Why do we want to see movies like 'The Human Centipede 2'?
The first time that I heard about The Human Centipede (First Sequence), the notorious 2010 anatomical-nightmare horror movie, it was in the offices of EW, where a slightly freaked-out Clark Collis had just returned from a screening of it. I knew that Clark, like me, was an aficionado of all things cinematically dark and twisted, and I also knew that he tends to maintain a certain wisecracking-through-the-gallows sense of humor about this sort of thing. So when he said, “It’s the sickest movie I’ve ever seen,” and then, with nary a chuckle (very unusual for him), went on to describe it as if he was talking not about some dementedly over-the-top horror film but a gruesome traffic accident he’d just had the bad luck to witness, I knew a couple of things: 1) this was a movie I absolutely had to see; and 2) thanks to Clark’s vividly creeped-out invite/warning, I was actually a little scared when I tried to imagine what I was in for.
With that sort of expectation fevering up my cult-horror-fan brain, I made it to a screening of The Human Centipede a few weeks later, and I have to say: I was grossed out, I was luridly entertained — but on some level, I was almost relieved. Because with all due respect to Clark and his supreme good taste in supremely tasteless shock cinema, The Human Centipede (First Sequence), as grotesque a movie as it is, was not ultimately a film that pushed revulsion to the point of inhuman terror. Yes, it featured the outrageous, stomach-churning spectacle of a psychotic German surgeon, nestled in a bourgeois home in a woodland Berlin suburb, drugging several random innocents, strapping them to beds in his basement laboratory, and then surgically attaching them, mouth to anus, to form the title “creature.” Yes, it featured lots of shots of this wriggling three-person monster-mutant attempting to crawl around the house and find an escape.
But here’s the thing: The Human Centipede, for all the stitched-up bodily horror at its center, was an escape film. The Dutch writer-director Tom Six staged the movie as a piece of low-budget Grand Guignol suspense, and he was pretty damn shrewd in his use of camera angles, cross-cutting, and knowing how to turn that house into an airy, well-lit, yet dread-ridden Hitchcockian playground. He also pulled back, in his way, from the graphic awfulness of the movie’s premise, often using suggestion instead of explicit drippy gory detail. I didn’t think the movie was any harder to sit through than, say, Takashi Miike’s transcendently disturbing (and explicit) Audition. The Human Centipede may have centered on a sicko madman (wonderfully played by the veteran German actor/sunken-cheeked found object Dieter Laser), but it never quite gave you the scary feeling that the filmmaker was a madman.
The Human Centipede 2 (Full Sequence), on the other hand, does. Let’s be clear: I’m not saying that I think Tom Six has lost his mind. But what I am saying is that The Human Centipede 2 is much, much more icky and horrific and intense than the first film was. It goes further, and does it more explicitly, and does it without the relief of all that will the victims get away? well-crafted “thriller” paranoia. The new movie is terrifying in the can I really watch this? way that I’d been scared, wrongly, the first film would be. It’s the true, nauseating, shock-and-awe fulfillment of that film’s hideous promise.
The movie is an all-out snuff nightmare, shot in industrial black-and-white, without the benefit (or emotional comfort) of even a basic three-act plot. The plot is this: An ugly, obese drooler geek, who works as an attendant in an underground London parking garage, bonks a bunch of people on the head with a crowbar and drags them to a squalidly dirty warehouse, where he attaches them, mouth to anus, into a 10-person human centipede. And then what he does just gets worse. And worse. Laurence R. Harvey, who plays this monster, is another found object, and an even more credible one. He’s corpulent in a dwarfish, obscene-phone-caller way, with sweat-plastered hair and the dead, scowling fish eyes of a predatory bottom feeder.
In what sounds like it might be a bit of postmodern prankishness, Harvey’s psycho gets inspired by watching and studying the first Human Centipede, over and over, on his laptop. He even tricks that film’s lead actress, Ashlynn Yennie, into showing up at the warehouse for an “audition.” (That’s her, pictured at left, after she learns that there’s not going to be any audition.) But because he’s a copycat gore fiend, using a staple gun to attach one body part to another (and also bashing one goon’s teeth in with a hammer — just because he can!), he makes Dieter Laser’s surgeon in the first movie look like a reassuringly accomplished skin-stitching professional by comparison. At least that guy knew what he was doing! At this point, most of the violence in our movies looks way too professional anyway, and part of the horror of The Human Centipede 2 is that there’s an authentically rancid, amateur-hour grossness to it. You never know what the psycho is going to do next — he’s improvising each atrocity — and the result is that, at certain points, you may have to work hard to say to yourself, “It’s only a movie.”
