Girl Meets Context: Director Tom Six has good taste in some things. He cites Pier Paolo Pasolini, David Lynch, David Cronenberg and Takashi Miike as his cinematic idols. Six allegedly came up with the idea for The Human Centipede (First Sequence) by amalgamating some dirty child molesters jokes he once told with his own experiences as a director on the Dutch version of Big Brother. His film deals with a simple, stomach-churning premise: a mad surgeon kidnaps three victims and sews them together ass-to-mouth in order to bring his weird vision of a “human centipede” to life. Kristine and I had our shortest discussion ever about the film. What is there to say, really? Be forewarned, our discussion will include massive SPOILERS, so go watch the movie on Netflix Instant and come back!
Sean: I have a feeling this is going to be a short conversation.
Kristine: Sean, this movie is so stupid!
Kristine: At first I was relieved that it wasn’t as horrifying as I had feared, but then it made me mad.
Sean: Since the movie is obvs SO DUMB I think part of our job is to try to process the reception/response TO the movie.
Kristine: Ok, sure…
Sean: I am also curious to talk about the movie as pure spectacle, more than as a piece of cinema.
Kristine: Well, the latter comment is more interesting to me, because the movie feels less like a cinematic experience and more like watching some bizarre local reparatory theater performance. To wit, Katsuro’s weird emo speech about being a bad guy (“Are you God?”) and the SUPER DRAMATIC acting of Dieter Laser as Dr. Heiter. Like I texted you during the movie, I feel like Laser didn’t get the message that this is high camp and so he plays it totally straight, which of course makes it MORE camp.
Sean: Well, right – to quote from Susan Sontag’s “Notes on ‘Camp’”: “Pure Camp is always naïve. Camp which knows itself to be Camp (“camping”) is usually less satisfying.”
Sean: That’s the weird thing about this movie – I think Tom Six is a total huckster/snake-oil salesman who just made the movie to be a provocateur and, thus, the movie SHOULD be this hollow, lifeless artifact, BUT I actually think the movie IS camp, because somehow it’s weirdly earnest even as it if a piece of sideshow geek chickenhead-biting trash.
Kristine: Sure, I guess. It just seems so amateur hour. Making the setting Germany and the doctor into this weird Nazi with his perverse experiments and training in separating conjoined twins and his LEATHER DADDY RIDING BOOTS!? (I mean, THIS is the movie we should have the “aesthetics of Nazism” conversation about, not Re-Animator). This movie takes a lot of shortcuts in the place of actual storytelling. But my main complaint about the movie (other then the science being ALL WRONG! Couldn’t they have tried to make the experiment a tiny bit more convincing???) was that despite the short running time and the intrinsic shock value of the premise, I found it pretty boring.
Sean: Right. Well, two things in response. Firstly, you’re right that the movie is boring, and I think that’s because there is NO narrative. It is so inert from a story perspective. It is just the presentation of this spectacle and the camera is just obsessed with the spectacle of the centipede and that’s it, there’s nothing else to it. The only things “entertaining” about the movie are Deiter Laser’s performance as Dr. Heiter (which I kind of love) and the horror and shock of the centipede itself.
Sean: After the first shit-eating scene, you get over the shock of the premise pretty quickly and its like, there they are trundling about. They’re all just crying and moaning and loping around like Eeyore.
Kristine: Then I just felt frustrated at the characters for not killing him, slicing themselves apart, and getting the fuck out. The only other thing I found mildly compelling was when the three finally tried to start communicating with one another in the very latter part of the film.
Sean: In terms of Tom Six being a huckster, he’s done all this PR for the movie about how it is this allegory for WWII with the Germans and the Japanese and the Americans and blah blah blah and it is such utter HORSESHIT.
Kristine: Okay, Tom Six is full of it. The American/German/Japanese thing did occur to me when I was watching, but there is no way this is an allegory, that is a lie and just more laziness!!!! I did think it added a bit of tension that the person who couldn’t communicate (the only non-English speaker) was made the “head,” but other than that there is NO significant meaning to the ethnicity of the characters and Tom Six can’t tell me otherwise.
Kristine: I like Katsuro a lot, except for his weird student theatre speech and neck slicing. And it felt like some weirdly racial plot twist that he commits “hara-kiri” in the end.
Sean: So I am curious about how at the core of the public fascination/horror with this movie is…. the spectacle of shit-eating. I mean, that’s really the thing implied by the premise of the movie, right?
