Sunday, March 06, 2011

The Human Centipede (First Sequence) (Tom Six, 2009)

Toilet humor

Dutch filmmaker Tom Six's movie has been touted as "100% medically accurate" and as "the most disturbing film ever made." That's too much of a challenge for any cinephile to resist; for the record Six succeeds, more or less. 

The premise is so old-fashioned it's almost laughable: two ditzy American girls on a road trip across Europe. Their car breaks down in the middle of a German wood (And why not a German wood? Six must have chosen deliberately, for the Brothers Grimm connotation: remember that Hansel and Gretel were abandoned in a similar forest, and oh what horrors awaited them). The girls abandon the car, hike through the dark, and come upon the ultramodern residence of one Dr. Heiter (the improbably named Dieter Laser).

We met Heiter earlier, rifle in hand while he quietly stalked a truck driver squatting beside a tree (significantly, the driver has to defecate). One look at this tall silent cadaver with the hollowed-out cheeks and laser-beam glare and you know he's up to no good--but the girls only want to use a phone call a tow truck; they don't care about glares, laser-beam or otherwise, much to their misfortune.

Time to cut the coy act. Thanks to the internet, the accompanying buzz, and Six's cunning marketing campaign, we are all pretty much aware of what Heiter has in store for them: to be part of a Frankenstein inspired daisy-chain of three connected humans. Intervening teeth uprooted, alimentary canal stitched directly to gullet, skin grafts connecting cheek to cheek to cheek to cheek, and (the one detail that told me Six actually put some serious thought into this) ligaments in the kneecaps sliced, so the subjects are unable to straighten their legs and stand.

Behold! The Human Centipede: First Sequence.

Six builds on the sense of dread one feels having to sit and watch, all too aware of what's to come. Well, he tries to build; unfortunately he's too successful casting the two American ditzes--the girls' voices grate on one's ears, and drastically take away from the atmosphere of the opening sequences. The actresses fare much better when their characters are captured and drugged, their mouths stitched shut; forced to act exclusively through eyes and body language they become far more eloquent.

Six employs the David Cronenberg glide: a camera smoothly moving back and forth, side to side, creating a sense of menace and dread while gazing steadily upon the horrors presented (that's Cronenberg's stratagem, basically--stare straight at the creature and forget to blink). He leavens the proceedings with Takashi Miike-type humor--before surgery, for example, Heiter explains the procedure to his victims through a dead-serious slideshow involving the most hilariously cartoonish sketches (see sample above) I've ever seen (one girl stares, horrified--at what's in store for her, or at the unspeakably crude drawings?). 

A significant source of that humor is Laser himself--a veteran of both TV and film who has been acting since the '60s, Laser literally threw himself into the role, shaping the character, adding much of the details (he believed Heiter would regard the centipede as a pet, and would not be shy, for example, to swim naked before it) and creating much of the doctor's dialogue. Forget Jesse Franco, Javier Bardem, Jesse Eisenberg, Kurt Russell or Colin Firth, fine performances they may have given--this is the performance of the year, in my book, fully deserving of a Gold Doorstop as any.

Six's characters (a German doctor, two American tourists, a Japanese man) incarnate the main antagonists of World War 2, reportedly to suggest an allegory on fascism (interesting that no mention is made of the Dutch). But perhaps the movie's true source of inspiration and most likely ancestor (he even has the required M.D.) is even older: H.G. Wells' 1896 novel The Island of Dr. Moreau.

Like Heiter, Moreau is a megalomaniac; like Heiter, Moreau's work is a parody of The Book of Genesis--the creation, through pain and suffering, of a new life form. Unlike Heiter, Moreau works in the opposite direction, taking various animals and surgically shaping them to resemble man. Moreau's is the older goal--that of creating a likeness of our form and, by extension, of God's; Heiter, it seems, mostly wants a docile pet that will fetch his paper. If there's anything more here to motivate the man, it's possibly the pleasure of exercising a power not unlike God's, on a creature with abilities far below Man's.

Moreau's ambitions seem infinitely more perverse: to parody the evolution of man, and even of his society (the Beast Folk's Law being a kind of burlesque of the Ten Commandments). The horror comes from how close Moreau actually comes to succeeding in certain aspects while falling short in others--the Beast Folk's Law, for example, include recognizably human aspirations (to refrain from violence; to act properly; to believe they can be more than what they are), while still addressing the Folk's bestial nature (to walk upright not on all fours, to drink water without bending down).

