Regular Cinematical readers will remember that I've famously said I can never watch Ruggero Deodato's Cannibal Holocaust thanks to violence it commits against animals, but I have definitely seen my share of gross, weird, and deeply disturbing movies. Until recently, the most f*cked up thing I've ever watched is probably Jorg Buttgereit's 1987 film Nekromantik, which climaxes – literally – with a guy stabbing himself to death as he ejaculates blood. But Sunday's offerings at Screamfest offered a new contender in this dubious competition to show audiences the depths of human depravity: specifically, The Human Centipede is precisely the kind of cult sensation that earns immortality on the merits of its gobsmacking levels of gore, despite the fact that all in all it's really not a very good film.
Dieter Laser stars as Dr. Heiter, a reclusive German surgeon who specializes in separating conjoined twins. Pining for the loss of his beloved 3-dog – in fact, rottweilers that he surgically attached end-to-end – Heiter recruits a series of unwitting victims, including a trucker, two American tourists (Ashley C. Williams and Ashlynn Yennie), and a Japanese playboy (Akihiro Kitamura), for his latest experiment. But when his victims give him more trouble than he expects – including unwanted attention from the authorities - Dr. Heiter is forced to decide whether to abandon his latest project, or protect it from the outside world – with their and his very lives, if necessary.
A colleague who saw the film with me pointed out that there's a moment in almost every horror movie where the audience is forced to decide how far they're willing to go to buy into the filmmaker's story. Despite its otherwise creepily unconventional ideas, that moment in The Human Centipede is virtually identical to ones in slasher and monster movies of the past: Lindsay (Williams) frees herself and gets a chance to make a break for it, but turns back for her friend, whom she may or may not be able to save. While I won't tell you what happens, suffice it to say that one decision will lead to another plot point, while the other will effectively end the movie; regardless, it's disappointing to see a storyteller who loads his film with so many other odd ideas have the fate of the narrative hang on such a conventional quandary.
That said, nothing else writer-director Tom Six he really does is executed in an altogether inventive way; the American tourists are immediately unlikeable, superficial idiots, while Heiter is permanently unhinged in a way that's more hilarious than harrowing. But then again, this is the kind of movie that you watch primarily because you wonder how messed up is the mind of the person who made it; truthfully, I could devote paragraph after paragraph to analyzing and hypothesizing why Heiter would want to perform such a bizarre kind of surgery, but what's probably more important to potential viewers is the simple fact that he does it at all, inspiring them to run towards or frantically away from a film in which he sews three people together, ass-to-mouth.
Admittedly, Six creates a palpable atmosphere of discomfort and unease, and maintains it even when the actors indulge in a little bit of scenery-chewing. And thankfully, though he offers more than a few unnervingly gross images, the film isn't quite the grand guignol spectacle one might expect or hope for, even though its ideas are documented with enough suggestiveness to trigger your gag reflex. But notwithstanding Heiter's reasons for surgically attaching three people together, the question that remains for Six is what's the overall point of the movie? Other than to simply provoke reactions of horror and revulsion from audiences? Given the film's narrow scope, dearth of deeper explanation and emphasis on humiliation rather than dehumanization, it's hard to imagine one exists.
Then again, maybe all of that ambiguity is itself the point, and I'm just missing the forest for the trees – or perhaps more accurately, mistaking the film's acts of violence for the resonance of their impact. (As I'm wrapping up this review, I'm reading Devin Faraci's expert analysis of the film over at Chud and wishing I could have seen the same things he did.) This is the kind of movie where intent and effect may or may not have anything to do with one another, which itself will no doubt inspire debate among fans and detractors. Whichever camp you fall into, however, The Human Centipede is a gross, weird, messed up movie; it's up to you to take that as a compliment or a criticism, but all I can say is that for better or for worse, almost any tale told after surviving a screening of this film will fail to do its depravity adequate justice.