The Human Centipede (First Sequence) (2009): The Netherlands – directed by Tom Six
Not rated by the MPAA – contains exceedingly disturbing material, nudity, bizarre and disturbing gore, blood, language
Note: If you have heard of The Human Centipede and are still interested in watching it, you may be curious to read this review. If you have not heard of the film I strongly urge you not to continue reading or look up other information concerning the film.
Looking back at cinema certain countries have created more disturbing and disgusting films than others. Germany is responsible for trash such as Nekromantik and a number of others. Italy has thrived for many years, granting cinema-goers a great many sick and twisted giallo and horror films, with titles like Cannibal Holocaust and Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom topping them all. Japan has been the master for the past 20 years, with Takashi Miike’s entire oeuvre leading the way. But most of these films remain hidden in niche markets among movie lovers, something that has changed a bit with the release of The Human Centipede (First Sequence).
There is an important distinction to be made between films that are merely disgusting and those that are profoundly disturbing. Most anything can be disgusting, even Troma schlock like Terror Firmer. Masterpieces like Requiem for a Dream stick with the viewer for days due to their disturbing impact. The problem with The Human Centipede (First Sequence) is that it doesn’t quite know where its loyalties lie. Is it disgusting exploitation or a thoughtful piece of disturbing horror?
It may be possible to pull some deep and complex themes from Tom Six’s new film but doing so would probably be granting the movie too much credit. It is an interesting film, in some ways, and probably one of the more disgusting movies in recent memory, but ultimately feels rather shallow. The plot is simple. A genius surgeon named Dr. Heiter (Deiter Laser), renowned for his skill in separating Siamese twins, has a masterful piece of surgery he is dying to accomplish. He finds one of his subjects, a Dutch lorry driver, by the side of the road engaged in, fittingly enough, pooping.
But he needs two more patients, who are both placed in his hands due to a tire blow out. Lindsay (Ashley C. Williams) and Jenny (Ashlynn Yennie) are two American girls spending their vacation traveling across Europe. They’ve landed in the Netherlands for a few days, and on their way to a club are confounded by poor directions, the aforementioned flat tire, and a storm. They end up in the hands of Dr. Heiter, a man they find rather creepy. To make small talk Jenny asks if he lives at the remote home with his wife. He growls back, “No. I don’t like human beings.”
Pretty soon they are under his control, and, after he finds a fitting third patient (the Dutchman was not a tissue match) Dr. Heiter is ready to begin. Despite some feeble escape attempts from Lindsay, he eventually completes his reverse separation and joins together the two girls with a Japanese fellow, Katsuro (Akihiro Kitamura). The goal is to create a three-piece creature with a single digestive tract. He has experimented with this before on his three Rottweilers, whose gravestone in the yard reads “My sweet 3-dog.” Eventually the three characters are conjoined, with only one of them left able to speak.
The Human Centipede (First Sequence) is a concept film, first and foremost, one during which it would not be inappropriate to shout “Ass to mouth!” Everything about the film rests in this simple and disgusting concept, and is both the movie’s only hope at redemption and ultimate downfall. The most obvious route for Six to take while making the film would have been pure exploitation: young, nubile American women engaged in pseudo-sexual perverse acts and ridiculous surgeries à la Ilsa: She Wolf of the SS. But Six should be moderately praised for not going this route; he never focuses on the young women’s bodies, instead leaving all of their nudity in the background as part of the larger action taking place.
He shows less restraint with the gory details of the surgery, though here, too, the film is not nearly as disgusting as most other gross-out horror films. The most purely disgusting moment comes when one of the women starts getting an infection caused by the surgery. But even with the blood and gore, exploitation does not seem to be Six’s goal, a fact that may disappoint hardcore horror fans. The problem is, if he was indeed attempting to create a truly disturbing horror scenario, why does he allow the first third of the film to remain rather cheesy? And why are some of the effects (and even the concept of a three-stomached centipede) rather humorous? It doesn’t help that some of the surgical positioning is unconvincing, granting the audience an easy opportunity to laugh at the film instead of be disturbed by it.
It is entirely possible that Six had grander themes in mind when he made the film. Themes of foreign intrusions into European societies and political figures literally eating each other’s crap might be possibly yanked from the film, but these are hidden carelessly and are not prominent enough to warrant much discussion. The ludicrous situation presented when Dr. Heiter gives his patients a lecture on their eventual fate is just one of the humorous moments that detract from any real impact the film might have had. It doesn’t help that he has no apparent motive for any of his actions (unless this is a commentary on the pointlessness of a government’s exploitation of another country). Only once does he seem to gain sexual satisfaction; when he injects one of the women with a sedative there is a hint of a delight and climax. Other times he seems to enjoy abusing and dehumanizing his patients, but most of all he seems concerned with accomplishing his impossible procedure.
Technically, The Human Centipede (First Sequence) is generally effective. The camera moves slowly, like feces through an intestinal tract, and never shows off or becomes too stylish. The colors of the outside world are nicely contrasted with the stark sterility of Dr. Heiter’s lab. The acting, particularly by Williams and Yennie, are subtle enough to not feel like caricatures of stupid American tourists. And, to be fair to the film, some of the special effects succeed at being rather disgusting.
Horror fans may be disappointed in the film’s lack of exploitative content, while more thoughtful movie-goers (who might be hoping for an experience similar to what Antichrist [review here] accomplished) might be concerned that any potential themes are lost in the muddle and confusion. But really, truly, honestly, the only reason anyone has or will watch The Human Centipede (First Sequence) is for bragging rights, so that they can tell their friends they’ve seen a movie where three people are sewn together in a most unnatural manner.