Kristine: Yes. What I like about the coprophagy scene is how Katsuro is as horrified to be shitting as Lindsay and Jenny are about eating the shit. And shit-eating obviously still inspires true horror in people, judging from the reaction to this film. But I am also like, really? Shit-eating? Salò did that in 1975!
Sean: True. I guess it took about 37 years for coprophagy to move from the arthouse cinema to the multiplex. It also makes a kind of sense that, in a post-Fear Factor universe, something like The Human Centipede would arise from the collective unconscious. It’s like, once you’ve watched co-eds chew on steer testicles on national television, where do you go next? Though significantly, no shit appears onscreen in this movie.
Kristine: I mean, this isn’t the first time that we’ve watched a movie that involved gross abject bodily discharge being forced into someone’s mouth. Remember all the gross-out bodily-fluid-in-Alison-Lohman’s-mouth gags in Drag Me to Hell?
Sean: Oh my god, yes. I mean, for as much as I roll my eyes NOW at Tom Six the snake-oil salesman, the “hook” of this movie IS a kind of twisted, grotesque genius. I was HORRIFIED when I first saw the preview/learned the premise of the movie…
Kristine: Me, too. But it doesn’t deliver. I know you are not interested in addressing how dumb the story of the movie is, but COME ON. How could Heiter think two people could survive on eating only shit? They couldn’t even drink water! And one of them would only get double-digested shit! Argh!
Sean: Kristine, but the poster says “100% Medically Accurate”!
Sean: So that means it is true, right?
Kristine: Mmm-hmm. Also they aren’t linked by their digestive track. They just have their mouth sewn to an asshole. So Dr. Heiter’s primitive child’s-drawing of the centipede is lies, because it depicts this long piece of intestine connecting all of the people together and that is not what he does in real life.
Sean: Okay, when you say the movie “doesn’t deliver,” what do you mean?
Kristine: It promises total horror and then induces eyeball-rolling. It’s as simple as that. You know how a big part of the horror of Martyrs is how it never lets up? You never get a moment of relief, especially in the third act? Well, in this movie, there are a lot of times when Six backs away from the horror to give us some comic relief, or some hope that the centipede will get away. Not to say that there is anything wrong with infusing some absurdity or humor in with your horror, but in this case I didn’t feel it was especially well done. And like you said, there was only one shit-eating scene and that IS the whole premise of the movie. I’m not saying I was hankering for more shit-eating, but it did feel like Six promised you this super-disgusting gore fest and then it’s like, “That was it?”
Sean: So you were never horrified even for a minute?
Kristine: I was squirmy when Dr. Heiter was describing the experiment to his captives, and also during the shit-eating scene. Oh, and I was upset when he takes them in the other room after swimming laps in the pool and beats them. But that’s about it. The rest of the time I was either bored or angry that the characters weren’t doing anything to get away.
Sean: Yeah. The characters behave so insipidly that you stop caring about them because they are such dumbasses. That’s part of the movie’s sadism, I think. It is constantly asking you to identify AGAINST the victims.
Kristine: I agree. Also how the girls aren’t at all likable when we first meet them.
Sean: YES. They are the dumbest EVER. Those two actresses are SO HORRIBLE also.
Kristine: Yep. I think it’s supposed to be a thing about how they only start acting tenderly to one another when they are in this horrible situation. But also a commentary about how Americans are perceived abroad, yes?
Sean: I guess but I totally resist the idea of this movie being “commentary” in any way at all. Like, we could talk about this movie’s relationship to body modification and the culture of plastic surgery, reality tv celebrities like The Real Housewives cast-members and people like Heidi Montag. But I refuse to have that conversation and grant this movie any ideological power. I see it as only a freakshow. But a campy and inane freakshow that is kind of charming just because of how much it is in bad taste and how pathetically it is trying to elicit a reaction. What about that old fat man who pulls up outside their car? The misogyny and grotesquerie of that old fat man is just… too much for words.
Kristine: I thought that old perv was pretty funny! So awful, but yes also a great example of the movie just trying to elicit a reaction.
Sean: I know, it is funny. Also hilarious: Dr. Heiter stroking the pictures of his dog.
Kristine: Yeah, I agree. I thought it was a cop-out that we never actually get to see the entire centipede sans bandages. We never actually see ass-to-mouth. So, I remember how much dread there was surrounding this movie when it came out, but I don’t remember the reaction of people who had seen it. Do some people believe it lived up to the hype or does everyone pretty much agree that Six is a snake-oil salesman?
