myself and I know full well that there are horrors that the creative mind can invent and that fiction can explore in ways that are about trying to come to grips with such horrors. But I’m not sure I understand how Six can be so dispassionate about it all. This is the cinematic equivalent of Hannibal Lecter’s heartbeat never rising above resting normal while he eats some poor guy’s face off.

It’s downright inhuman.


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The Human Centipede (First Sequence) (2010)
US/Can release: Apr 30 2010 (VOD Apr 28 2010)
UK/Ire release: Aug 20 2010

MPAA: not rated
BBFC: rated 18 (contains strong bloody violence, threat and horror)

viewed at home on a small screen

official site | IMDb | trailer
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine | Rotten Tomatoes

If you’re tempted to post a comment that resembles anything on the film review comment bingo card, you might want to reconsider.

  • JoshB

    Uh… Why? Merciful FSM. That does not look like a fun time at the movies.

  • Funwithheadlines

    Better you than me to see it, I guess. I could stomach such a film if there was a deeper meaning in the subtext, but if all it is is a dare film (“I dare you to see it”), I’ll leave it to the teens who haven’t learned the futility of taking dares for its own sake.

  • Knightgee

    I was disgusted just reading the plot summary. The ethics behind movies like this are a huge turn-off for me. What other reason is there to watch such a film beyond seeing people suffer for no reason? It’s not even intrsopective and critical in any way so as to justify its own existence. It’s literally the director depicting 3 innocent people go through an unspeakable horror for no other reason than because he can.

  • JoshDM

    I have been waiting to read this review.

    Now that I have scrolled down here to post this comment, I will go back up and read.

  • JoshDM

    You know what I got from your review? That you’ve apparently never reviewed Se7en.

  • Keith

    No interest in seeing this. Know too much about anatomy to think they would properly explain how the nutrient/waste problem could be solved at the celular level (plus things like blood and tissue compatibility of three random humans).

    From a rather dispassionate viewpoint, the whole exercise seems rather pointless. What could possibly be the point of having multiple people’s systems function as one, other than a significant decrease in the quality of life for all those involved (other than for some sick fk to get his jollies)?

    Bottom line, I’ll do as MaryAnn (who probably wishes neurolizers were real and had one handy while viewing it) suggests and skip it.

  • tomservo

    I’ll end up seeing this movie because my friends and I Netflix the craziest movies we can find. But I wonder about dismissing a film because it doesn’t comment on the morality of the images it’s presenting. Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer certainly viewed the actions of it’s murdering characters in a matter of fact, documentary way that helped make it a chilling and disturbing film. In fact, there are several movies with an ambiguous morality that are pretty darn good. The films of Michael Haneke comes to mind.

  • CB

    No interest in seeing this. Know too much about anatomy to think they would properly explain how the nutrient/waste problem could be solved at the celular level (plus things like blood and tissue compatibility of three random humans).

    You don’t have to know that much about anatomy to wonder how persons number 2 and 3 in the centipede are going to get any nutrition from this “continuous” digestive system. There aren’t that many capillaries in the lips afaik. :P

    As far as why the movie exists, I can think of no more reason than to make people wonder such things when they would never, ever have done so on their own. “Hey I have an idea, a ‘Human Centipede’! We’ll make a movie where a crazy doctor actually does the disgusting thing I just came up with, and there’s your movie!”

    Um yeah. Thanks for the review MAJ, but I was going to avoid this one regardless. :)

  • JoshDM

    The best part of the trailer for this film is the part where the girl escapes into this guy’s bedroom and looks over at the nightstand and double-takes on a photo.

  • Boingo

    I think I’ll have to make a decision to see or not see
    by consensus-

    Looks disgusting*** Nah, Let’s check it out*** Drop Dead,no way, both of you’ll block my view,anyway!

  • The filmmaker himself appears to take no stand at all on what he is offering us. Six has absolutely nothing to say with this movie. He has no message, no thesis, no meaning. This is as unthinking a movie as it is an unfeeling one….There is no morality of any kind in Centipede.

    I know exactly what you mean. I’ve seen Elephant.

  • Mark

    I know exactly what you mean. I’ve seen Elephant.

    I would strongly disagree that Elephant lacks message, thesis, meaning, is unthinking, unfeeling, without morality, or that Van Sant had nothing to say, or took no stand.

  • I must have passed on “Elephant” 50x at the rental store. Both of you had me curious- I just watched it. I was stunned,and thought
    it brilliant,realistically terrifying ,and heart wrenching.

