The Inhuman Centipede

Maybe you’ve been ignoring the whole Human Centipede thing hoping it would eventually go away.  And no one would blame you.  By now, almost every pop- literate citizen is at least aware of the basic premise—psychotic German surgeon abducts three people and sutures them together, ass to mouth, to form the “human centipede” (after practicing on his three Dobermans, the lost, lamented “3-dog”).  No one should have to see something like that if they don’t want to.  For many, it’s bad enough just knowing it exists—try to “unthink” that premise once you’ve heard it.

The “human centipede” is a brilliant concept that made for a decent film.  Congratulations to writer/director Tom Six for imagineering a genuinely novel development in the horror repertoire, especially this late in the game.   By virtue of the premise alone, The Human Centipede was the biggest innovation in exploitation since the great hype-cloud that allowed The Blair Witch Project to blur possibility and probability back in 1999.  Again, try to “unthink” the human centipede.

Most of The Human Centipede was spent slithering toward the culmination of the centipede itself, which is fair enough considering that it was such a whopper of a reveal.  So, having seen the “centipede” of HC1, I wasn’t in that much of a hurry to see the sequel, The Human Centipede 2: Full Sequence.   Sure, I knew there were more “pede” units to be had this time, but I assumed it would just be more of the same, albeit ramped up to the “full sequence.”

It just goes to show you, when you “assume” you take an ass and sew you to me.  I don’t think anything could have prepared me for the warped brilliance of  HC2: FS.  Without question, it’s the best horror film I’ve seen in a decade.  No irony, no scare quotes—it’s truly stunning, and an emphatic retort to all the whiners (myself included) who constantly complain that the horror genre has become just another minor variant of the sfx-heavy action film.

Which got me to thinking—I didn’t remember the reviews being very kind to this film, which is odd, considering how absolutely amazing it is.  So after recovering from HC2: FS, I went back and looked at what the critical-industrial complex had to say about it.  Here’s a sampling:

“The film is reprehensible, dismaying, ugly, artless and an affront to any notion, however remote, of human decency.”  
                                                                         Roger Ebert 

“This is tension-free torture porn, whose perpetrator's actions aren't just banal and consequence-free, they're endlessly justified by an abusive back-story.” 

                                                                        Catherine Shoard at The Guardian 

“Six has in essence backed himself into a rhetorical corner, leaving as perhaps the only option for his next stunt something in which the filmmaker Tom Six winds up with his mouth surgically attached to his own anus.”   
                                                                        Mark Olsen at the L.A. Times.  

You know how this game is played.  Anytime you see such a consensus of disgusted outrage (a putrid 17 out of 100 on Metacritic!), something very interesting must be going on—sociologically if not cinematically.  Most reviewers dismissed  HC2: FS as having little ambition beyond simply “outdoing” the excesses of the first film.  Others, like Shoard, read it through the now chic lens of “torture porn” (not that “torture porn” is necessarily chic, but calling things “torture porn” certainly is).  But dismissing HC2: FS as “porn” or measuring it by dangling arthropod to arthropod misses the point.  HC2: FS is a different creature entirely, born of The Human Centipede’s DNA, to be sure, and yet a radical mutation into something far more interesting.

For our second round of centipeding, Six moves the franchise from a rich Black Forest enclave to the socio-economic underbelly of London.  This is a crucial and savvy transplantation.  Looking beyond the novel “shock value” of the premise, HC1 was in the end a rather traditional “mad scientist” movie, another entry in a genre now two centuries deep in its critique of Enlightenment reason and science.  Like the various Frankensteins and Mengeles before him, Dr. Heiter (Dieter Laser) creates a human centipede for no discernible reason beyond his own perverse desire to see it done, to prove to himself that it can be done.  There is a sense the “human centipede” might be a pet to replace his beloved “drei hund,” but really, his surgical adventures are more the decadent hobby of a man with too much money, time, and education.

For HC2: FS, we move to the other end of technocratic capitalism’s spectrum of horrors—the daily humiliation of an utterly empty existence born of poverty, atomization, and alienation.  Dr. Heiter is gone, replaced here by “Martin” (Laurence R. Harvey), an essentially mute garage attendant who lives at home with his mum in a nightmare of council housing deprivation.  Six has also shifted from color to black and white for HC2: FS to better capture the gritty squalor of Martin’s world.

