Hard to Digest - Tom Six's THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE

PrintE-mail Written by Martin Unsworth

We’ve covered controversial and banned films in the past, and attitudes change towards them all the time. Just think of the old ‘video nasty’ panic – many of those movies are now available in the UK fully uncut. What’s more remarkable is the amount of once-censored and contentious films that have appeared on UK TV. Lucio Fulci’s Zombie Flesh Eaters, Tobe Hooper’s seminal The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and even the Snuff, the re-titled schlock film that purported to have killed someone on screen has made it to Film 4. January will see UK’s Horror Channel celebrate even more ground-breaking screenings with their latest season of extreme cinema.

Although the third instalment was (finally) released this year, following a protracted distribution wrangle, the first two films of The Human Centipede series are still regarded as a test of one’s mettle when it comes to gruelling cinema. We celebrated the release of the third film by talking to director Tom Six and series stars Dieter Laser and Laurence R. Harvey, but with First Sequence and Full Sequence appearing on UK TV this January (the latter for the very first time), we figured now was a good a time as any to stitch together the importance of Six’s films in respect of keeping transgressive filmmaking both alive and, indeed, accessible and surprisingly commercial.

When Six released the first Centipede film in 2009, the buzz of the trailer and the premise sent horror fans into overdrive. This was an idea so sick and twisted that it just had to be seen! The anticipation was palpable, with some vocal repulsion voiced even before the film hit the screens. Six, of course, revelled in the controversy, and the First Sequence became an instant cult hit.

Although essentially it’s a simple ‘mad scientist’ plot, the depiction of the suffering and humiliation of the three unfortunate victims, abducted by Doctor Josef Heiter (Laser) and subjected to his gross medical experiment transcended almost everything that had been seen in cinema before.

The style of the film is as equally disturbing as the subject and visuals. As writer and director, Tom Six wove an engaging and sickening story into something at once fascinating and utterly unsettling. The setup is similar to a standard horror film. Two American tourists - Lindsay (Ashley C. Williams) and Jenny (Ashlynn Yennie) – are stranded on a deserted German lane when their rented car gets a puncture. Finding an isolated house, they ask for help to get the mechanics out. Unfortunately, they’ve happened upon the house of the not-so-good Doctor Heiter, a former surgeon who specialised in separating Siamese twins. Drugged and bound, they would have been better off taking up the salacious offer from the sleazy German who pulled up beside their stricken car! Another victim is a burly trucker who is captured early in the film, and is literally caught with his pants down as he’s pays nature’s call. Unfortunately for him, he’s not a match for the two ladies, so is ‘put down’, to be replaced by another, Katsuro (Akihiro Kitamura).

Doctor Heiter’s passion - and the reason he has the three captives – is to create a three-person living organism, essentially a centipede, all sharing the same digestive tract. To do this, he snaps the ligaments in the knees of the three, so that they will never be able to stand, and only be on all fours. Then he meticulously stitches their mouths to the anus of the person in front. Katsuro gets to be the ‘head’ of the centipede; bearing the weight, and despite his best attempts, he can’t hold things in for long and loses control of his bowels, causing the natural response from middle section - Lindsay, who was given that position as she had attempted to escape - and making Heiter shriek with glee “Feed her! Feed her!

Heiter is actually a sensitive artist, as we discover when he cries with joy at his macabre creation. In fact, he still moans his earlier attempt, as we see at the start of the film when he sombrely looks at a photograph of a set of Rottweilers that had been stitched together. He is, of course, barking mad himself. His demeanour goes from reasoned to psychotic in the blink of an eye, and this is none more obvious when a pair of policemen come calling. He is almost provoking them to discover his secret; it’s a tense and fascinating sequence.

