In a recent article on CNN.com, journalist Breeanna Hare posits that The Human Centipede is the most disturbing movie ever made. And I’m here to answer to the affirmative: The Human Centipede is the most disturbing movie ever made. Provided you’ve never borne witness to Pier Paolo Passolini’s Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom, or In a Glass Cage, or Cannibal Holocaust, or Fred Vogel’s August Underground, or Men Behind the Sun, or Takashi Miike’s Imprint, or…
There’s a lot of chest-beating and rending of garments in the comment section following the article, including a lot of trumpeting that freedom of speech should have its limits, that no one should be allowed to make such a movie. Once you take sheer stupidity with a grain of salt (and anyone who calls for any limitations to be placed on the Bill of Rights is an abject, short-sighted moron), you start to wonder if all the hype wasn’t actually generated by the movie’s distributors. This sort of sturm and drang over movies and fiction has lost its attraction over the centuries to the point where it’s little more than hollow noise—Mrs. Lovejoy shrieking, “Think of the children!”
“Freedom of speech should be near-absolute--I respect and love the US Constitution--but the framers of the Bill of Rights had no idea, NONE, that American culture would someday descend to this level” reads one such post. Oh, the humanity! Oh, the depravity! Hide your heads and run for your lives, folks—this movie’s gonna give people ideas! Lord knows there’s nothing worse than that.
When you get right down to it, The Human Centipede exists because of the sheer audacity of its concept, and that’s the meat of the matter. The movie is more concept than story, and critics with more tolerance than I for this type of entertainment have pointed out that it would have made a killer short subject. As a feature running over ninety minutes, once the shock wears off, there’s little left for the movie to do but fall apart. Like the characters comprising the titular creation, The Human Centipede is a series of images stitched together to no real purpose.
“Controversial” Dutch filmmaker Tom Six presents us with this premise: mad German surgeon (as if there is any other kind in horror movies), Dr. Heiter (Dieter Laser), longs to create a human hybrid consisting of three bodies sharing a single digestive tract. Since the days of his successfully separating conjoined twins, he has dreamed of this experiment. He achieved it once with a trio of rotweilers but they weren’t hearty and died of a blood disease borne from the communication of feces from one dog to the next. Naturally, he expects different results from human subjects.
Enter a pair of shrill American party girls who had no idea that upon leaving their hotel they would wind up victims of all of the horror movie sins: their car breaks down, the cell phones get no service, they’re lost, they can’t read a map, they’re in high heels, in the rain, in the woods (not following the road back to civilization, naturally), and seeking help from the worst possible source, namely, Dr. Heiter. But you can forgive all of this preamble because that’s what gets a horror movie plot started. People have to do incredibly dumb things in order for the “fun” to start. When a fat truck driver fails to be a “match” for the girls, Heiter kills him and replaces him with a tourist who speaks only Japanese. The girls, naturally, speak only English. Dr. Heiter speaks only B-Movie Nazi.
Again, this is all forgiven because, as we’ve been promised, soon we’re going to see three people attached mouth-to-anus and walk around like that and it’s gonna be awesomely gross.
But then something odd happens about midway through the film: we start to sympathize with the victims. Lindsay (Ashley C. Williams) and Jenny (Ashlynn Yennie) are criminally stupid and obnoxious. It’s impossible to like them. Katsuro (Akihiro Kitamura) is a cipher who we get to know only through subtitles. The three of them are one dimensional and the dimensions do not increase with the surgery. We know going in that everything is designed as shock value first and foremost and if anything else slithers out from beneath the sleaze it must surely be unintentional. Then without warning The Human Centipede achieves a goal where even the best modern horror movies generally fall short: it horrifies. Not “oh, the humanity”, not “think of the children”, but “Dear God, please don’t let anything like this ever happen to me!”