Short, fat, sweaty, balding, bug-eyed, and asthmatic, Martin is an incredibly over-determined signifier of “unhealthy” masculinity, a sickness that we presume (and will soon discover) infects his sexual life as well (confirmed, rather “roughly,” in one of the film’s first jaw-droppers).

We first meet Martin at work—one of the three hellish locations that organizes HC2: FS  (alongside his suicide-inducing bedroom and an old warehouse that Martin appropriates to realize his version of the centipede). It would be difficult to imagine a profession that captures the fundamentally perverse inversion of contemporary social/property relations more effectively than the parking garage attendant--a low paying job to watch over high-end automobiles.  Consider, for a moment, the responsibilities of the all-night parking garage attendant.  S/he must spend hours at a time monitoring a bank of surveillance cameras on the look out for: 1). people stealing, robbing, or vandalizing cars; 2). people engaged in sex acts and drug use deemed illegal 3). people robbing, assaulting, or raping one another; 4). fender-benders that might escalate into violence, or worse, block other patrons from making an efficient exit from the parking facility (when the world ends, after all, it will either be from a viral epidemic or from a vehicular mishap that sets off a chain reaction of road rage, Rube Goldberg style, across all the continents of the world). 

Martin at work.
One might argue that such attendants have a panoptic function, ensuring “order” in the facility through the threat of surveillance, but really, they are only there to mop up after various confrontations between people and property have already happened.  Your job (should you be forced to accept it) is to sit for hours as a vestigial human guarantee that some sentient being will be around to call the cops when someone staggers to the booth to report a mugging, collision, or worse.   To emphasize the fundamental horror of Martin’s job, Six repeatedly frames his miserable protagonist through the tiny window in Martin’s cubicle—a man trapped in an airless box all night who turns to atrocity, at least in part, out of sheer boredom. 

Martin watches exposition from HC1 on his laptop
Martin's notebook.
What does Martin do all night at work?  Like most people trapped in dehumanizing, boring, repetitive, and monotonous labor, Martin escapes into the products of the culture industry—which is so say, he spends almost all his time either watching or thinking about the movie, The Human Centipede.  When not scanning the garage cameras for potential pede-units vulnerable to abduction, Martin watches HC1 over and over again on his laptop (taking detailed notes on the film’s seemingly straightforward premise: find some people, sew them to together, one ass to one mouth). Most horror franchises eventually turn reflexive, usually as a last resort, but this twist in the centipede—so early in the presumed “franchise”—actually makes it more an extension or bookend for the first film (and one hopes it will establish the premise that each new installment in the series must be motivated by someone "inspired" by the previous film). 

I dwell on Martin’s work environment because it is so central to the overall sensibility of the film.  While Dr. Heiter of HC1 treats his pede-units much like his cherished 3-hound, a beloved pet to be encouraged, trained, and only occasionally scolded, Martin dispenses with such niceties.  After gathering the 12 people he needs to realize his “full sequence” centipede, Martin treats them as the nameless units they are, a product to be assembled in the empty factory space.  The mad Dr. Heiter was a professional, an artist, his powers and pleasures residing as much in the technique as the product itself.  But the stunted, abused, and otherwise traumatized Martin is interested in more brutal fantasies of power—like the disgusting children in Roald Dahl's chocolate factory, he wants his own human centipede and he wants it now.  Much of the horror and intersecting low-comedy of HC2:FS stems from undercutting Martin's enthusiasm for the project with his amateurism and ineptitude. He controls his pede-units, not with sedatives and anesthesia, but instead by crudely bonking them on the head, Shemp-style, with a crowbar.  With no medical education or equipment to perform the intricate suturing required of a quality centipede, Martin instead makes due with a staple gun.

Let's get to work!
This is why it is a mistake to lump HC2: FS in with the other films typically labeled “torture porn” (epitomized, perhaps, by Eli Roth’s Hostel 2 [2007]).  There is no sado-masochistic vibe in HC2: FS.  None.  In fact, indulging such a dynamic would quite possibly make HC2:FS somewhat less disturbing (at least one could retreat to the fantasy that some form of mutually defining desire was at work here between centipede and centipeder).  Instead, Martin demonstrates neither empathy nor sadism in dealing with his abductees, treating them with the blank impassivity of a widget stamper stamping widgets.  The tour-de-force scene of Martin's casually brutal tooth extraction is all the more chilling for refusing to indulge the typical dynamics of sadistic voyeurism—it just happens, without any semblance of hesitation or any evidence of pleasure. It needs to be done, so Martin does it. 

