The human centipede

There are many types of bad movies, but a special place in movie hell must be reserved for those which serve up shlock as a substitute for substance. Now, I admit that many people would not have high hopes to begin with for a film called “The Human Centipede” but please. Bear with me.

Horror films are extremely popular in contemporary America and yet those enjoying the most box-office success would be better described as revulsion films; the so-called torture-porn or “goreno” movement, which comprises the films of Eli Roth and Neil Marshall (among others) as well as the “Saw” franchise, have raked in more money than Goldman Sachs over the past decade and their popularity continues to grow. What defines these films is a focus on the spectacle of degradation, most of the time to the exclusion of almost everything else, including arguably vital things like plot, dialogue and character development. Characters in these films are almost universally flimsy and two-dimensional, more dime-a-dozen stereotypes than actual characters about whom the audience can be bothered to care.

But that’s part of the point: we don’t want to care that much, because the purpose of the film is that watching those characters getting tortured is oddly titillating. There’s nothing introspective or even interesting in these films: the point is that they go somewhere that normal films don’t go, or at least they purport to. Unlike, say, the earlier films of David Cronenberg, another hallmark of the torture-porn movement is a lack of chutzpah when it really counts. Polanski once said that you can’t describe a man being executed without showing his head being cut off; it’s exactly this sort of ethos that the torture porn genre seems unable to muster. It’s all about scare tactics and the accoutrements of pain and evil: there’s always a greater focus on the instruments of torture than the havoc they actually wreak.

Having said all this, try to imagine the most knee-jerk setup possible for a film in this genre. Well, there’d be an evil doctor, of course—German, most likely. And why not have (yet) another film start off with naïve American coeds flouncing their way across Europe? Then a car breakdown, at night, in the rain—excellent.

This is exactly how “The Human Centipede,” directed by Tom Six, begins. First, we are introduced to Dr. Heiter (Dieter Laser, who looks like Christopher Walken after a bad facelift) who is clearly both German and evil, waiting to capture a live human subject on the side of the highway. Then we meet the protagonists, two harebrained American girls (Ashley Williams and Ashlynn Yennie) wearing too much makeup and not enough clothing. They try to drive to a nightclub, get lost, and suffer a flat tire. You have seen this part before. Eventually, the girls (and a third character, played by Akihiro Kitamura) end up becoming part of Dr. Heiter’s twisted fantasy: a human centipede, three people who get sutured together end-to-end. This is not a film for the faint of stomach.

Though the premise could be daring in different hands (old-school Argento?) “Centipede” wastes whatever potential it has as a concept because of its total lack of philosophical depth. We are supposed to think seriously about Dr. Heiter and his Nazi-like way of seeing humans as nothing more than pliant animals. We’re also meant to understand Kitamura’s character’s suicide as some sort of transformative moment, rather than just an easy way to eliminate a hollow character. That a sequel is already in production is hardly surprising since “Centipede” demonstrates that our current appetite for schlock and awe at the movies seems to have trumped any other aesthetic consideration.