The Human Centipede: Good or Not Good? Not Good

Oh dear, I have bad ideas sometimes. The last one I had I mentioned to my ever-lucubrating, elfin pal Kay.

After listening to its bare bones she said, approximately, “In the name of fucking sanity never ever ever mention that to anyone. Don’t blog about it. Don’t put it on Twitter. Don’t put it on Facebook. Just forget you ever had it.”

And that is where I am superior to Tom Six, because where I have a network of normal people who will, quite proactively, remind me where the boundaries of acceptability lie, Tom Six apparently does not. He has a network of dimwit enablers who say stuff like “Hey Tom, that revolting idea rocks. You should make a film out of it you sexually uninhibited spliffy-boy.”

He’s Dutch, you see.

I do a great impression of Dutch people. Ahem. “Hey, thish land ish a bit marshy and shoggy. Shince it ish sho difficult to reclaim let ush build our buildingsh tall to maximishe living shpace per unit area. But alsho, let’sh shublimate our anger at thish into making Dutch cuishine the flattesht, mosht shpace conshuming cuishine in the world. Bring on the pancakesh!”

Ooh. It’s gone very quiet in the room. Bit racist? Sorry. I love Holland and spent some very happy time in Amsterdam. If you haven’t been there you should go. Before its nearest neighbour is the Lost Kingdom of Atlantis.

So anyway. Tom Six’s revolting idea is that, if you are a demented surgeon, you can stitch three humans together (mouth to anus) to form one long creature with a single digestive tract.

Yes, exactly. A striking idea, but not a story. Nevertheless he has made a feature film out of it, The Human Centipede (First Sequence).

Body horror, a distinct sub-category of horror, has a history that is long and, surprisingly, far from ignoble. There was a change in American film-making around the mid to late sixties that allowed more explicit sex and violence into what were perceived as sensible, adult movies rather than puerile drive-in fare. Bonnie and Clyde is regarded as something of a turning point.

One of the resultant effects of this was to enable seriously intentioned filmmakers to smuggle interesting agendas into populist and profitable entertainments. Graphic depictions of violence enabled directors like Wes Craven and George Romero to make gooey horror films that were also explicit criticisms of American involvement in Vietnam.

Craven, after a few stutters, went onto the broad pantomime of the Nightmare On Elm Street movies before steering that series provocatively into reflexiveness with Wes Craven’s New Nightmare and following this up with the auto-critical Scream Trilogy.

Romero is a more interesting director, and I am sure more intelligent people than me have written theses about his work. What is pertinent here though is to point out how he worked the horror genre to specific ends.

His 1968 movie Night Of The Living Dead remains a landmark movie in many ways. Shot in cheap black and white it still looks tremendous. It has the imagination to render one of its central characters permanently mute with terror after her ordeal in the opening minutes of the film. The central competent character is a black man; the white characters are variously unsympathetic, dim or venal. The film even underlines its view of the futility of conflict by having the hero shot in the head at the end by redneck would-be rescuers. It’s a magnificent film.

With the two follow-ups Dawn Of The Dead (1978) and Day Of The Dead (1985) Romero used the genre to comment acerbically on the deadening passivity of materialism and the misappropriation of science by the military-industrial complex respectively.

He’s not just pissing about you know.

To a great degree horror films have always reflected the times in which they were made, and the fears that pertained at the time, be it fear of sexuality, communism, atom bombs or the passing of power to the next generation. In the seventies though this was much more of a conscious expression than a subconscious one and it reached its apex in the pioneering body horror films of Canadian director David Cronenberg.

These days he’s perhaps better known for adapting supposedly unadaptable literary works (Crash, The Naked Lunch, M. Butterfly, Spider and A History Of Violence) but his most recent original scripts “eXistenZ” and Eastern Promises still have an overwhelming physicality about them.

Cronenberg’s early body horror works Shivers, Rabid, The Brood, Scanners, Videodrome, Dead Ringers and The Fly are extraordinary movies. He also directed an adaptation of Stephen King’s The Dead Zone which, whilst non-negligible, feels a bit out of place in the oeuvre, a slightly compromised populist piece.

