You don’t even have to see Tom Six’s unhinged film “The Human Centipede” in order for its disarmingly amiable creator to have already largely succeeded in his mission. The chances are, if you’re reading this, you already know what the film is about. He’s already planted that particular image in your unwilling mind. And that image, once planted, can’t help but be dwelt upon, at least to some degree: making you consider the horror of an idea so vile and inhuman that it would never even occur to most sane people is precisely the aim of the film. Nothing that actually appears on screen, though, is anywhere near as bad as the actual thought itself, so the film isn’t a test of nerve in the traditional way most mainstream modern horror is; and compared to most releases these days, in that regard, this is incredibly tame fare indeed.
This film is not really about how much you can bear to see, but how much depravity you can dare to imagine: it coldly isolates a representation of human madness and unlimited cruelty; of abject suffering, total humiliation and subjugation, placing them in such a sterile, ruthlessly clinical setting that they’re highlighted like items in a display case under a harsh spotlight, or against a stark background. The film opens in this manner with a gliding tracking shot on the alienating image of a high-speed German autobahn that cuts through an isolated forest. A small clearing in the forest reveals a smart but starkly bland-looking double glazed bungalow: the unassuming site of the mindboggling atrocity we are soon to be made to witness. This place, then, is quite cut off from any kind of human warmth or any sense of human emotion at all. It’s been remarked upon in most other reviews how the film completely foregoes all the jiggery camera techniques which have virtually dominated horror cinema over the last decade or so, instead favouring a smooth, classical approach, with meticulous composition and an uncluttered production design forcing our attention on the characters and their pitiable plight. Such an undemonstrative, stylised approach only focuses in on the central atrocity at the core of the film more acutely.
The principle characters are two annoying teenage American high school girls on vacation in Germany (Ashley C. Williams and Ashlynne Yennie), whose car breaks down on the edge of the forest in question while they’re en route for a night out clubbing in the city -- the only other passing driver being a sleazy German guy who makes lewd remarks before driving on and leaving them alone. Stumbling through the trees in the cold and the rain, they happen upon the pristine residence of Dr Heiter (Dieter Laser) and find the bug-eyed, taut-skinned inhabitant living alone in this immaculately furnished house, which looks more like an un-lived in hotel, with its perfectly preserved ground floor bedrooms and connecting corridors all painted in white. He makes little attempt to look anything other than thoroughly malevolent in an evil Nazi sort of way, but they are desperate and have little choice but to believe that their fears about him are unfounded. They foolishly drink from the glasses of water he proffers and wake up strapped to medical beds in the house’s equally sterile white-painted basement -- which is a fully kitted out operating theatre. After the Doctor also kidnaps a Japanese tourist called Katsuro (Akihiro Kitamura), the girls and their new captive partner are given a pre-operation lecture (with a slide show of crudely drawn diagrams) in which Heiter proudly explains his deranged plans: their gastric systems are to be connected by stitching them together, mouth to anus, turning them into a sort of human centipede companion for the mad doctor -- who is so averse to human company that he can only think to assuage his isolation by distorting the human form in a sick parody of insect life.
This film is, quite possibly, the first cinematic equivalent of the extreme cult fantasy literary genre known as Bizarro fiction yet to be attempted: this is a transgressive form of fiction, in which the fantastical elements of science fiction and fantasy are applied as much to issues of taste as they are to genre form, producing a wild and weird underground type of literature, where total lack of self-censorship of the imagination often leads to unpredictable, surreal results. The same sensibility is clearly at work in “The Human Centipede”. Some have mentioned the body horror of early David Cronenberg as a possible parallel, but I found Clive Barker’s early work to be more apposite, with its themes of suffering and torment. The first half of the film plays out the horror movie conventions in a fairly obvious way: girls stranded in the woods, and mad scientists, etc. Pre operation, there is the obligatory attempt to escape, which is handled with quiet efficiency by Six – the sense of the inevitable failure of the attempt in no way blunting the clammy sense of suspense built up during these scenes. But the actual depiction of the operation doesn’t really dwell on the unpleasant details too much. The scenes of gory horror are kept to a bare minimum. It’s the grim, pitiable horror of the ensuing life as a ‘human centipede’ which claims most of the second half of the film. The sordid visual details of the three protagonists’ surgical joinings are shrouded by strategically placed bandages (although the girls are still left topless, for some reason!), but the film is – inevitably -- really building up to the moment when lead segment in the chain, Katsuro no longer finds it possible to avoid evacuating his bowels. The film is really reliant, then, on the performances of its leads in determining if it succeeds or not. If they’re no good, it would just end up being funny, over and above the twisted black humour Six deliberately injects into proceedings. Luckily, Kitamura is equally as good in conveying the humiliation of his character’s position as Williams and Yennie are acting in what are surely the two most unglamorous roles in cinematic history. Although I can’t imagine Kitamura has much competition with which one can compare his performance: roles for which one is required to act out the emotions of contrition and humiliation after being unavoidably forced into shitting into someone else’s mouth, being rather thin on the ground I should imagine.
There are precedents for this bad taste (no pun intended) style of ‘horror’ cinema, principally, the biggest stated influence on Six himself, the Nazi Experimentation genre. Jess Franco’s “Barbed Wire Dolls” featured much more graphic scenes than anything here -- of a woman in similarly clinical-looking surroundings having a tube shoved up her -- and hungry rats being sent down it -- for instance; and of course nothing quite beats Pier Paolo Pasolini’s “Salo” in terms of disturbing images of depravity (and there, you really do get to see people eating shit). Nonetheless Dieter Laser gives an extraordinary performance as the sinister Doctor Heiter. It’s a performance which somehow manages to be funny and creepy and often utterly chilling all at the same time. It’s hard to believe, with his gimlet eyed, thin-lipped permanent scowl, that Laser has never made a horror film before this, but it’s extremely unlikely he will be featuring in anything else but for the foreseeable future, thanks to this film!
“The Human Centipede” comes to UK Blu-ray courtesy of Bounty Films (in association with Eureka Entertainment) in a nicely detailed transfer which really enhances the film’s ‘Kubrickian’ aesthetic very nicely. The audio on the feature is in lossless HD 2.0.
The disc gets a nice selection of extras led by a commentary track in which Tom Six manages to keep talking almost throughout, without help from any other participants -- and for the most part it’s fairly informative and entertaining. British viewers might find it distracting though that Six’s Dutch accent makes him sound somewhat like Leigh Francis’s comedy character Avid Merrion.
Also in high definition, the disc features an extensive 23 minute interview with Six, as well as a shorter five minute one, in which he answers pretty much the same main questions with almost word for word the same answers. There is a brief clip of the casting session for Williams and Yennie (2 mins) and grainy footage from a foley sound session, which looks like it’s being recorded on a phone camera (5 mins). A Q &A session with Six and actor Dieter Laser runs for around twenty minutes. There is a trailer, a deleted scene and about ten minutes’ worth of behind the scenes footage to round off a fairly neat Blu-ray release of what is undoubtedly one of the weirdest films of the last few years. Six is already promising us a sequel that will be – in his own words – almost impossible to watch. We have been warned!