Sean: My understanding is that it’s been very divisive in horror circles.
Kristine: Oh! Explain.
Sean: Horror fans either love it or hate it, it seems like. I don’t know. For instance, Bloody Disgusting gave it three out of five stars and said, in agreement with you, that “despite the concept’s gross out potential, director Tom Six plays the film more for sadistic laughs than vomit-inducing gore and what could have been a truly stomach churning experience seems somewhat underwhelming when all’s said and done.” But then a few of their individual writers but it on their “10 Best” lists for that year. Meanwhile, Fangoria blasted the movie, writing that it’s “one of the bigger shams to appear on the horror scene in recent years. This isn’t a movie, it’s a 93-minute stunt, one that takes a single idea that could have sufficed as the punchline for a 10-minute short and wraps it in a feature’s worth of ineffective genre tropes and clichés.”
Kristine: Even though I am personally annoyed by provocateurs, I do think they have a place in society. But I just don’t think the premise is even all that shocking! I mean, horrifying experiments, conjoined people, and shit-eating are all existing horrors. I just don’t think Six “went there” the way it was presented that he did.
Sean: But you were scared of it when it came out and forbade me to even see it!
Kristine: Agreed! This is one of those movies where the less you know, the more horrifying it is.
Sean: But you just said the premise is not scary and when all you knew was the premise you were scared.
Kristine: I’m sorry, I should have said the delivery of the premise was not scary. The premise is scary, but not as original as it first seems. And the way it was executed was not scary.
Sean: Right. I have to say that I think the ending is perfect for the movie. I applaud the ending.
Kristine: The ending is the best moment of true horror – that the one survivor is attached to two dead people, helpless, and most likely will die herself despite her tormentor being dead. That is a good horror movie ending. Tell me about the sequel.
Sean: The sequel is… it is utterly depraved. It is one of the most depraved and gruesome things I’ve ever seen, and I don’t mean that in a good way. It is black-hearted and flat and lifeless. It makes this movie seem like a sparkling piece of Dororthy Parker-esque wit and innovation.
Kristine: The only thing I know about the sequel is that I have seen picturess of that DISGUSTING fat man child.
Sean: He is the worst creature ever created.
Kristine: Worse than Linc from Hardware?
Sean: A MILLION TIMES WORSE THAN LINC.
Kristine: What does he do to his victims?
Sean: He sews like, 12 people together and it is so gross. He rapes the end person (a woman) in the ass with his cock wrapped in barbed wire.
Sean: He masturbates with sandpaper.
Kristine: Ha ha ha!
Sean: And he does a bunch of terrible things to a hugely pregnant woman about to give birth.
Kristine: Ugh. What is his motivation?
Sean: He is a fan of this movie, the one we just watched! Part 1 exists as a movie in the sequel. He lures one of the actresses from Part 1 (playing “herself”) to his warehouse and then sews her into the centipede.
Kristine: Ah. So, do you think Tom Six is brave in any way?
Sean: ”Brave”? That’s not the word I would use, no. Do you?
Kristine: No. But I do think he reopened an interesting question, about whether making movies about horrible things is a valid art form.
Sean: Right. I see that. I have to say I would be more impressed with him if he had made the first movie and then made some other original weirdo crap. The way he’s cashed in by turning this concept into a trilogy just seems so jaded and weird and gross.
Kristine: Even though HE didn’t explore it in a satisfying way, the existence of this movie did at least raise the issue of “what horrifies us the most” and why. And that’s a good question to consider. Also, to a lesser extent, the nature of evil.
Sean: I agree, and I would defend the first movie with my last breath for exactly that reason. I see the point-of-view of that Fangoria writer, and I know we’ve echoed some of those sentiments here, but I wouldn’t and don’t condemn this movie. Is it just a tawdry sideshow stunt? Yes. But that’s kind of fun and it IS absurd and campy enough to bring some true cinematic pleasure. The sequel, on the other hand, is none of those things. It’s just loathsome. But the body horror/mad surgeon elements of this movie are effective, even if it is a turgid, tedious little movie at the end of the day.
Kristine: Exactly. Which is why I rate it: This is horror movie homework – essential to know but not fun to complete.
Sean: I concur. Voila!
The Girl’s Rating: This is horror movie homework – essential to know but not fun to complete.
The Freak’s Rating: This is horror movie homework – essential to know but not fun to complete.