The man is pale and severe and gaunt, terribly gaunt. His crisp white lab coat hangs on him as though it has always been there. The stentorian cast of his aged features is impenetrable—he rarely smiles, and when he has cause to try the result is closer to a grimace. Everything about his existence—his house, his workspace, his actions—is clean, measured, precise. This stands in direct contrast to the horrible unnatural desires rumbling and churning just beneath the surface. The last couple of clauses, while applicable to the not-so-good Doctor Heiter, could also apply to Tom Six‘s The Human Centipede (First Sequence), the exceedingly odd film of which Heiter is the focus. All his life, Heiter (played with no small amount of scenery-chewing by the awesomely-named Dieter Laser) has cultivated a desire to craft the title creature, an organism of his own devising which consists of several people joined together via their digestive tracts (mouth to anus) in a sick sort of daisy-chain.
Why on earth, you might ask, would a fellow desire to realize such a nightmarish biological fantasy? Why indeed. Perfectly rational queries hang over the bulk of The Human Centipede: Why is Doctor Heiter doing this? Why has Six made this? Why am I watching this? Why are those damn girls so damn stupid even by horror-movie standards? Those “damn girls” are Lindsay (Ashley C. Williams) and Jenny (Ashlynn Yennie), two American-idiot tourists on a road trip through Europe who catch wind of a killer rave somewhere in Germany. They set out for it without bothering to firm up their directions, and soon their car is broken down on the side of the road and they’re wandering through the Bavarian woods at night. That’s not so stupid as this genre goes; what is stupid is when they get to Doctor Heiter’s house looking for help, watch as he acts increasingly unhinged and don’t think to simply turn tail and get gone instead of hanging out and swigging the doped-up water he serves them. (There’s also an Asian guy who turns up later. He lucks out into the “head” position.)
Yes, I know, horror film and willing suspension of disbelief and all that. That’s just it, though: suspension of disbelief has to be willing, and I didn’t buy the setup. I’d also say I didn’t buy the rest of the film, but that would imply that there was something to buy. It’s not as if Six isn’t trying. Whatever my qualms, the film is certainly far better made than its instantaneous notoriety would suggest; all the talk about the concept gives short shrift to the craft, which is considerable. Six has a good eye for composition and lighting: more than once, light sources converge to fill the screen with blinding white, suggesting a thematic preoccupation with the unseeable. The nature of the plot suggests quick-cut Grand-Guignol madness, awash in gore and low grungy lighting, so it’s unexpected and a bit refreshing to see a relative neophyte taking the opposite tack simply because he has the confidence and skill to pull it off. If nothing else, Six displays the chops to mark him as a fellow to watch—there’s even a smattering of splendidly elegant underwater photography.
Six knows how to craft the material, so it’s the material itself that’s the problem—as in, there isn’t any. The Human Centipede is constructed around a single idea and never developed much beyond that. If you’ve heard the hook, you’ve already seen the film: It’s the old grindhouse dodge again—sell the sizzle, not the steak—and while the idea of the centipede is certainly outré enough to support a memorable gross-out midnight movie, it can’t be expected to do all the heavy lifting. There needs to be something else, a genre construct to give the idea some definition beyond fleeting repulsive imagery. Six feints towards body-horror but aside from the central surgery sequence and a late-film infected wound, he doesn’t seem to have the heart for true ghastliness (the biggest surprise, given the film’s reputation, is how tame it is). Because it isn’t frightening in the slightest, nor is it all that gross, Six has to settle for off-kilter, slightly quizzical black comedy.
Once Doctor Heiter has his centipede, he doesn’t seem to know what to do with it. The same could be said of Six.
And early on, The Human Centipede is funny: the presentation of the centipede-making process, complete with overhead projector, is memorably dry, and I chuckled in appreciation at Laser’s hammy delivery of some of the Good Doctor’s dialogue (especially “You will make an excellent middle!”). By the film’s climax, when Heiter is maniacally licking blood off a staircase, one can see how this could work with a more balls-out approach, and almost even recommend it on the strength of its final, horrifying shot. But the calm composure with which Six directs is also applied to the pacing, so that the film seems to amble rather than charge ahead. This only gets worse after the joining: far too much of the post-surgery running time is eaten up by scenes of the centipede crawling along or just lying there. It wouldn’t have seemed possible that a film about three people joined together ass-to-mouth and the nutball German doctor who loves them could find time to be this dull. But The Human Centipede is too dependent on the mere absurdity of its central image, and Six’s conviction to the image’s inherent amusement.
So back to the why. The key moment is a scene where Doctor Heiter, overcome with emotion at the success of the surgery, kisses a mirror. There’s a sort of insular self-satisfaction at having crafted this particularly vile bomb under the bourgeois table that’s irksome. Maybe it’s because Six doesn’t seem to care about the why—there’s some throwaway exposition about Heiter’s past life as a gifted surgeon, Germany’s top specialist in separating Siamese twins, but that seems unimportant other than as a bit of nudge-nudge japing parallelism. Instead, his desire maybe be a literal expression of desire; Doctor Heiter, who it should be clear by now is wired differently than most folks, finds the idea something of a turn-on, an extreme form of BDSM/master-slave play.
The truth of Human Centipede is that for Six, it’s not terribly important why this thing is going to happen or why the doctor desires it so. That he should want it at all should be enough. Yet, taking this clinical stance towards the material has the odd effect of removing the centipede’s specific-ness as an act. It dehumanizes in the most damaging way—if the importance of the act is the act itself, it becomes merely an object, a fetish. And… well, let’s put it this way: Ever tried to masturbate to fetish material that isn’t in your sexual wheelhouse? You see now where the problem with The Human Centipede lies: It is, in essence, fetishism in horror-film guise, and because it’s an outlandish and grotesque fetish that likely nobody has, and there’s no attempt to translate it, the film gets swallowed up inside itself. What could be indelibly demented is instead wasted on empty provocation. Once Doctor Heiter has his centipede, he doesn’t seem to know what to do with it. The same could be said of Six.