Friday, June 11, 2010

The Human Centipede (First Sequence) : Dude, What Is Wrong With German People?

First, let me just get this out of the way: GLAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHGHHHHHH.


Lots and lots of movies get described as "extreme" or "disturbing" or "so profoundly upsetting you'll wish you could un-see it." Sometimes it's just hype, spurred on by reviewers whose sensibilities are maybe a little more conventional than they might have thought. Sometimes it isn't, and you get a truly unsettling experience. They aren't always where you'd think you'd find them. The worst, I think, is when the filmmaker's intent from go is to create something "extreme" for the sake of creating something "extreme", without anything else behind it. It's easy to know what's going to gross somebody out, and it's easy enough to arrange the mechanics of simulating that. Usually the movies that try hardest to shock and disturb fail the most spectacularly because of a paucity of imagination. Those filmmakers lack vision.

If there's one thing The Human Centipede (First Sequence) has in spades, it's vision.

The title is almost a thesis statement - everything you know is right there. There are humans, and they are going to somehow be formed into a centipede. This is not natural, and no good can come from this. The setup is equally minimalist. There is a doctor, and we are introduced to him as he is about to shoot someone. So we know he is not a good person. There are two young women vacationing in Germany, where the movie takes place, and they are not very bright, so we know they are going to be victims. The dialogue is sparse, and even amateurish at points, but it gets the point across. The girls soon get lost on their way to a party and blow out a tire in the middle of nowhere. There's a funny interlude as they attempt to solicit help from a passerby, but it's the last laugh to be had. Everything from here on out is just going to be neatly layered menace, wound tighter and tighter like a watchspring.

Inexorably, inevitably, the girls wind up at the doctor's sprawling house in the middle of the forest, closing the circuit: We have our evil doctor, we have our ditzy victims, and when he shuts and locks the door to his house behind them, pocketing the key, we know nothing that happens next will be any good. It's not deep characterization, we don't know any of these people as people, but there's something elegant about pieces being moved around a chessboard, too.

Like I said, simple, almost minimalistic. Once the doctor has his two victims restrained (along with the third from the introduction), he explains what he proposes to do. He was once an internationally acclaimed surgeon who specialized in the separation of conjoined twins. Now he wants to try the reverse: Joining three people together into a conjoined triplet, sharing a single gastric system. The logistics of this will cause the final assembly to resemble…a human centipede. Why does he want to do this? He's off his fucking rocker. Nothing more complex than that.

From here on out, it's pretty much a monolithic descent into madness, desperation, despair, and horror. The force of the premise is almost palpable: This is a thing that's going to happen, it's actually happening to you now, and there's nothing you can do about it. We all have fears, we're all afraid of getting lost, of being kidnapped, of being hurt, but what happens when something practically incomprehensible is not only presented as possible, but also as an approaching reality? Everything the three captives know about the world around them is brutally corrected and we feel the weight of that realization as they do.

What makes this movie effective is its palette. The doctor is all sharp lines and angles, laconic calm just holding volcanic rage in check. With sunglasses on, he barely looks human. He oozes insanity so effectively I had to look up the actor on IMDB to make sure he was an actor and not some lunatic the director pulled off the street. His house is a cool, smooth, white maze, decorated with abstractions of conjoined twins. The acting from the captives and other supporting roles is just off enough to lend the whole production a sense of awkwardness that I associate with old exploitation movies. If the colors were more washed out and the film grainier, this could be some gonzo take on David Cronenberg. There's almost no music, just occasional ambient swells, which puts the action front and center. There are no dramatic stings or crescendos to cue Something Bad, so the bad things just…happen, and you have to deal with it. The lack of music is especially effective at the end, drawing it out into something deeply chilling by preventing you from forgetting about what's happening, because even as the credits start to roll, you can still hear it happening. That the sounds coming from inside the house begin to intermingle with birdsong outside somehow makes it even worse.

Director Tom Six knew what he wanted to do: He wanted to make a movie about a crazy doctor attempting to reshape the human body just because he could. And that's exactly what he did. Considering the subject matter, it's actually much less graphic and disgusting than you might expect it to be (though it does get bloody toward the end), but what really makes the movie sink in like a film of oil that I can't wash off, going on eight hours since I watched it, is the singularity of vision. Everything in this movie is shaped and pointed to the central conceit, and there are no outs or easy victories for the protagonists. They are completely victimized by one man's madness, and we are watching it. In that sense, we're just as much Six's captives as the three people are captives of the doctor, and that stays with you for hours after you watch it.

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  1. This is the most lucid review of The Human Centipede I've read. Much like Tom Six, you're doing important work that would make most people sick :)

  2. I agree with the previous post; great review! I have been wanting to see this film since I heard it was being made. Now I really can't wait to see it.