The Human Centipede (First Sequence) (review)

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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