“It’s a very sick film, we know that, we tried our best to give you everything you need.”
This was how, at the Film4 FrightFest 2009, Dutch writer-director (and avant-garde artist) Tom Six introduced the world premiere of The Human Centipede (First Sequence) to what was arguably its ideal viewers. This is a film that packs everything into the high concept clearly advertised in its title – and in case there is any doubt as to just what that title means, the film’s pantomime villain Dr Josef Heiter (a riveting Dieter Laser) will soon be giving his captive audience (us included) an illustrated lecture on precisely what is involved in surgically conjoining human subjects via skin grafts and an extended alimentary canal.
Six worked closely with a prominent Dutch surgeon to ensure that everything in the film is “100% medically accurate” too, so that, as he told FrightFesters in the post-screening Q&A, “If there’s a surgeon in the audience, they can do it at home.”
Everything else here is drawn from the realms of pure horror cliché. On their way to a party, two young American tourists in Germany (Ashley C Williams, Ashlynn Yennie) get a flat tyre ‘in the middle of nowhere’ (outside of their mobile phones’ signal range, naturally). Setting off on foot, they get lost – in a storm, in the woods, in the dark. Seeing a light ahead, they seek refuge in an isolated house, whose owner just happens to be Heiter, a retired specialist in Siamese twins with a penchant for Rottweilers, military boots and unnecessary operations. He spikes their water with Rohypnol, and sets about using the hapless pair, and a Japanese tourist (Akihiro Kitamura) that he has subsequently abducted, as involuntary guinea pigs in an insane surgical experiment.
In what follows, the three prisoners trapped in their human chain will play a desperate game of cat-and-mouse with their sadistic captor, hoping to reclaim a semblance of their human dignity – but it is hard to coordinate an escape, let alone move, when led by someone that you cannot understand and grafted to one another, mouth-to-anus.
And that’s just it. In outline The Human Centipede (First Sequence) may seem merely a grafting of conventional mad scientist motifs onto bog-standard survival routines, but the titular premise that scuttles all over the narrative brings with it a grotesque and sickening novelty to all these familiar, indeed pre-digested tropes.
Through his proxy Heiter, Six has concocted a villainous plot that proves abjectly bizarre even by the most repellent standards of body horror, and he just goes with it, right through to the bitter end. Like food sent through an artificially lengthened gastrointestinal system, the emerging horror is excrement of an unusually refined texture.
Surprisingly cool and clinical, and not particularly graphic, The Human Centipede (First Sequence) leaves much to the imagination – but with a conceit as truly horrific as this, the imagination is more than enough. This sickly surreal psycho-chiller, pitting an arrogant god against the most abject of insects, represents some sort of benchmark for films designed to push all the buttons of horror fans to the exclusion of practically everybody else.
If you are drawn by the title, Six truly does give you everything you need. If you think it is just sick shit, you can hardly claim that you were force-fed. And if you are left gagging for more (as opposed to just gagging), there is always the inevitable, unthinkable sequel, scheduled for release in 2011, which Six promises will be a ‘slasher movie’ involving a ‘full sequence’ of (count them) 15 people, and will apparently make the original seem “like Sesame Street.” You have been warned.
Anticipation: The title alone clinches it.
Enjoyment: Surreal meta-horror does exactly what it says on the tin.
In Retrospect: If you can keep it down, it leaves you with little to digest afterwards.