When I heard on Monday that the upcoming gross-out horror film The Human Centipede II (Full Sequence) had been banned in Britain, I confess that the news gave me a few goose pimples of nostalgia. Banned! Censored! Stamped with an X! Because it was just too nasty to be watched by civilized beings! The very notion that a feature-length motion picture could still be that shocking and grotesque — that it could show something so forbidden that it had to be, you know, forbidden — took me back to a previous era, when movies that smashed taboos could really generate some infamy, could seem almost outside the law. Of course, the way it works now, when horror junkies routinely seek out and gorge upon the most vile and extreme movies they can find, the announcement that the British Board of Film Classification had denied Human Centipede II an “18 certificate,” effectively squashing the right for it to be shown in any form in the UK, basically became a signal to those same horror junkies the world over. The signal said: Here, in case there was any doubt, is a movie you most definitely want to see.
The most infamous film ever banned in Britain was A Clockwork Orange (1971), and that happened because, at the time, it was literally perceived to be striking too close to home. The way that the expatriate Anglophile Stanley Kubrick directed his adaptation of Anthony Burgess’s 1962 novel, A Clockwork Orange is a very English movie, a kind of boarding-school delinquent’s snotty birth-of-punk nightmare, with “naughtiness” inflated into puckish sadism. Malcolm McDowell’s Alex was the sociopathic id who was begging, in essence, for a spanking, but many commentators looked at the brutal antics of Alex and his droogs and feared copy-cat crimes (which had begun to be reported). And so did Kubrick, who ultimately had the film pulled from distribution. The anxiety, of both critics and the filmmaker himself, inflated what should have been a simple issue of outrageous art — and the right to create and distribute it — into one of public safety.
And that, from what I can gather, is the key motivation behind the banning of The Human Centipede II. The few hardcore horror mavens who saw The Human Centipede (First Sequence), which was released last year without the foundations of society crumbling (hey, it was even parodied on South Park!), will recall that it was about a psychotic surgeon, living in placid anonymity in the German suburbs, who kidnaps two women for a sick “experiment” in which he surgically joins them (and another victim), mouth to rear end, to create the title monstrosity. The most entertaining thing in the movie — and, as I said in EW, in its gruesome depraved way it was entertaining (if that’s the right word) — was the performance of the veteran German actor Dieter Laser (above), who with his sunken cheeks and Nazi zombie rag-doll stare seemed to be starring in some Rainer Werner Fassbinder version of The Boris Karloff Story.
So why, after all that, the sudden uproar over Human Centipede II? Because the new movie goes so much further? I haven’t seen it yet (it’s set, right now, to be released in the U.S. sometime this summer), but from what I’ve been able to gather, the key incendiary element is that the sequel is actually about someone who becomes obsessed with a DVD copy of The Human Centipede and, inspired by the first film, attempts to replicate the mad surgeon’s body-part/insect handiwork. In other words, it’s Human Centipede gone Blair Witch: another psychosexual exploitation nightmare (made by the same filmmaker, Tom Six of the Netherlands), only this time served up with a framing device of “reality” that, in the eyes of the BBFC, could prove to be yet another invitation to copy-cat criminal horror.
Not that the board’s official rationalization is even that subtle. “There is little attempt to portray any of the victims in the film,” says the BBFC statement, “as anything other than objects to be brutalized, degraded and mutilated for the amusement and arousal of the central character, as well as for the pleasure of the audience.” Well! That may be true, but I would say that it’s also true of every slasher potboiler since the gore-gore glory days of Halloween and Friday the 13th. It’s also true of hundreds of other contemporary horror films, ones that aim to be art (like Takashi Miike’s Audition) or just to see how much damage can be inflicted on the human body with a circular saw.
Of course, what really renders the banning of The Human Centipede II an almost nostalgic act of stiff-upper-lip state control is that in the digital era, banning a movie is virtually impossible. One way or another, it’s going to bleed and leak across boundaries. If the Sex Pistols’ “God Save the Queen” could become the number-one single in England 34 years ago on the week it was banned, you’d better believe that The Human Centipede II, in the form of digital data, will find a myriad of ways to get into the hands of those who want to see it. So what the British cultural authorities have really done is to turn censorship into virtually the only thing it can be anymore in a free society: not a way of keeping people from seeing movies — but, in fact, the ultimate outré consumer guide.
What do you think of the banning of The Human Centipede II? Does it bother you when something like this happens in a free society like England (as opposed to, say, the regulated theocracy of Iran)? Do you agree with the ban, or do you think (like me) that no film, no matter how repulsive, should be subjected to state censorship? And does the banning of The Human Centipede II make you want to stay away from the movie? Or, just possibly, see it more?
Follow Owen on Twitter: @OwenGleiberman