A fascinating storytelling tour de force and an ambiguous documentary about a Death Row convict.
A bald-headed man in a blue shirt sits in the corner of a stark room. He leans into the camera, his face half in shadow, and begins to tell his story. The first words he speaks are about time: ‘In the blink of an eye, you can look and 10 years are gone… but the next week is agony.’ This is Nick Yarris, recounting the years that he spent in solitary confinement in a Pennsylvania prison. It’s a dramatic opening to David Sington’s documentary, which is also a breathtakingly dramatic monologue. Yarris is charismatic, intense and a masterful storyteller. After two decades on death row, Yarris requested that all appeals be ceased, and that he be put to death; David Sington’s engrossing, if uneasy, film is an attempt to understand what led to that decision.
Footage of Yarris is mixed with cinematic recreations, often almost abstract close-ups, filmed with a Gregory Crewdson-like vibrancy; in slow motion, a boy runs through the woods, a hint at a dark secret that is shockingly revealed at the film’s end; water pours down a man’s back in a shower; a pair of women’s gloves lie on the seat of an empty car. Crisp, eerie photography of the inside of the prison – the rows of bars, the cold steel of a toilet in an empty cell – is also interwoven with Nick’s tale, as he speaks about the harsh, brutal treatment that he and other prisoners endured, including being ‘tortured with silence’. It’s a captivating performance, full of emotion, as he recounts the horrors of jail, building up a sense of atmosphere by evocatively describing life behind bars, then his rehabilitation, and his newly found obsession with words and literature.
It’s only later in the film that he begins to reveal the details of his past, and the nature of his drug addiction and the crimes that he committed. Though we learn that he was first jailed for auto theft, the crime that – wrongly – landed him on death row is a mystery that runs like a thread throughout much of the film. It’s a story full of twists, turns and tragedies, punctuated by the many mistakes that he made, and also the vagaries and delays of the justice system. And though we learn that he was later exonerated of murder after the advent of DNA testing (although it took years), it’s the final twist that is the most disturbing, powerful and gut-wrenching.
It’s a striking, compelling film that is incredibly personal. Yet, it’s hard, at the end, not to feel as though we’ve been manipulated by both the filmmaker and Yarris. The vague way he’s shot (and the film itself) is reminiscent of interviews in Errol Morris’s remarkable documentary The Thin Blue Line>, where the location is obscured, lending a sense that Yarris is perhaps still in the system, though the reality is that his ordeal ended in 2003. While his story is an incredible one, it feels like we’ve watched a very rehearsed theatrical performance, and are left wondering how much of this is documentary and how much is masterful storytelling. But maybe it doesn’t actually matter.
Cast: Dieter Laser, Laurence R. Harvey, Eric Roberts, Bree Olsen, Tom Six
So farewell then, the Human Centipede, our time together was brief, yet far too long, and frankly I wish we hadn’t gotten quite so intimate. The THC trilogy are/were a perfectly perfect modern phenomenon, in that they were so successful as an internet meme and clickbait talking point that the actual films themselves seem surplus to requirements. The central idea broke through into comedians’ routines, spawned a South Park episode and a porn parody, and weaved its way into pub (if not dinner party) conversation and water cooler chatter. In short, it became a thing, and a thing that even people who don’t like that sort of thing became aware of. That three features have been whipped up from an idea you could explain during a one-stop bus ride is some kind of malign miracle.