  • gensing

    I was surprised you even watched it once – much less twice. I saw the trailer here 6 weeks ago and managed to erase it from my mind completely. Some things just don’t deserve the memory space.

    But, since you brought it up again… I mentioned it to a friend who misquoted the name as “Centipede: First Sequel” and it was then that I was struck with the only possibly redeeming excuse for this movie. The conjoined digestive system represents movie franchise production. A great idea nourishes the first film and then subsequent films try to survive off the waste of the previous one. It’s not too far of a stretch to see the Hollywood Producer in the Mad Scientist, is it?

    Now I would like to forget this movie exists, again.

  • RogerBW

    The idea for this film is just about at the level of eight-year-olds in a playground trying to gross each other out. That this is what passes for a “grown-up” film says rather more about the financing and studio worlds than about the guy who had the idea.

  • bats :[

    This sounds like a live-action version of the “animal of your choice with X number of butts” experiment from South Park. Only not funny. Or with a Marlon Brando-type mad scientist. But just as pointless.

  • Apprently, even in the heat of the moment, it’s NOT forgivable to go ass to mouth.

  • CB

    Now I would like to forget this movie exists, again.

    Unfortunately this is one of those things that I can’t forget. I watched the trailer — why, I don’t know — and it’s stuck in my brain. Like goatse man, some things that are seen can’t be unseen.

    And now, periodically, my brain spontaneously says “Wait, wouldn’t person 2 and 3 get horribly sick and die?! How the fuck does that work?!”

    And then I try to shut my brain up with alcohol.

    I hate my brain.

  • Never mind the movie – play the videogame: http://www.i-mockery.com/minimocks/human-centipede-game/

    I had to explain this film to a colleague who asked what the fuss was about. Even trying to describe the briefest plot synopsis made me feel like a total psychotic freak for having watched it. The debate around this film seems to revolve around whether or not it should exist, and whether or not we should watch it, which distracts from the task of assessing its merits. Sadly, it’s hampered by an astonishingly hammy performance by the lead actor, who all but twirls a moustache and cackles behind a cape. It does something quite interesting by introducing its female leads and then effectively erasing them 20 minutes in, i.e. it reduces them to mute props in a horror story, with no hope of escape. That suffocating terror is not so much frightening to watch as desperately sad and humiliating. I don’t think the director really earned my emotional input (he seems to relish the sensational concept too much for that), but I must admit to feeling quite moved and upset by the conclusion. But that may just have been my sorrow that horror movies have come to this – if there was some point, some reason for the centipede concept to make it cohesive, it may have had more depth – see Martyrs, for example, where apparently random horrors turn out to have a hidden motivation.

  • randall graves

    Nazi-esque experiments, German Scientist reminiscient of Megele, Japanese man, american women as subjects.

    Nope.

    No subtext at all.

  • allochthon

    It does something quite interesting by introducing its female leads and then effectively erasing them 20 minutes in, i.e. it reduces them to mute props in a horror story, with no hope of escape.

    Wait, WHAT?

    Women in Refrigerators.

  • MaryAnn

    Nazi-esque experiments, German Scientist reminiscient of Megele, Japanese man, american women as subjects.

    Nope.

    No subtext at all.

    Who said there was no subtext?

    And that’s not exactly subtext. It’s pretty much the text. But whatever you want to call it, what’s the point of it? What does it mean? What does it tell us about anything: about the characters within the context of the story, about our society either inside or outside the context of the story?

    In what way does “Nazi-esque experiments, German Scientist reminiscient of Megele, Japanese man, american women as subjects” enlighten us or provoke us about *anything*?

    Wait, WHAT?

    Exactly. There’s nothing at all daring about reducing women to mute victims. It’s par for the course for film.

  • You know what I got from your review? That you’ve apparently never reviewed Se7en.

    I’ve seen Se7en. It’s not really my cup of tea but I can see why someone may think it’s worth seeing.

    As much as I normally love to diss Fincher, I really doubt this film is comparable to Se7en.

  • Randall Graves

    What I was saying is that I believe there to be some sort of connection between shock horror one-upsmanship and the experiments the Nazis did during WW2.

    This is all theory, but I think that in a movie as carefully crafted (regardless of your opinion on it’s subject matter, I find it hard to ignore the movie’s technical worth, especially Laser’s performance) as this, there has to be more there than the obvious gross out factor. I could be wrong, but dismissing this movie outright because it disgusts you seems like the kind of reaction “Un Chien Andalou” got, and the kind of mistake that critics could have learned from.

