Tom Six’s The Human Centipede (The First Sequence)

The Human Centipede is fascinating for refusing to wear its meaning on its sleeve.

Tom Six’s The Human Centipede (The First Sequence)
Photo: IFC Midnight

Two weeks away from its U.S. theatrical premiere, The Human Centipede (The First Sequence) is already being hailed a cult classic in the making. This is largely because of its imaginatively insane premise, which already has people questioning the mental stability of the film’s maker, Tom Six. From the film’s title to its press notes, no attempt has been made to keep the storyline a secret, but if you’re still oblivious to it, or you’re the type that cares for surprises, you may want to stop reading now or risk confusing the film’s setup for a bad bar joke: Two American girls on vacation see their car break down in the woods of bumblefuck Germany and, after enlisting the aide of a doctor who lives nearby, find themselves—along with a young man who only speaks Japanese—drugged, kidnapped, and fused together, mouth to anus, to form, yes, a human centipede.

Two weeks after seeing the movie, I find myself thinking about it at least once a day, and sometimes inexplicably—inexplicably because my memory of if isn’t always triggered by the thought of eating or defecating. Last week it was my legs tensing in the middle of a run; two days ago it was Hurley on Lost kissing Libby and remembering her from their alternate reality; today it was wondering what Luis Buñuel would have thought about it. Always my mind returns to poor Lindsay and how she’s given by Dr. Heiter the unfortunate middle position in his ghoulish human experiment, receiving through her mouth Katsuro’s excrement, which she will inevitably digest and release into her best friend’s mouth. And almost always I come around to thinking of my own fantasy human centipede: Hitler, maybe Fidel Castro, Perez Hilton most definitely as the middle segment. Am I nuts, or is this how Six intends the film to burrow itself into our imaginations?

Six has a way of framing a shot and moving his camera that’s immediately striking and unnerving, at once refined and slightly off-kilter, but after the film’s intense opening scene, when Lindsay (Ashley C. Williams) and Jenny (Ashlynn Yennie) set off for an out-of-the-way party and find themselves lost in the woods and subjected to the vulgar come-ons of a creepy passerby, you fear that the film will be some Hostel redux in which Americans are seen as poor, arrogant lambs led to slaughter by Europeans somehow entitled to their obscenely vengeful behaviors because, well, Americans suck. But once Six gets the girls inside Dr. Heiter’s ultra chic pad, what he offers is a more sophisticated study of unchecked aggression than Eli Roth is capable of.

Many will argue the point of the film, many will say that it simply has none, but The Human Centipede is fascinating for refusing to wear its meaning on its sleeve. Its images are frightening, but the implications of Heiter’s rage are more so. Heiter, played hilariously and scarily full tilt by the sharp-faced Dieter Laser, announces, more than once, his absolute repulsion for humanity, and his experiment—which he first tried out on his three, now deceased, pet Rottweilers—expresses just that. But why? For an answer, we may look at his walls, where the doctor, a genius revered for separating Siamese twins, hangs experimental paintings of conjoined fetuses.

A slave to routine, ritual, procedure, all that is clean, Heiter evinces that particular, obsessive-compulsive attitude often associated with Nazis. Six subtly asks us to imagine the man’s previous lifework, how his devotion to correcting a mistake of the human birth cycle must have warped his mind to the point where he has become so repulsed by what humans are capable of producing—shit, he might call it—that he moves on to a more sinister line of work, one in which he debases us by fusing our bodies together in such a way that we become defined completely, from head to toe, by what we ingest and expel from them. This is a nihilist vision (Katsuro’s final speech, like the film’s open ending, certainly supports this), but it is also one rife with intriguing moral inquiry: What other unforeseen horrors are we—not just an imaginative filmmaker, but man in general—capable of inflicting on humanity before we feel as if we’ve seen and experienced everything? And will life, then, feel no longer worth living?

Ed Gonzalez

Ed Gonzalez is the co-founder of Slant Magazine. His writing has also appeared in The Village Voice and The Los Angeles Times. He’s a member of the New York Film Critics Circle, the Critics Choice Association, and the Latino Entertainment Journalists Association.

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