If you must catch up with the actual series, part three is set in an American prison, being run, badly, by Warden Bill Boss and his accountant Dwight Butler, played by Dieter Laser and Lawrence R. Harvey, the stars of the first and second films. Given a deadline to improve matters by Governor Hughes (Eric Roberts) Boss is eventually convinced by Butler that they should take inspiration from the Human Centipede films and convert the riotous prisoners into one long alimentary canal. The plot takes a good while to get to where it’s clearly getting to, and is, in any case, mainly there to provide a series of depravities along the way before we get to the 500-person’ ’pede final act. So we get a pen-knife castration, a boiling water-boarding, a gunshot execution via a stoma hole, some light cannibalism and the various indignities inflicted upon the warden’s secretary Daisy (Bree Olsen), all of which would be a lot more offensive if it weren’t carried out by Dieter Laser as Boss in probably the most grotesquely mannered scenery-gargling performance ever committed to film. His stratospherically over-the-top gurning ensures that we can’t take any of this gleeful obscenity remotely seriously, and his mangled German/American syntax makes much of his gratuitously profane dialogue indecipherable. Anybody sharing screen time with him is left the quandary of whether to follow his lead or to go low key and restrained in order to effect some kind of balance; mostly they look a little startled that he’s doing whatever he’s doing.
But the idea that anybody so clearly eye-rolling bugfuck insane and obnoxiously undiplomatic would be put in charge of anything is absurd from the outset, and we are clearly in the realm of the absurd here. If the Final Sequence has any ambition beyond making you want to toss your cookies it’s as a sledgehammer satire on the politics of the U.S. of A.: the prison is named after Dubya, there is lots of business with flags and eagles, the suffering detainees prominently feature Muslims, Blacks and Native Americans, and there are plentiful shots of orange jumpsuit-clad prisoners being tortured, all with the take-home message being that any atrocity is permissible here as long as it upholds the bottom line. It’s not subtle.
The other theme taking up a lot of screen time in the third Human Centipede film is, um, The Human Centipede. The second film had Harvey’s nebbishy Martin Lomax becoming inspired by the first film to create his own monster, this one opens with Boss and Butler watching the first two. Thereafter most of the characters are required to voice an opinion on the THC films, generally positive, though another screening to the inmates is clearly regarded by them as cruel and unusual punishment and results in a riot. It’s as if Tom Six can’t imagine a viewing of his films as anything other than a life-changing obsessive experience or at least provoking strong reactions for or against. This strain peaks in this film with a cameo by Mr Six, playing himself, in arsehole uniform of mirror shades and linen suit, approving Mr Butler’s proposal as long as he can watch. Six has enough self-awareness to depict himself throwing up when confronted with the reality of his ideas, and I’m sure there are some who’ll find all this meta business playful and diverting. But the net result is that you have a 102-minute film written by, and starring, Tom Six, in which everybody onscreen keeps banging on about the work of Tom Six. I think the phrase I’m looking for is ‘Christ, dude, get over yourself’.
Where Six is going to go after this is anybody’s guess, there’s a peculiar European flavour and sensibility to the trilogy that might develop into something, though it’s often buried beneath the other business. The film kinda works on its own terms, it sets out to be disgusting and succeeds, and to criticise it along those lines would be a fruitless endeavour. It seems more valid to point out that it is oddly paced, stilted and set-bound, that Laser should have been reined in, and that we spend an awful lot of time in Boss’s office and not much with the prisoners. I can’t help wishing the dialogue was better, and with the meat and potatoes set-ups here I’m not entirely convinced he knows what he’s doing behind a camera. But hey, it pulls itself together a bit for the last act, and delivers what anybody renting, streaming or buying something called The Human Centipede 3 would want to see. He clearly has no problem coming up with foul ideas, his main claim to fame is that he has come up with an idea that’s just that bit more repellent than everybody else’s. The problem being that, like the human centipedes in all three films, once created they don’t actually go anywhere or do much other than die. I’m pretty sure that a fair proportion of the audience want to see the group creature go on a rampage that just never happens, damnit. Ah well, in my review of the first outing I voiced my regret that the creators didn’t break out the spangly top hats and canes for an unforgettable musical finale. This time I couldn’t help wishing that, in collision with another internet meme set in a prison yard, we could have had a synchronised routine to Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’. If you’re listening, Tom, that’s not a call for part four.
The Human Centipede 3 (Final Sequence) is released in the UK on Blu-ray, DVD and VOD on 20 July 2015 by Monster Pictures.
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