Which brings us to another quality of Tom Six’s film: it’s incredibly well made. No matter what one might think of the subject, it’s shot and executed in masterful fashion. We actually don’t have that much in the way of gore on show, really. Other than the depiction of the operation, in which teeth are removed and the buttocks of one of the victims are sliced open with two bloodied flaps revealed that will be stitched to the face of the unfortunate person behind and the odd bit of flesh wounds and the like, there’s no really graphic visceral horror.  That didn’t stop an outcry from ‘moral guardians’ and others when it was released, but that just cemented things in Tom Six’s head for the direction he wanted to go…

With all the controversy prompted by the first instalment, Six was certain that the sequel would have to be even more horrible, more outrageous, and definitely more offensive. He even made a funny teaser trailer saying as much when he introduced the new film’s star (albeit wearing a cardboard box on his head). In this short taster, Six is seen thinking to himself about how horrible people think he is, and that he must go further than anyone has ever done before. These words were actually spoken by the star of the film, unseen apart from the aforementioned boxed appearance, Laurence R. Harvey. “Too many people are saying it’s like My Little Pony” the voiceover says, before revealing the ‘sickest bastard ever’ in the shape of Harvey’s Martin.

Harvey had been a successful performance artist, and was actually a regular on UK Saturday morning children’s television at one point, but it was his casting as Martin Lomax, the constantly sweating and wheezing overweight antagonist of the second Centipede film that would catapult him to being a modern horror icon.
 

Perhaps what the most shocking aspect of the second film, Full Sequence, is the decision to make the story about a fan of the first film. Movies with a ‘meta’ aspect are not new, indeed the late Wes Craven’s Scream series made that almost a focal point. The characters knew that the films in the real world existed, and made constant reference to them. In the case of Martin, his point of reference is one film only: the first Human Centipede. He’s not so much a fan of the movie, as an obsessive. A troubled man, abused by his father as a child, and whose mother blames him for the parental figure leaving; he is completely absorbed by Six’s gory masterpiece. He watches it every day during his mundane job as a security guard in an underground parking lot. His scrapbook contains cuttings about the film and crude drawings of how he himself would create an even bigger centipede.

Naturally, not having the medical knowledge or indeed intelligence of Dr Heiter, Martin’s attempts at kidnap and surgery are crude to say the least. Although he is clever enough to pretend to be an agent for Quentin Tarantino in order to trick the first film’s original star Ashlynn Yennie to travel over and meet him in the hope of a big acting role. Unfortunately for her, her starring role will be take place in a grubby lock-up, as part of Martin’s makeshift centipede. Using gaffer tape, staples and a crowbar, he connects a series of victims - mostly people who have crossed him or disrespected him in some form - and gleefully enjoys the fruits of his labours. Until of course, they begin to fight back as a blow to the head as anaesthetic will only last so long.

This second movie would run into all kinds of problems with the BBFC. Originally, they banned it outright, even going so far as to post a spoiler-filled synopsis on their website with reasons why they couldn’t award a certificate. Six was livid, as were fans. We hadn’t really had a problem with censorship since the ‘bad old days’ of the video nasty. He eventually agreed to allow the film to be cut, and it’s this shortened version that exists in the UK now, unfortunately. Over two and a half minutes were cut, and although it in no way suffers - it’s still just as distressing and gruesome - it’s a shame that it can’t be enjoyed in its full gory glory.

And it is a fantastic film. Certainly not an easy movie to watch, but like First Sequence, it has a cinematic quality that makes it stunningly engaging. Whereas the first was impeccably filmed, the second has a true sense of sleaze and nastiness. By releasing it in black and white (a recent US box set actually includes a colour version for the first time), there’s a surreal quality to the events, which make the denouement all the more potent. It does take a very strong stomach and a rather warped sense of humour to fully appreciate it, though.

The third movie, Final Sequence, was released in 2015 after much wrangling with distributors. Again, it polarised audiences. Some saw the unique brilliance of Tom Six (it has even made it into the STARBURST Top 40 Films of the Year - see the last issue of STARBURST #420) while others dismissed it as offensive tosh. The correct answer to that dilemma is, of course, that it doesn’t matter who is right, as long as we have the right to choose to see it or not.

 


On the DVD release of the final film, there’s a brilliant unused climax that ties all the films together in a perfect circle, and it’s well worth checking out as it completes the series perfectly, even if it isn’t the ‘official’ ending.

If you haven’t seen the Human Centipede films and you have the stomach for them, give them a shot - but make sure you have an open mind.

THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE FIRST SEQUENCE and FULL SEQUENCE are screening in January on Horror Channel SKY 319, Virgin 149, Freeview 70 or Freeview 138.


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