The Human Centipede (First Sequence)
How is The Human Centipede (First Sequence) not among the most transgressive and repulsive movies ever made?
For those not familiar with the premise of writer/director Tom Six’s feature, there’s no reason to be coy about it. The Internet Movie Database plot summary of The Human Centipede reads:
“A mad scientist kidnaps and mutilates a trio of tourists in order to ‘reassemble’ them into a new ‘pet’ — a human centipede, created by stitching their mouths to each others’ rectums.”
That sounds more random than it really is, and Roger Ebert’s no-star-rating review (“It is what it is and occupies a world where the stars don’t shine”) provides a helpful diagram and is clearer on the concept:
“Heiter plans to surgically join his victims by sewing together their mouths and anuses, all in a row, so the food goes in at the front and comes out at the rear.”
Disgusting, right? Based on any description, Six’s film should belong to the torture-porn genre. Yet while the movie itself aspires to torture porn, it miraculously never gets there. The barest description of the story — and also the mad Dr. Heiter’s explanation of his plans to his three victims, and the movie poster — are far more unsettling than the results of the complicated surgeries.
Some of that, I think, was preserving a tiny scrap of the performers’ dignity. The two female leads spend the second half of the movie on their hands and knees with their breasts exposed and their faces attached to an ass, so having that ass bandaged in a way that mimics underwear shows that Six perhaps possesses a modicum of kindness.
Another factor, I’m sure, was budget. The makeup work on The Human Centipede is not unimpressive — pus-y face staples! — but I’m guessing that convincingly and explicitly fusing the performers in a way that allowed for the mobility the plot requires would have been expensive. Instead, Six hides the points of connection and lets the audience’s imagination do the rest.
Therein lies the problem. While suggested and subtle horror is almost always more successful than the alternative, the premise of The Human Centipede is antithetical to anything except being as gross as possible. And by choosing to obscure, it leaves something crucial out.
Yes, the surgeries are grotesque, but Six doesn’t show much of them, and the good doctor gives his patients a general anesthetic. The real horror here is the empathetic sort, imagining a post-centipede existence. When the person in front of me shits, I have to swallow it, and if I vomit, I’ll have to swallow that, too.
Six doesn’t linger on this aspect, and the bandages prevent him from effectively showing it, anyway. (I hate to write this, as the writer/director reportedly has a sequel in the works.) There is a post-attachment bowel movement in The Human Centipede, but to be truly effective — to give it a visceral force worse than what we’ve imagined — we’d need to see the full reaction of the recipient, and the performer would need to be awfully convincing.
Six could have taken a different tack, and used his conceit as a means to explore ideas and themes. In fairness, there are moments that touch on moral and existential quandaries faced by the human “segments.”
But the movie really exists to see if you can endure it, and that’s a shockingly easy task. The premise here is the movie, and your mind is likely far better than The Human Centipede at executing it.