The Human Centipede (First Sequence) (2010)
The Human Centipede has, at its center, a potentially sick, outrageous joke, and writer-director Tom Six, wisely, executes it as if were the most banal, casual thing in the world – he understands that strange is never truly strange if it’s underlined and highlighted and italicized. The picture – part mad scientist movie (it oddly recalls Eyes Without a Face in places), part Cronenberg/Miike homage/exercise – completely puts you in the mindset of its villain, Dr. Heiter (Dieter Laser), and his complications fusing three people together ass-to-mouth with digestive track linking them, so that they can serve as one creature that will be his dog. This dog, like any other, will be disciplined when it bites, as well as when it fails to obey orders such as bringing the Doctor the paper.
Six works in a consciously elegant style: The Human Centipede has a number of seductive long pans and tracking shots (a relief from the MTV/Fincher wannabe bludgeoning of recent American torture pictures); and Heiter’s home, the almost exclusive setting of the picture, is open and suggestively horizontal, a return to truly widescreen horror (the nostalgia of widescreen horror is also why some overrated The Strangers). Six seems to be saying “I’m not going to let you discount my picture as bargain-bin trash. You’re going to watch these people implicatively eat one another’s feces for no reason at all and you will have to, at least partially, respond and react as if you are watching a ‘normal’ movie”. The obvious joke, the pointless cruelty and disgust, misdirects from the real punchline; which, if you will permit me to reach, is that, with the right mechanical tools (camera, design, production values) any subject can be presented as if it epitomizes shared human experience. In this light, The Human Centipede is more moral than so many lazy, damaging, conformity-affirming romantic comedies and wealth parables.
In interviews, Six is forthcoming about a number of clear influences, a few already mentioned above, but the weakness of The Human Centipede, the reason it doesn’t reach the subversive heights of Miike’s Visitor Q or Audition, or the recent, very disturbing, French picture Martyrs, is that it treads on the surface as, basically, a goof. Six is too satisfied with the set-up as instantly discomforting barroom joke, he doesn’t push the implications of his premise, and so our empathy isn’t challenged, we aren’t punished for rooting for the doctor by, basically, default – the misery of the victims’ situation is never fully driven home, except in the best (blackly funny) sequence with the centipede trying to escape up a spiral staircase. There’s a Psycho scene near the end – wonderful in itself – with police potentially discovering Heiter’s scheme, and, as usual, we find ourselves just a tad queasy at the prospect of our bad guy getting caught, as it ruins the pleasure of watching the character, who is, quite purposefully, our only surrogate. We could’ve possibly used a few scenes with the centipede in its cage, without the contemptuous doctor around to enliven the show.
Six has said that The Human Centipede, subtitled “First Sequence”, was made to introduce people to his gross idea, and that his sequel, Full Sequence, will take the premise further toward its logical conclusions. I wish Six the best of luck, if he gets it wrong, Full Sequence will be just another failed attempt at catching notoriety in a bottle twice. If he gets it right, it has the potential to be unwatchable and madly upsetting, perhaps the (ultra-)delayed challenge to his strangely confident First Sequence. In short, if Six gets his second picture right, he will probably be arrested, somewhere, for something.