Human Centipede, a review

I saw Human Centipede this past week at home on demand. I’d been looking forward to the film for many months after my roommate or brother (can’t remember which) informed me of the totally disgusting premise. The jist is that a crazy German surgeon captures three tourists and turns them into a “human centipede,” a crawling kneecap-less surgical creation that’s like a permanently, imposed rim-job-centric menage a trois. The middle position gets double-duty, with both her face sewed onto the (literal) asshole in front of her and her butt sewed onto the third person’s face. German doc’s goal is person at the front eats, poops into middle person’s mouth, who then poops into third person’s mouth, who then poops. Voila. Continuous gastric system. Human centipede.

It turns out that the movie is actually much more austere and respectable than you’d gather from the courageously gross scenario. Dieter Laser’s performance as Dr. Heiter is the standout freakish attraction. Icy and perverse, Laser does not portray Heiter as a campy bogeyman, but rather as a deeply sick man who hates humanity. Laser is more Joseph Mengele than Freddy Krueger.

Director Tom Six patiently tells his depraved tale with widely framed long takes, establishing the sterility of Heiter’s house (where all the nastiness goes down). Like Kubrick’s The Shining, his methodical compositions create a sense of violent inevitability. The more you expect Six’s camera to jerk around frantically, the more he holds back, and the more the film conveys Heiter’s ideal of carefully controlled chaos.

Six also refrains from the explicit gore you might expect to be custom-built into a movie like this. No Achilles tendon-slashing a la Hostel or head-on-a-stick a la Wolf Creek. The most cringe-inducing scene involves an improperly removed IV. The film is indeed restrained by modern gore standards. This is probably a good thing, ultimately. You can see where Human Centipede might have gone disastrously wrong when you watch another Euro-horror film like L’interieur, where the copious gore actually becomes a crutch, deflating the suspense more often than not.

Nevertheless, the problems with Human Centipede are obvious. The exposition is poorly written and acted which makes it hard to root for the protagonists when they become all-too-easy flies in Heiter’s web. And contrary to the Cronenberg comparisons, the film lacks subtext, except, the lame, culturally coded battle between the strong-willed Japanese victim and the German psycho. And since the story lacks booby traps or twists, the narrative lags. Devoid of strong subtext, plot, and character, what’s left is Tom Six’s elegant, thoughtful compositions and Laser’s captivating, genuinely scary performance. It’s not a lot, but it’s better than nothing. I suspect Human Centipede will surprise some people with the level of craft it demonstrates and probably disappoint many more who expect a torture porn adrenaline rush.

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