Martin inspects his "inventory"
The “human centipede,” after all, is in its most basic concept a diabolically evil parody of Fordism, a figure that renders human beings into an assemblage of interlocking and basically identical parts (as, of course, factory workers have always been). The move from surgical theater to abandoned warehouse better emphasizes this dehumanization, as do the repeated long shots capturing the pede-units (prior to assembly) strewn across the floor like Legos in Martin's demented playpen.  There is even a moment of darkly comic solidarity.  Like Martin, one of the “pede-units” is also quite familiar with The Human Centipede.  With Martin gone for awhile, this pede-unit manages to get the duct tape off his mouth.  “He’s going to stitch us ass to mouth!” “He’s going to stitch us ass to mouth!”  he announces to the other bound and gagged victims writhing around him.  A collective but muffled groan echoes through the warehouse, much like when a shift supervisor announces everyone will have to stay until midnight to make that day’s quota. 

Home sweet home.
As per generic requirement, Six displaces this sociological horrorfest onto some psychosexual mumbo-jumbo about Martin’s history of sexual abuse (We repeatedly hear the voice of Martin’s father in his head, “Cry all ya want son, you’re just making me willie harder”). At "home," Martin sleeps on a dirty mattress with no sheets, his massive belly fat and bulging eyes giving him the appearance of some bloated, tragic mammal headed for imminent extinction.  His “mum,” meanwhile, actively courts their mutual demise, blaming Martin for his father's incarceration and imploring that they should both die so that their miserable existences might come to end (even going so far as to repeatedly antagonize the heavily tattooed psychopath living upstairs in the hopes that he’ll bludgeon them both to death).  When Martin comes home one night to find his mum in his bedroom viciously stabbing a wad of blankets, thinking Martin is underneath asleep, we’re supposed to think Psycho.  But there is also the even more horrifying sense that mum is just doing the humane thing for everyone involved. 

By taking the centipede “bait" (longer! bloodier!), critics have for the most part ignored that these scenes of work and home are as horrifying, if not more so, than Martin's actual construction of the centipede itself; moreover, they are crucial to framing the full significance of achieving the "full sequence."  In the horrible, horrible realm of Martin's existence, The Human Centipede is his only pleasure, and building his own centipede apparently his only ambition.  There is a rather poignant moment (yes, I said poignant) that captures the full affect of Martin's tormented world.  Watching HC1 for the millionth time on his laptop, Martin comes to the crucial scene in which the "head" of the human centipede (i.e. the guy lucky enough to be at the front) announces, much to his shame and regret, that he needs to shit, thus initiating the true alimentary horror implicit in the centipede's construction.  From a close-up of the lap-top, Six cuts back outside Martin's cubicle where we see him through his little window, jumping to his feet and pumping his arms in the air in a rare moment of unadulterated joy.  Let the shit-eating begin!  It is the only moment in the film where we have any real empathy or identification with Martin, no doubt because we recognize in his exaltation our own desire to escape the various humiliations that existence has in store for us. 

Which gets to the essence of the franchise's dark, dark appeal.  George Romero began his zombie dynasty with a nicely abstract bit of ancient philosophy: "When hell is full, the dead will walk the earth."  The Human Centipede films appear to have a much more disturbing (and relevant) credo: "When all are subjugated, the only remaining pleasure will be to make others eat shit."

Afterword:  There is apparently a third centipede film now in pre-production.  Ominously, it is rumored to pair Dr. Heiter and Martin in a bid to create a 500-link centipede.  But there are also reports that the script is still up in the air.

For what it's worth, then, here's what I would pitch for The Human Centipede 3 in order to stay true to its more insightful elements:

A pair of billionaire brothers (let's call them the "Kokes"), having bought everything in the world worth buying and having no real pleasure in life beyond making things more miserable for others, stumble upon a copy of HC2: FS.  Later, Brother 1 remembers a lost Pacific tradition in which coconuts were made more delectable by forcing them through the digestive tracts of captured slaves. Voilà! With the wedding of one of their daughters on the horizon, the brothers decide to recruit 24 of the world's most impoverished and desperate people to "willingly" become a human-centipede coconut tenderizing machine.  And if they don't produce enough coconut meat in time for the wedding reception, something even worse looms on the horizon (I'll let Tom Six figure that part out--he's really good at thinking up sick stuff). 

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