The greatest joke that writer-director Tom Six perpetrated with the first Human Centipede was in making a movie that, distractingly disgusting premise notwithstanding, was actually pretty good. A number of critics mined subtext in the tale of a mad German surgeon who surgically joins a man and two women ass to mouth with a uniting digestive track, thus creating a "human centipede," but I never believed that Six was particularly interested in exploring or satirizing Nazi heritage or anything else really. It's a shock film, and it works so well precisely because there isn't much subtext to be found. The Human Centipede (First Sequence) has the irrational absurdity of a grandly awful nightmare. That said, the film, perhaps partially by accident, works as a sly refute to the horror movie's current preoccupation with torture as a desperate means to getting under an audience's skin. Six, knowing that he's got the audience, to quote Sam Fuller, "by the balls" with his concept alone, otherwise shows restraint, and in the process displays an empathy with his victims that shames pictures such as Hostel or Saw. Six allows you to grasp the terribleness of the victims' predicament—the constraint, the embarrassment, the terror, the pain, the debasement—with a few telling details. The scars made from the surgical incisions along the female victims' jaw lines, for instance, so that their mouths are fully conjoined with the rear of the person in front of them, is the sort of quiet detail that's worth a thousand gory money shots.
The Human Centipede 2 [Full Sequence] displays a gross, pun quite intended, misunderstanding of why the first film works. Six has made a sequel that revels in the kind of desperation that he avoided in the first film, and that desperation metastasizes into a kind of audience contempt; this could be the horror genre's Stardust Memories. In that film, Woody Allen, on one of his egotistical Bergman bents, repeatedly chastised his audience for enjoying his early comedies—which by and large were, and remain, far greater than his Bergman "homage." In Human Centipede 2, Six would seem to resent that the first film was actually taken somewhat seriously by some, and so he's crafted a meta-sequel in which a deranged fan watches The Human Centipede over and over until eventually blowing a fuse and staging a copycat murder spree in a bid to top the film with his own 12-person centipede.
This is the kind of sequel that's so awful it inspires one to retroactively audit their response to the film that preceded it. Everything about this movie is stiflingly off: It's claustrophobic, relentless, gross, and ultimately dull. Six has over-interpreted his material this time, fashioning a clichéd Freudian scenario in which the killer is a small, obese, balding British man in his 40s who still lives with his mother in cramped quarters, with the requisite obnoxious neighbor blaring music overhead. This gent, called Martin (Laurence R. Harvey), works as a security guard for a nearby parking lot, where he picks off people more or less at random for his blossoming centipede. His methods, which the film's marketing dubbed "100 percent medically inaccurate" act in determinedly brute contrast to the exacting approach favored by the first film's evil doctor. Martin clubs his prey on the head with a crow bar, sometimes shoots them in the foot with a pistol I couldn't quite identify, and drags them off to a nearby warehouse that will serve as his makeshift lab. All the while, Martin's mother keeps pestering him, preparing us for the inevitable slaughter.
If the first film was meant to subtly refute what David Edelstein famously labeled "torture porn," then the sequel would partially appear to be a parody of laboriously symbolic European art films, but Six's sense of humor is so primitive you can't quite separate the intentional from the unintentional. Six's primary influence, however, would surprisingly appear to be Eraserhead (and he mentions it in the Blu-ray's supplemental material), but Six is only superficially capable of recreating that brilliant film's atmosphere. Rip-off artists tend, oddly, to miss the one element that distinguishes their source of admiration from the pretenders (consider, as another example, all of those tedious QT-flavored crime films that cropped up in the 1990s), and Six misses that Eraserhead, while grimy, anxious, and terrifying, is also quite lovely. That film, despite its stylized setting, was David Lynch's first exploration of the traps and comforts of American middle-class life. Six skillfully recreates that film's unsettlingly stark, grainy cinematography, but only in the service of ladling on the increasingly ridiculous atrocities: Martin shitting the bed, his mother trying to kill him his sleep, his shrink implicatively molesting him, etc.
The Martin character is most emblematic of the paucity of imagination on display, as well as of a tonal schizophrenia that seems to be born of a sensibility that will entertain any idea for a momentary shock. Six clearly views the character with revulsion, often shooting him with fish-angle lenses that accentuate his egg head, bulging eyes, and considerable girth (one certainly can't accuse the actor who plays him of vanity), but he's also the only character we're given with which to identify, and occasionally we're meant to sympathize with him when it's convenient for the filmmaker. The victims who make up the centipede here, with one exception I won't reveal, are pointedly anonymous; we aren't even provided names, and they're often introduced in contexts that would seem to imply that Six feels they deserve what Martin does to them. In fact, there's a glee to the carnage here that's far more disgusting than the showboating money shots.
Human Centipede 2 is technically well-made, and there's one image that suggests that the first film wasn't a total accident: a positioning of all the victims lying on the floor awaiting Martin's operation that conjures a primal dread of violation that the first film managed to sustain throughout its running time. But this is still an indefensible misfire—90 minutes of a smug filmmaker cackling, "Eat shit."
IMAGE / SOUND:
The film, spiritually rancid though it may be, is visually accomplished, which is quite evident in this terrific transfer. The gorgeous black-and-white cinematography, which was converted from color in post-production, has a creamy, expressionistic tactility that occasionally helps one get through what's actually happening on screen, and the graininess of the image has been preserved without it looking too digitally doctored. The sound also dazzles with an intricate and exact mix that allows one to blow the roof of the house with the medley of screams, gunshots, and bludgeoning, if they so desire.
Writer-director Tom Six and star Laurence R. Harvey claim to be drinking at the opening of their audio commentary, and the chummy, low-key tone could certainly testify to that. Six shares various anecdotes about his motivation for not continuing the first film's story (a good instinct), as well as his desire to make a sequel that was the exact aesthetic opposite of its precursor—hence the black-and-white cinematography and decidedly different kind of villain. Harvey, who doesn't speak in the film aside from a few guttural moans, is charming and good-humored. The interview with Six essentially covers the same material, but the "Set Tour of the Warehouse" feaurette gives one a succinct, informative behind-the-scenes glimpse of shooting the film. There are also features on editing the Foley effects, the creation of the poster art, and the usual teasers and trailers. One very expendable deleted scene is also included. Overall, this is a relatively informative, occasionally unusual assemblage of supplemental features.
Tom Six's smug gross-out gets a considerably better Blu-ray than it deserves.