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The Human Centipede (First Sequence)

September 2, 2009

The Human Centipede is having its moment in the sun. Playing to a huge audience at Film 4’s Fright Fest, it has stirred up a real hornets’ nest of disbelief among the horror film fraternity. To explain why, I can do no better than quote directly from the Press Pack:

Internationally respected Siamese twin surgeon Dr. Josef Heiter has a demented vision for mankind’s future existence. He wants to remove human beings’ kneecaps so they have to exist on all fours and then surgically graft them mouth-to-anus to form a centipede chain. When two stranded female Americans arrive at his luxury home-cum-hospital looking for help, his long-gestating plan swiftly moves into chilling action…

Do you need a moment? I did, when I first read that, and to be honest it wasn’t on my original list of things I wanted to see. Prejudiced against torture porn, I made that assumption about it and decided I’d pass. My companion thought differently; he wanted something decidedly outré and so – with no little trepidation – I took my seat for the World Premiere of what seems to have become one of Fright Fest 2009’s biggest stories.

The Human Centipede comes ostensibly from Holland but has influences from further afield (there are German, American and Japanese actors thrown into the mix). I have very few cinematic reference points for the Dutch: Verhoeven, of course; the terrific 80s thriller Amsterdamned; and the sublime Spoorloos. But beyond that I’m fairly clueless, so if I was going to throw my prejudice out the window, what exactly could we expect? Would we see some Verhoeven-esque excess? Would it be too much to hope that once again the Netherlands had somehow managed to produce a gem of a film that cult obsessives would coo over for years to come?

As the movie opens, we see a long stretch of motorway, and Sluizer’s Spoorloos popped into my head. Seeing the bizarrely threatening Dr Heiter (Dieter Laser) sat moodily in his car, I was starting to think that yes, OK then, maybe there’s something in the Dutch psyche about bleak roadscapes and crazed loners.

I’ll come back to the movie in a second, but it would be wrong to go any further without mentioning Dieter Laser, and his extraordinary appearance. That sounds a little vulgar, and if so I apologise to Herr Laser, but I mean it as a compliment of sorts. A man more suited to discomforting and chilling horror I haven’t seen since Murnau tracked down Max Schreck. With his staring eyes and wayward facial physiognomy he looks like someone who has stretched a parchment over an egg box and decided that will do for a head (OK, I should definitely apologise for that). Being stick thin and well over six feet tall contributes significantly to an image that will, I assure you, last long in the mind. I was astonished that I hadn’t seen him before as his credits are  substantial, but surely I would have remembered him (NB. with a bit of internet cheating, it turns out I have, many years ago in Schlöndorff’s The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum). Nevertheless, this image, coupled with a certifiably bonkers performance should guarantee Laser a special place in the hearts of all fans of the more extreme forms of arty horror.

Because, you see, The Human Centipede wants to be both extreme (how could it not?) and arty. Tom Six is an avant-garde artist back in Holland, who, if you can find anything out about him at all, enjoys ‘controversial themes’ (his previous foray into film, Gay, is described by one commentator on IMDb as possibly “the worst movie ever made”). Beyond that, good luck with your search; for a man who wore a white suit and a panama to the show, he’s otherwise pretty elusive. But, yes, it seems that The Human Centipede does have grave pretensions to Art. It’s full title is the rather showy The Human Centipede (First Sequence) and it is the imagined first half of a much grander image. Throughout, if you can get past Laser’s gravitational pull, there is a definite sensibility that this is something that wishes to appear crafted and carefully presented, placed with some reverence before you. Or it may be that it’s just rather slow and stagey. Much of the second half of the film is quite flat and the establishing shots framed with a dull simplicity. There is no innovation here, no spark in the direction. No Art.

So what, then, of the horror? From the précis above you may be expecting a Hostel-esque freak show of gleefully displayed internal organs and blood-spattered grimness. The blood is there, but the vast majority of it comes during the final reel when the cops get involved and the three despairing conjoineds decide to make a break for it, creating a distinctly pantomime Whitehall-farce-type few minutes of banging doors and running up and down stairs (well, not running, not in the centipede’s case). The actual act of joining our unfortunate trio had me burrowing into my seat in preparation for the worst, but it is a mere minute or two’s operation, and quite bloodless. When complete, although the final results are initially grotesque, you can’t help but breath a sigh of relief that you’ve been spared something particularly gruesome.

And that’s the problem. Admittedly, there’s the moment that centipede segment no.1 has to take a shit (“Eat!” screams Dr Heiter at no.2, “EAT!“) but other than that I really really wanted to be outraged, and I wasn’t. It’s not particularly scary, it’s competently produced, the acting is fine (the two American girls, played by Ashlynn Yennie and Ashley C. Williams, suffer decorously and with great conviction), it all plays out to a dark little conclusion, and hell, even some of the laughs aren’t unintentional (there’s an argument, I’d guess, that this is being played as a black comedy, which I don’t really buy) . But is that what they intended? I mean, shit, it’s all kinds of wrong, and that press release will continue to generate ripples, but to come out after the end of all that and be unmoved…? Is that what they set out to do?

The horror of the skull beneath the skin is a common theme in cinema, of course, and each to their own. I’ve seen Takashi Miike’s stuff, I’ve seen more than I ever want to of Cronenberg, and it’s not my taste at all, although I have to confess it is powerful and disturbing material. Both filmmakers are mentioned elsewhere in the press note quoted above. Neither of them, I guarantee, will be losing any sleep.

I fear that Herr Laser, Dutch Cinema and Misses Yennie and Williams have been done a disservice here. I hope better times come along for all, but probably not if Tom Six has anything to do with it.

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