By novel's end Wells achieves what all great science fiction writers aspire to achieve, a total inversion of the conventional point of view. The hero escapes to civilization, only to realize that he's just as uneasy there as he ever was with the Beast Folk; Moreau's eponymous island is less a location than an inescapable state of mind.

Six's movie is a startling original; he gives the picture a creeping intensity which is sustained for most of its ninety-minute running time, inviting comparison to other 'torture-porn' movies (unlike, say, Eli Roth, Six does more with less, evoking images of elaborate group sex gone horribly wrong, or twisted Nazi experiments gone horribly right). As an exercise in physically distorting the human form, I can't think of a more vivid recent example outside of Cronenberg himself (who in his recent work--A History of Violence (2005), and Eastern Promises (2007)--appears to have shifted towards a more inward, more psychological focus).

But it just doesn't hold a candle to Wells' disturbing classic--and, I'm guessing, to a film adaptation that can truly translate its horror to the screen. That hasn't quite happened--Erle C. Kenton came closest to capturing the atmosphere and dread, while Charles Laughton came closest to creating a memorable Moreau in the 1933 Island of Lost Souls. Gerardo De Leon did remarkably well with almost no money in the 1959 Terror is a Man (the laughably tiny budget meant De Leon could only present one creature), injecting just the faintest suggestion of compassion, even love, into the story (the less said about the 1977 and 1996 productions, the better). But a version that can balance modern-day explicitness with the novel's evocative power--that I think could surpass Six's movie.

First published in Businessworld, 2.24.11


Quentin Tarantado said...

Did you notice the title said "First Sequence"? Well, thanks to its success, Tom Six promises (threatens us?) with a sequel: Human Centipede (Full Sequence) which he promises will truly be the sickest movie of all time, this time.

Noel Vera said...

Yeah. Good luck--part of the movie's impact is the surprise of the idea. Don't know if it has the legs to go further. And I hope he doesn't go digital--it's persuasive because all the effects are on-camera effects.

DJ Twisted Sister said...

I wasn't all that shocked by this film or it's fecal implications. It's actually handled in sort of a very clinical way as opposed to torrents of blood gushing everywhere, which seems to be the uninterrupted standard of horror nowadays. It winds up being possibly the saddest horror film I think I've ever seen. At least that was the net effect for me. If they do go into a sequel, I hope they don't degenerate it to a "Saw" type franchise. That would be a shame because they do have unique material with this.

Noel Vera said...

Saddest horror film? I don't know, there's so many candidates. Whale's Frankenstein and beyond that Bride of Frankenstein comes to mind (yes it's horror comedy, but the best pathos thrives on high comedy). Rosemary's Baby nicely outlined Rosemary's growing isolation. Kisapmata has a sense of tragedy about it. I really think the very best horror has an element of sadness in it. Human Centipede has some, I can see that but I feel it's too cartoonish to achieve real tragedy.

Anonymous said...

Dear Mr. Six:

Be careful what you play with, very careful. Although just a movie, you seem to be somewhat elated, and you definitely used it as a marketing tool, that you helped "convince" a doctor to break his oath. Do you know that the most perverse and ruthless doctors in the Nazi regime, the ones that performed ghastly human experimentation, were recruited from the doctors who originally broke their oaths and performed mercy killings for the Third Reich in the early 1930's? Shame on this current doctor, shame. But remember, be careful what you play with, very careful.

Noel Vera said...

Nice imitation of a full-blown psychopath there...

Anonymous said...

Finally got to check this out last week. Some have commented that, the plot aside, this is a conventional horror movie. The reality, I believe, is whatever conventional aspects the movie has are only a buffer for the horrible idea/concept in the center of it all.

And this is the one movie where "Stuck in the Middle with You" would have resonated all the more, especially as the end song. Still, it's good that Tom Six did not go for conventional music. > Bert Write

Noel Vera said...

Could have been, but Dieter Laser is too much of an original presence. It does well, doesn't show too much. I wish Six had gone for something more Dr. Moreau-ish, tho. Sure, he's an influence, but...more Wells what ends well.