Because there is no narrative thread, the viewer can only experience the obvious pain and humiliation of the characters. Their heads, backsides, elbows and knees are swaddled with bandages to hide the obvious prosthetics, and, of course, what is unseen makes for greater disgust in the mind’s eye. We don’t actually want to see the “100% medically accurate” (as the poster boasts) procedure that sews the anus of one person into the mouth and throat of another, and after the operation we’re actually thankful for the presence of bandages. They’re there for practicality—rest assured, had Tom Six figured out a way to graphically display this procedure, he would have. Instead, we have facial scars on the girls to indicate where the incisions were made. And so they crawl around on their elbows and knees, faces buried in posteriors, for the remainder of the film’s running time, all three whimpering in agony. Even if they had the use of their mouths, the women could never communicate with Katsuro because of the language barrier. They are joined to him, forced to eat his waste, all for the amusement of one demented man.
All of this, of course, can be seen as a blatant and obvious metaphor for…insert injustice here. Misogyny? Definitely. For the women are the middle and back segments as punishment for trying to escape early on. They are subverted to Heiter’s will, eating male shit for the rest of their lives. Helpless. Misanthropy? Also definitely. Contempt for other humans is the sin both Heiter and Tom Six. That as writer he makes no attempt to humanize our “human centipede” indicates his derision towards his fellow man.
Is it also a metaphor for the film industry? Sure. All artists are tethered to others against their will, forced to swallow someone else’s shit, to achieve the vision of someone with the power.
Class struggle? Human nature? Politics? Yes, yes, and yes, The Human Centipede can represent all of these struggles, or, at least, can be rationalized in that direction. And that justification is necessary because, and be honest, you only watched it to see three people joined mouth to ass, for the thrill of the shock. So you can either dismiss the movie as trash or admit there might be something wrong with you for wanting to see this. This is an endurance test movie—just like so many others beyond those mentioned above. It’s not “torture porn” because that’s too simplistic and dismissive. The Human Centipede is both more than that and less. As Roger Ebert mentioned in his review, the movie exists in a place where the stars do not shine, so it doesn’t matter if it’s good or bad.
What it is, inarguably, is effective.
As empty and hollow and mean-spirited and meaningless as the plot, the imagery and implication is haunting. “Regular” horror movies offer at least a chance of good winning over evil, even if the franchise mandates the villian’s ultimate triumph. But in the end, how could the three segments of the “centipede” possibly win? We get to witness one horrific escape attempt, their efforts tearing their sutures and spilling their now-toxic blood all over the pristine floor and we cannot help but grimace in our own phantom agony. What would “rescue” actually mean? How do you go back to “normal” life should the operation be reversed successfully? And who but someone similarly mad could possibly reverse such a procedure? How long could you last in any of the positions? The “story”, such as it is, becomes meaningless after the movie’s first act. But the atrocity—with the very weight of that word—lingers on post credits.
Personally, I have met people who have found the movie grotesque garbage and I’ve met people who thought it “awesome”. The latter aren’t particularly people I want to house sit for me, but I can almost see their point of view. The Human Centipede manages to reach a viewer on a visceral level that is almost dormant. (Some would argue “desensitized” but that might be a different argument entirely.) As a horror movie, it achieves, pure and simple.
Just as The Exorcist thrilled and horrified audiences in the ‘70s, setting a standard for gruesome excess, movies came along later that raised the tolerance level higher, “pushing the envelope” for what was deemed acceptable or gratuitous. Horror fans specifically and moviegoers in general have hardened in the intervening years. The idea that a movie could cause nightmares again is actually exhilarating. Someone will always aspire to go further, push harder, to be “horrific”. And these movies will always be sensational (and not in a “go team!” sense) and may possibly wind up just as empty.
Which may be the real reason why The Human Centipede is the most disturbing movie ever made, at least to date. Let’s forget about the upcoming sequel, “The Full Segment”, in which ten or so people are joined MTA. Let’s stare into the abyss and wonder what worse is coming from the gorge, spurned by the challenge. Rest assured, some day soon, some other journalist will be asking, is this the most disturbing movie ever? And the answer will again be, “Yes…so far.”