In its single-minded determination to prolong its audience’s agony, writer-director Tom Six’s The Human Centipede (First Sequence) is nothing short of an inspired bit of modern exploitation cinema. Six’s film, whose seemingly unbelievable word of mouth started after it screened at last year’s Fantastic Fest and won the Jury Prize for Best Horror Film, is thoroughly unnerving, breezily alternating between campy humor and a sustained tension that wallows in its own preposterousness.
An astonishingly gross cinematic chimera, Human Centipede is a Frankeinsteinian hybrid of Takashi Miike’s sense of humor, David Cronenberg’s skill at provocation, and a bit of Ilsa, She-Wolf of the S.S.‘s S&M fantasies too, just to keep you on your toes. Six is to be commended for making something this brutal and delightfully freakish stay as thoroughly disturbing for as long as it does. In his determination to throw his viewer for a loop for as long as possible and keep them straining against the film’s playfully drawn-out series of confrontations, Six has created something new, unsettlingly crude, and strangely arresting. And he did it all without the pretence of making a political statement. Eli who? Unlike Hostel, a film that likewise takes heavy cues from Miike’s films, Human Centipede is able to keep the viewer off-balance, from start to finish, a feat that not even Miike has ever really been able to accomplish.
A pair of American tourists, Lindsay (Ashley C. Williams) and Jenny (Ashlynn Yennie), travel to Germany, get lost on their way to a party, and stumble on the wrong kind of cabin in the woods. This is the secluded home of Dr. Heiter (Dieter Laser), a mad scientist whose questionable behavior is evinced to the viewer even before we’re even introduced to the girls. Pulled over on the side of a nondescript highway, Hieter makes tic-riddled, halting strides—recalling Udo Kier’s Dracula from Blood for Dracula—toward his first victim, a burly, unsuspecting trucker. Six introduces us to Hieter first so that when Lindsay and Jenny stumble upon his front door, we can only imagine what awaits them but not really know what to expect.
After we’ve seen Hieter abscond with and jerkily unload his first victim’s body, it’s hard to know just who Laser, if that is his real name, is mugging it up for. The audience is still unaware of what the punchline to the film’s gross joke is yet and his campy actions only seem to undercut the air of dread that quickly mounts. Therein lies the challenge Six lays down to his viewer: accept a scenario that perpetually escalates in its absurdity but never plays its body horror strictly for yuks.
I won’t tell you what the film’s title refers to or what Hieter has in store for the girls once he’s abducted them. But I will say that having his way with the girls isn’t the ultimate threat hanging over the tourists’ heads. In fact, it’s a promise that’s fulfilled before the film reaches its halfway point. “Game over,” Hieter growls just as things start to get really strange, a stinging putdown of the flaccid Saw series, whose smug first entry proudly concludes with that same declaration, and a sure sign that no matter what the viewer thinks will happen next, they have no idea what lengths Six will go to upset them.
There’s no opportunity to prolong an already tenuously unwieldy situation in Human Centipede that Six doesn’t fully exploit. As Hieter explains to his captive audience, there’s a particularly unpleasant feeling that comes with being in the middle of something, neither having the comfort of knowing that you’re near the beginning or the end of what’s about to happen. Just based on that paraphrase of tossed-off dialogue, which I’ve admittedly expanded on so as to avoid spoilers and to make my point, you can see that Six knows what he’s doing and that he’s not just trying the viewer’s patience without a clear idea of how to achieve his goal. Self-aware without being overbearing, Six does what Herschell Gordon-Lewis, the standard-bearer for self-conscious sleaze merchants, only dreamed of and gives the people what he knows they want: a queasy feeling that lasts for 90 solid minutes.