    But hey, I don’t have my own website, so maybe I’m wrong.

  • Randall Graves

    “But the only perspective Six has here is: Sometimes humanity vomits up a monster on the level of Dr. Mengele… and isn’t it interesting what such a monster can get up to?”

    Also, the above is the comment that made me think you thought the film had no subtext, when I feel it is somehow a commentary on the state of horror films in the “torture porn” subgenre.

  • CB

    Yeah, yeah, and Avatar: The Last Airbender is really Shyamalan’s biting commentary on the state of big-budget CGI-laden action blockbusters.

    Or maybe, an earnest attempt at one-upmanship isn’t so earnest that it wraps around and becomes ironic self-commentary just by itself.

  • MaryAnn

    (regardless of your opinion on it’s subject matter, I find it hard to ignore the movie’s technical worth, especially Laser’s performance)

    I have no use whatsoever for film criticism that examines technical aspects with no regard for what a film has to say, or whether it has anything to say at all. I simply don’t care about the cinematography or the performances or the set design or any other technical aspect apart from what a movie is *about.*

    dismissing this movie outright because it disgusts you

    I did not do this. What makes you think I did this?

  • Lenina Crowne

    The WWII thing makes no sense in relation to the premise. Why is a Japanese man in the centipede when Japan was part of the axis? Yes, he was at the front, but still, at what point in WWII did Japan and the US unite? It seems to me that the real reason for the nationalities is that
    1) Movies like Hostel always have American protagonists.
    2) All movie mad scientists must be German or else the directors risk court martial
    3) Background-character tourists in movies are frequently Japanese.

    Meaningless symbols are, in fact, meaningless, and purposelessly putting them into your movie and expecting it to thereby automatically become deep is cheating. Implying subtext is all well and good, but unless there’s actual subtext there, it’s all just hot air.

    That is, if the movie even has pretensions to this sort of thing at all.

  • CB

    I have no use whatsoever for film criticism that examines technical aspects with no regard for what a film has to say, or whether it has anything to say at all. I simply don’t care about the cinematography or the performances or the set design or any other technical aspect apart from what a movie is *about.*

    I think his point is that a movie that is this well made can’t mean as little as it appears to; the people who put that much craft into it had to have some deeper message. The outrageousness that seems to be the only point of the movie’s existence must really be a form of commentary on the shock-horror genre itself.

    Which I think is pretty obviously poppycock. Plenty of movies are made with a ton of excellent craft work and the belief that the movie’s paper-thin premise will hold on its own. But I don’t think he was saying craft by itself makes the movie good or meaningful.

    But hey, you certainly could consider the movie to be unintentional commentary on the genre. It could be that a decade or so from now, some young filmaker will be talking to his film school buddies and say “I think I want to make a slasher flick. Ya know, a real gory and disturbing one, really shock the audience.” And one of their friends will turn and look at them and say “Human Centipede.” And that will be all that needs to be said.

  • JoshDM

    Are you sure the centipede head is Japanese and not Chinese?

    If he’s Chinese, it could be social commentary about China giving shit to Americans who shit it out to other Americans.

  • Lenina Crowne

    No, he’s Japanese. Wikipedia and MAJ both agree on this and, for what it’s worth, Katsuro is definitely a Japanese name and not a Chinese one.

    If it were a commentary on horror itself, then perhaps the symbolism behind the whole thing relates to J-horror remakes.

  • Randall Graves

    Okay, I’ll admit that plenty of movies have been made with technical skill that have no meaning, but it just seems to me that there is a definite link between this guy’s experiments and the Nazi ones, and shock horror as it exists today. The point of both being that if one can do something to the human body, even if they probably shouldn’t, that sheer ability and funding are enough to justify it. Maybe I’m reading too hard into a movie that has no point, but I’ve always believed that if a detail exists in an artwork, it’s supposed to be there. Why else would it be a German scientist experimenting on Americans and Japanese unless it was to call attention to the time period? But then, Mengele didn’t experiment on the war prisoners, nor would they have any Japanese war prisoners, so this is just an idea. This movie got me thinking though, which is merit enough in my opinion to reccomend it, if not for the black comedy moments in the middle section.

  • aquila6

    Why else would it be a German scientist experimenting on Americans and Japanese unless it was to call attention to the time period?

    Perhaps it was an effort to broaden the appeal of the movie to American and Japanese audiences?

