Thursday, April 29, 2010


Monster-of-the-Week: This week’s honoree is a newcomer to the ranks of Monsterdom, the pitiable title character(s) of the new film The Human Centipede (First Sequence)

Here’s my review:

Flat tires are a huge pain in the ass in everyday life, but where would screenwriters be without them? In The Human Centipede (First Sequence) two young American women get lost on a country road in Germany while looking for a nightclub. Then they get a flat. They stumble through the woods until they find a house, knock on the door & ask to use the phone. Sure enough, they immediately find themselves in the clutches of a madman.

Sound the slightest bit familiar? No doubt. This is old-school mad scientist mischief, with a seriously sick-ass modern twist. Nothing I’m going to tell you about this ghastly sick joke of a movie, now available through Video On Demand & opening tomorrow in New York, qualifies as a “spoiler” if you watch the not-for-the-squeamish trailer. Still, you may wish to stop reading now if you want to go into the film unprepared. Or if you just had lunch.

It’s rather refreshing how Tom Six, the Dutch writer/director, doesn’t waste any time playing coy about whether the girls’ host is malevolent or not. Dr. Heiter (Dieter Laser), who looks like some unholy cross between Lance Henriksen & the late comedian Richard Jeni, makes no real effort to hide that he’s a furious sadist, seethingly short-tempered yet coldly unperturbed by the suffering of his victims. Dieter Laser’s performance is phenomenal; the most despicable movie mad scientist in at least half a century.

But what’s he up to? The Doc, unafflicated with false modesty, explains to the girls (Ashley C. Williams & Ashlynn Yennie) & another captive, a sturdy-looking young Japanese guy (Akihiro Kitamura), that he was once the top man at separating conjoined twins. But for a retirement project, he decided to go the other way, to create his very own “Siamese Triplet” with—brace yourself—a gastric tract running from mouth to anus to mouth to anus to mouth to anus.

One might timidly ask at this point exactly what the practical application for this human choo-choo would be. Nothing to speak of, apparently. The Doc’s just a tinkerer, a home hobbyist. He’s tried the experiment on his dogs already—we don’t see this, mercifully, but he admires the Polaroids, & there’s even a sign outside his house that translates as “My Sweet Three-Hound”—& now he’s ready for a human trial. His three young houseguests will fit the bill nicely.

So, after the obligatory ineffectual escape attempt by one of the victims, the Doc performs the operation. The three captives are left a pathetic tandem, crawling along painfully on all fours while the Doc, enraptured at his success—he kisses his own reflection in a mirror—spews further humiliating abuse at them.

In other words, The Human Centipede (First Sequence) is pretty effed-up. It’s about as effed-up as a movie can get, I think, &…well, & still get a fairly positive review from me. I’ll admit to some mixed feelings about it—at times it seems uncomfortably close to the “torture porn” genre of the Saw ilk, which I despise.

But it was redeemed from this, for me, by the grotesque surrealism of its central image, & by a ferocious, despairing compassion underlying the pitch-black humor. Despite the classic anti-sexual cautionary tropes of the early scenes, the movie’s sympathies seemed to me to be with the hapless victims--& by allegorical extension, with all of baffled, interconnected common humanity, rather than the tyrannical forces whose whims determine how we’ll be stitched together (I don’t mean to suggest, by the way, that this was a conscious allegory on Six’s part, only that the idea resonated that way for me, & gave the film validity). As absurd as the situation is, when the two conjoined women clutch hands for comfort I found it grimly touching.

The movie, which runs less than 90 minutes, is obviously not for all tastes, & even on its own terms it’s limited. Once Six has gotten us, about midpoint, to his big payoff moment—the Hieronymus Bosch horror of the result of the Doc’s surgery—there’s really nowhere else in particular for The Human Centipede to go. Gruesome, chaotic violence ensues, but the rest of the story is clearly padding to reach feature length, & it’s anticlimactic. This is true of many horror pictures, but in this case it’s more obvious than usual.

But I found it somehow oddly comforting to know that it was still possible for even a jaded old horror geek like me to be shocked by a movie—not just revolted or saddened by the gleeful depiction of brutality, but authentically & imaginatively shocked, by the macabre notions that float up from the darker depths of the human soul.

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