This time, I went to the screening with a handful of EW colleagues (we now consider ourselves an unofficial post-traumatic Human Centipede 2 support group), and for a few scenes, they, like a number of other people in the room, did their best to snicker at the proceedings, probably hoping that the movie, like the first Human Centipede, would be a clever gothic slaughter comedy. A couple of the early scenes, in which Harvey’s geek sits around at home with his nagging mother and his Talmudically bearded therapist, have a bombed-out Eraserhead vibe that allows you to distance yourself from the insanity. Before long, though, the screening-room chortles died down, and you could almost feel the place enveloped by a hush of dread, an alternating current of curiosity and foreboding. I was one of the enveloped, but since I’m a critic, and watching things like this is my job, dammit, I also began, in the back of my mind, to ask myself a question: Why were we all here, subjecting ourselves to this? Was it a legitimate horror-movie experience…or merely a case of voyeurism pushed to some ungodly sadistic plucking-the-wings-off-flies extreme? Or was it both?
My own reaction was this: I was revulsed by what I was seeing…but I was fascinated by it too. Maybe even gripped. I was scared, quite literally, to see what was coming next…but not so terrified that I wanted to look away. And as I sat there, right in the middle of this queasy/ arresting snake-pit experience, I realized that The Human Centipede 2 was, if nothing else, a true nightmare. And so I had to acknowledge that it achieved what so many of the horror films of the past 30 years, with their bloodthirsty psycho killers and brutal dismemberments, have tried and mostly failed to do: to get under your skin. To not only frighten you but haunt you. To disturb your dreams. To show us what human beings are capable of imagining. And maybe even doing. The Human Centipede 2 sounds like the ultimate un-mainstream movie (even at the adventurous IFC Center in New York, where it opens today, it’s playing only at midnight), but the reason I’m even writing about this film, and you’re reading about it, is that the first Human Centipede had a cultural footprint much larger than its tiny theatrical release would suggest. The Internet spreads these movies and the chatter about them and the appetite for them, expanding cult taste into a global phenomenon. Right now, we can’t really know how many people see them, because the box-office tallies of video-on-demand are kept under wraps. But the safe bet is that a lot more people see these movies than you might at first guess.
The Human Centipede 2 has a “climax,” and it’s the scene I was thinking of when I wrote in my review that the movie “would have the Marquis de Sade gagging into his popcorn.” (I practically choked on my coffee this morning when I saw that line quoted in an ad in The New York Times.) I won’t describe the scene here, except to say that the most horrifying thing about it is Laurence R. Harvey’s giggle fit as it’s happening. It’s the film’s ultimate why are we watching this? moment, and it crosses every line of civilized entertainment. But it’s worth remembering that the same could be said — and, in fact, has been said — about every threshold-expanding horror film of the last 50 years. They said it about Psycho and Peeping Tom (both of which were released in 1960). They said it about The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) and I Spit on Your Grave (1978). At least two prominent movie critics I won’t embarrass by naming said it on TV about Blue Velvet (1986). And then, just when it looked as if we couldn’t be shocked or appalled any more than we already had been, a little movie played at Sundance that launched the category of “torture porn” — and sure enough, right on cue, they said it again about Saw (2004) and Hostel (2005). Somewhere in hell, the Marquis de Sade isn’t just gagging. He’s laughing. Because if The Human Centipede 2 demonstrates anything, it’s that there will always be a new threshold to horror, a new unspeakable on-screen atrocity that makes yesterday’s unspeakable on-screen atrocity look acceptable and maybe even quaint. It’s really the audience’s appetite that knows no limits. Are you scared yet?
So who out there saw The Human Centipede? Who plans on seeing The Human Centipede 2? And do you think it’s possible for a horror movie to go “too far”?
Follow Owen on Twitter: @OwenGleiberman
The Human Centipede (First Sequence)