The Dead Zone aside though, his films are all manifestly the work of an auteur. Typically dealing with reactions to bodily invasion, sexually transmitted disease, birth trauma, tumour growth, parasites and corruption of the flesh the films can be repellent and alienating (particularly given some of Cronenberg’s bizarre casting choices), but, importantly, they are all clearly the end product of a long and informed intellectual process. Further they have something quite significant to say about humanity’s ongoing attempts to remove itself from an organic environment into a neurotically clean, antiseptic one.

Philosophically, the only film I’ve seen recently that stands with Cronenberg’s work is Lars Von Trier’s majestic Antichrist which also equates the fall from innocence with the estrangement of nature.

Tom Six has clearly watched a lot of Cronenberg, and this has been his explicit influence in the crafting of The Human Centipede (First Sequence). Unfortunately Six seems to lack Cronenberg’s academic ambition and rigour, and has decided that the depiction of the vile is somehow just as good as the exploration of the vile.

Bad news Mr. Six. It ain’t.

I’m not sure if the addition of a plot or sympathetic characters would have changed my negative opinion about The Human Centipede. I rather suspect not, because it isn’t just the inability to develop the situation that is wrong with The Human Centipede. There are is also an unpleasant set of underlying assumptions at work that perturb me.

I watch a lot of films you really wouldn’t want to see. I’ve got base tastes. I accept that, and really as long as there’s plenty of embonpoint on display, some ludicrous fantasy violence and a Euro-disco score then I’m likely to be happy. My inner critic isn’t riled by much, but there are a few films (excluding obvious atrocities like Pretty Woman, Ghost and Die Hard 2) that have made me question why I watched them.

Firstly there is The New York Ripper. This is a 1982 rip-off of Brian De Palma’s Dressed To Kill (itself a rip-off of Psycho) directed by Lucio Fulci. I love Fulci and his lurid, OTT directorial style, but there’s a gloating misogyny to The New York Ripper that stops it from being entertaining on any level. Poor show, Lucio.

Secondly there is I Spit On Your Grave (1978) which occupies a uniquely ambiguous place in cinema ethics. Shoddily made and with only one good performance (Camille Keaton – Buster Keaton’s grand-niece fact fans), the film concerns itself for half of its length with the brutal violation of a New York woman holidaying alone in the country. The second half of the film deals with the woman’s (supposedly redemptive) murderous revenge. There is a school of thought that this is a film of feminist empowerment, one backed up by the film’s opportunist alternative title Day Of The Woman. Personally I think that if the director had intended that he wouldn’t have spent quite so much time depicting the defilement. Bloody hell, it makes Michael Winner’s Death Wish look like the moral equivalent of Crime And Punishment, but hey that’s just my opinion.

And now we have the Human Centipede (First Sequence). Technical virtuosity aside (and it does look pretty authentic) there’s nothing good here. There’s no moral debate. There’s no character identification. There’s not even the feeble justification of a developing narrative. There’s the idea, and that’s all.

Add to that the fact that the victims are two attractive young American women (segments two and three of the centipede) and a male Japanese tourist (segment one) and you have a grim, leering confirmation of every suspicion of Europe that the grunting, idiot makers of the Hostel films harbour in their minuscule minds.

There’s another film coming apparently, alluded to in the subtitle of this one. The sequel The Human Centipede II – The Full Sequence will have a twelve-person centipede (still nowhere near a hundred legs I can’t help noticing) and is currently filming in London. It opens in 2011.

How are you going to shock us this time Mr. Six? I’ve got an idea. The Human Centi-paedophile. You can have it for free.

Just a bit of fun eh? Does no harm.

Right.

***

As a postscript, my bad idea that Kay said to shut up about. It’s not gross or anything. It’s just, you know, unacceptable.

There’s still one percent of my brain that reckons it’s worth exploring.

Maybe I’ll blog about it after all…

2 comments on “The Human Centipede: Good or Not Good? Not Good

  1. Ha ha, got to comment on this, John. I am glad you called Pretty Woman an obvious atrocity. I can still remember going to see it with friends who thought it was good while I felt sick. Also I see you can spell minuscule, not many people get that right. I think you might have taught me something there. Good to see you on form again and I did enjoy the short story too.

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