As a rule, I try to hear/read/see as little as possible about the films I’m going to write about, but in the case of The Human Centipede - if one moves in sleazy circles - it was difficult to avoid the advance word, and the advance word was ‘yeeuch!’
The film’s selling point is a nasty idea - that a mad surgeon, Dr Heiter (Dieter Laser), will capture three human subjects and sew them in a row, mouth to anus to mouth, so that they effectively become one creature with one digestive tract. I sincerely hope you’re grown up enough to realise the icky connotations of this operation, because I’m sure as hell not going to spell it out for you. I also don’t think I’m spoiling anything for prospective viewers when I reveal that the operation doesn’t end well for anyone concerned.
Tom Six’s film is, in many ways, exactly what you expect. The set-up is perfunctory B-movie cheese, straight out of The Rocky Horror Picture Show and countless others, with two dumb American teenagers, Lindsay and Jenny (Ashley C Williams and Ashlynn Yennie), stumbling into a madman’s house after their car breaks down in the woods at night. It’s clearly cheap, the cast is small, locations are few, script and acting hover around porn movie standard, and, following the rules of exploitation, any characters that aren’t crazy are stupid. Audience sympathy for Lindsay and Jenny’s characters greatly increases post-operation, partly because of the horror of their predicament, and partly because they are now unable to voice any more idiotic dialogue. Anyone wondering why Dr Heiter has this elaborate, sick obsession will be disappointed. We know he doesn’t like people, he used to separate Siamese twins, and he’s crazy. That’s it, and without any real reason given for his insane desire, Heiter comes to resemble the arse-obsessed doctor in South Park. THC exists to show a number of horrible things happening to a number of people for 92 minutes. Pretty much everybody dies. That’s what it’s about, and you can’t say you weren’t warned.
This utilitarian gross-out approach actually makes the result more watchable. We don’t see the doctor kidnapping Katsuro (Akihiro Kitamura) to be the head of his centipede, because it’s only important to the tale that he turns up. In fact, we don’t see much of the world outside Heiter’s house at all - a motorway side road, some woods, an anonymous hotel room - because we don’t need to see more. When the cops inevitably turn up, they’re at the doctor’s front door at once; we never see a police station, or the witness that is overheard screaming ‘in an American accent’, because Six isn’t really interested in anything outside his hermetically sealed medical nightmare. It’s as if Heiter’s house, with its clean, ordered furnishings and bleached hospital cellar, exists outside of any recognisable place in the world. This, together with the unreal, stilted nature of some of the dialogue, gives the film an off-kilter weirdness, and good thing too. If we were convinced that any of this was happening to real people it would be unbearable.
How much of this weirdness is simply down to budget, and how much was through Six’s design is uncertain, but the film is designed, in a European minimalist fashion. This is not a Texas Chainsaw freakout, there’s none of your Rob Zombie hand-held nonsense here, the camera work has been composed: all tripod, pan and dolly, with none of Saw or Hostel‘s tricksy editing or industrial Gothic flourishes. This may sound crazy given its subject matter, but the film is actually pretty restrained. The expected sexual angle isn’t exploited, bar a little un-eroticised nudity. The soundtrack is unobtrusive and uncluttered. Likewise, anyone expecting fountains of gore and scatological filth will be surprised at how much the film doesn’t show.
While it’s cracked in concept it’s not entirely devoid of thought. There’s a recurring motif about communication; with the two girls unable to comprehend Heiter’s German, and no one speaking Katsuro’s Japanese, the doctor has, perversely, given his centipede a head he himself cannot understand (and oddly, Katsuro’s longest, most dramatic speech goes untranslated). What’s Six trying to say here? That perhaps, y’know, we might all learn to get along as a species if a mad doctor would only sew us together? Hell if I know. He was one of the original directors of the Big Brother TV phenomenon. Which seems to make perfect sense.
So, are there any reasons to watch The Human Centipede, other than grotesque novelty? Well, there’s Dieter Laser’s performance: he suggests absolute gibbering insanity through clenched body language and measured language, overacting and restrained at the same time, like Christopher Walken on Thorazine. He pretty much screams ‘mad scientist’ even before donning the regulation white coat and shades, and his utter impatience and irritation with every other character on screen make his scenes genuinely amusing. Then there’s the title creation itself, which is both a sick and unsettling idea, and an undeniably surreal spectacle, like something that’s crawled out of Bosch’s garden of earthly delights, or Pasolini’s Salí², or 120 Days of Sodom.
But, frankly, there’s not much to The Human Centipede, really. It’s as if once he’d conceived of the central idea (apparently as an appropriate punishment for convicted paedophiles), Six couldn’t come up with much to do with it. It’s better than it ought to be, I had some evil chuckles, and it will get a following. The Human Centipede II (Full Sequence) is already on the way, god help us. Can I be the only one hoping for a whole new direction in which the human centipede comes to terms with itself as a new organism, learns to love its own body, and we end with a tap dance routine on Broadway that the audience will never forget? C’mon! Now that’s entertainment!