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D: Tom Six / 88m

Cast: Dieter Laser, Ashley C. Williams, Ashlynn Yennie, Akihiro Kitamura, Andreas Leupold, Peter Blankenstein

If you’ve ever thought that hype and horror go together like Tom Cruise and Scientology (in that they both support each other), then The Human Centipede (First Sequence) is a prime example of that particular maxim. Even its production, where the investors were kept in the dark about the nature of the “conjoining” writer/director Tom Six had in mind, added to the perception that here was a movie that was setting out deliberately to shock audiences and in the worst imaginable way possible. And soon, the hype took over, as word got out that Six’s movie would show people joined mouth-to-anus as part of a medical experiment carried out by the movie’s main character. And just that idea, that you would see three people joined together in such a way – with their mouths actually grafted onto someone else’s anus – was all the movie needed to attract a huge amount of attention. And outrage. Let’s not forget the inevitable outrage. Regarded by many as “sick” and “depraved”, the movie’s success was assured from the moment it’s raison d’être became known.

But more often than not, hype has a nasty way of proving itself to be unfounded. The greater the outrage, the less outrageous a movie usually is. The more critics charge a movie with being “disgusting” the less likely it is that it will be. And The Human Centipede (First Sequence) fits these requirements almost perfectly. It’s ostensibly a horror movie, it has a shocking central idea, and it makes no apologies for its existence. In short, it’s a success exactly because of the approbrium heaped upon it. But is it “sick”, “depraved”, or “disgusting”? The answer is an easy one: No.

What Six did was to take a crazy idea for a horror movie, pull together the funding needed to make it, and then give his project as much pre-release build-up as he could before unleashing it on a very suspecting world. And most everyone saw what he wanted them to see: a movie described as “sick”, “depraved”, and “disgusting” but which wasn’t. The movie that Six actually made was very much a standard monster movie with an opening section that riffed on slasher movies in an effort to lull audiences who weren’t aware of the movie’s content into thinking they were going to see yet another masked psycho feature. And so we’re introduced to Lindsay (Williams) and Jenny (Yennie), two Americans touring Europe who’ve reached Germany and find themselves stranded on a dark and lonely country road, and with no idea where they are (and surprise, surprise, they can’t get a phone signal). Instead of sticking to the road they head off into the woods, get even more lost, and bicker between themselves until they discover a house handily located in the middle of said woods. A safe haven at last. Or is it?

Of course, we all know the answer to that one, as the house is the home of the man we’ve seen right at the beginning of the movie aiming a sedative gun at a truck driver who’s defecating behind some bushes. One glass of water with a Rohypnol chaser (for Jenny), and a sedating injection (for Lindsay) later, and the man of the house, retired surgeon Dr Josef Heiter (Laser), has the girls cuffed to surgical gurneys in his basement and being prepped for an advanced procedure of his own design. But the truck driver has been a poor choice and has to go. And so, Japanese tourist Katsuro (Kitamura) finds himself abducted and taking the driver’s place. Lindsay makes an escape attempt, which in turn inspires Heiter’s admiration for her, and his decision to make her the middle part of his human centipede. The operation goes ahead, the three are joined together, and for a long while the movie forgets that it needs to expand on its basic premise and that seeing three people in what look like oversized nappies crawling around on the floor isn’t very enthralling. Thank God, then, that two cops (Leupold, Blankenstein) come looking for any missing tourists the doctor may be keeping hidden, and the movie can head for the finish line without any further delay.

If much of the previous paragraph sounds as if the movie isn’t being taken too seriously, then that’s because it isn’t. You only have to look at the image above to know that this is a movie that shouldn’t be taken seriously by anyone, and even less so as a horror movie. While it does include a number of traditional horror tropes – the mad doctor, the creature that never wanted to be born, the creature turning on its creator – The Human Centipede (First Sequence) never aspires to doing anything remotely meaningful with them, or provide any subtext beyond a risible connection with experiments carried out by the likes of Dr Josef Mengele during World War II. This leaves the movie looking and sounding rather flat once the human centipede is put together. Kitamura shouts a lot, Williams and Yennie groan and cry a lot, and Laser struts around like the ruler of a kingdom only he can see.

This is a movie where we’re supposed to be horrified at the sight of three people connected in a way that wouldn’t look too out of place in a porn movie. Does this make the movie “sick”, “depraved” or “disgusting”? (Spanish audiences didn’t think so; they found the movie funny, and laughed throughout screenings.) Ultimately, this is a minor horror movie elevated through hype into something that it’s not. Six should be congratulated for bringing his movie to a wider public awareness, but it’s also a movie that betrays its Seventies Euro-horror and Cronenbergian influences at every turn. And if you’re holding out for some gore-soaked thrills, you’ll be disappointed there as well: what little there is has been done before, and on too many occasions to make Six’s efforts stand out from the crowd. If it’s real body horror you’re after, then go see Brian Yuzna’s Society (1989). Now there’s a movie where mouth to anus really is just the beginning.

Rating: 4/10 – an uninspired horror movie that holds back from being as exploitative as it sounds, The Human Centipede (First Sequence) is a triumph of carefully planned marketing and narrative shortcomings; bolstered by Thomas Stefan’s antiseptic production design and Goof de Koning’s angular cinematography, the movie promises a lot that it never follows through on, and in the end is too reliant on the so-called “shock value” of its basic premise to be anywhere near as effective as it should be. (2/31)

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