  • Boingo

    Perhaps it was an effort to broaden the appeal of the movie to American and Japanese audiences?

    I’ll buy that possibility. Or, the Japanese tourist
    has been a common element on the international travel
    scene-kinda clueless, innocently exploring …It
    would add to the logic/credibility that he’d be the
    kidnapped target.

    I wonder how the Japanese culture views a Mengele
    type of villain? In America, it’s the common
    “Mad German scientist(WWII)” stereotype. Post WWII,
    I’ve heard about Japan’s revisionist attitudes
    of their government, concerning history. I wonder if the mad scientist stereotype
    (they had their horrendous experiments)
    ever caught on with the younger Japanese generations?

    All that said, I hope to visit Japan one day,and
    go “cluelessly” exploring. Of course I’d be on the
    watch for wackjobs of all types (fold up bike in the trunk).

  • CB

    it just seems to me that there is a definite link between this guy’s experiments and the Nazi ones, and shock horror as it exists today. The point of both being that if one can do something to the human body, even if they probably shouldn’t, that sheer ability and funding are enough to justify it.

    But what does that link mean other than the most banal observation — that the producers of this movie, like most shock horror film makers, take the ability to make the movie as justification for doing so?

    A German mad doctor is a WWII-based stereotype, so obviously it’s going to evoke WWII (even when the other components don’t really make sense). But what, beyond that invocation, does it actually accomplish?

    A movie pointing out that it should not exist but does anyway is not a deep enough “message” to counter the basic fact they’re pointing out: that the movie should not exist.

    Maybe if you gave me a better idea of what the movie actually made you think about, it would help me see that the movie itself carried a message.

  • ari

    Haven’t seen this movie yet, but I just wanted to point out that a commentary on the kind of film being made is a kind of subtext. So, an argument for the commentary on shock horror or torture porn in this film can certainly be made.

    Funny Games, which I loved, was the epitome of this. Seemingly senseless violence, making a point about how we view violence.

    I also don’t think we can be so dismissive of the WWII connections. Just because the director himself doesn’t say, “This is the kind of thing that happened in the medical experiments in WWII concentration camps, and this is how I feel about it, and this is a point I’m trying to make about it,” doesn’t meant that he isn’t using subtext.

    I think your summary of “Sometimes humanity vomits up a monster on the level of Dr. Mengele… and isn’t it interesting what such a monster can get up to?” is actually pretty interesting. It’s the voyeuristic nature of mankind that makes us want to watch the depths of man’s depravity.

    I’m not really sure if I’m going to see this film or not, but being a horror film aficionado, I probably will make the effort. These are just comments based on your review, the trailer, and some other reviews I have read.

    Basically, what I’m trying to say is that the idea of watching the horrors that an evil madman can get up to is still a premise. You’re free to call it a boring premise or not a very fleshed out idea, but you can’t call it not a premise.

    Just my $0.02.

  • MaryAnn

    I never said it wasn’t a premise. Clearly, it is a premise. It is the reason this movie exists.

    Perhaps I’m not understanding what you’re saying…

  • kensai

    As I previously stated:
    the female victims in this film being an obvious metaphor for the audience of this film.

  • Brian

    I saw this movie last night after a Yahoo ‘news’ article promoting it as the sickest movie ever made.

    I felt nauseated after seeing the trailer and was debating with myself about going further. However, as someone mentioned earlier – this is a typical ‘dare’ film and I’m the moron for daring myself.

    I think MAJ’s review is ‘spot on’. The horror comes from the director’s total lack of feeling for either the victims or the perpetrator. No themes are explored except for that of the basic premise of ‘what-if’.

    Before finding this review, I’d read another that included some quotes from the writer/director Tom Six. Apparently the central (and only?) idea of the film stems from a joke he had with friends about possible punishments for child molesters. Their preferred method was stitching the perpetrators mouth to a truck driver’s anus. Nice guys.

    I believe anyone that spends a year or more of their life creating something so clinically voyeuristic about such a horrific premise must in some way be sociopathic (misogynistic and borderline racist at the very least). I don’t say this lightly, and if you disagree, I’d like my mind to be changed.

    As MAJ says in the review, even the healthiest human mind can come up with the most horrendous scenarios. It’s the way that ideas are tackled and explored that make them worthwhile.

    This film is anything but worthwhile….Even though I feel complicit in having watched it, I can at least console myself that I stole it from a torrent site. If you must watch it, please do the same.

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