Bad Taste: A ‘Human Centipede’ Retrospective
The following article contains descriptions of graphic scenes. Reader discretion is advised.
When reviewing The Human Centipede (First Sequence), critic Roger Ebert legendarily refused to assign a star rating to the film. “Is the movie good? Is it bad? Does it matter?”, Ebert said. “It is what it is and occupies a world where the stars don’t shine”. Such words have that defined the legacy of The Human Centipede. Or, at least, they did for a period of time.
In the 11 years since The Human Centipede (First Sequence) shocked the world with its concept of a sadistic doctor creating a grotesque creature by surgically attaching three unwilling participants mouth-to-anus, it’s faded into relative obscurity. That is, until tragedy struck. Actor Dieter Laser, who played the sadistic doctor in question, passed away on February 29, 2020, though this was not made public until April 9, 2020. His death prompted a deep sense of loss for a horror icon. It subsequently inspired me to explore not only the first film, but its lesser known sequels.
This article was originally intended to be a tribute to Laser. I was going to look at the first and third films, praise his contributions to them, and that was going to be that. But rewatching The Human Centipede series, I noticed a pattern completely independent of the fine work Laser brought to his roles. A pattern of increasingly juvenile tendencies, shock for shock’s sake, and all-around abhorrent content. A pattern of bad taste.
Last week, I wrote about Antichrist, and how that film is an example of provocation for art’s sake. The Human Centipede trilogy is the opposite of that. Its writer-director, Tom Six, is gleeful in his intent to cause offense and revulsion in his audience by any means possible. With a smug grin and a cowboy hat, the Dutch filmmaker shepherded possibly the most revolting series of all time.
It didn’t start off this way. When The Human Centipede (First Sequence) hit theaters in 2009, it was an instant cultural phenomenon because of its lurid concept. Every comment section known to man (and even a full-fledged South Park parody) were nervously giggling over the horrifying idea of forcibly being attached to somebody in the unspeakable way the film suggested. Here’s the thing, though- The Human Centipede (First Sequence) is a damn good horror movie.
Now, it’s not high art, and no one would suggest that, yet it has an uncanny way of getting under the skin. Dieter Laser creates an instantly iconic movie monster with his Doctor Josef Heiter, a cold, sick man who wants nothing more than to experiment with the human body. He has echoes of the Nazi doctor Josef Mengele, and his simultaneously precise and crude stitching together of victims played by Ashlynn Yennie, Ashley C. Williams, and Akihiro Kitamura reminds of the body horror of 1980s David Cronenberg films.
Despite the procedures being detailed to a heavy degree, The Human Centipede (First Sequence) is light on gore or body fluids. It holds the audience at arms length, not indulging in the gross details, instead focusing on the fear of the situation and the attempts to escape from a demented man playing God. It’s a more well-made picture than it had any right to be, far from the trashy picture it had been painted as.
Unfortunately, Tom Six took the wrong lessons from this first film. Seeing the reactions, he interpreted as audiences wanted something more extreme, vile, gross. So he set out to make a film that would make the first film “look like My Little Pony“. Much to our detriment, he succeeded.
I don’t know if I’ve ever enjoyed a film less than I enjoyed The Human Centipede 2 (Full Sequence). The simple act of stating the film’s plot out loud causes the bile to rise in my throat. Full Sequence follows Martin (Laurence R. Harvey), a mentally challenged parking garage worker obsessed with his DVD of the first film. To fulfill his sexual desires, he decides to make a 12-person human centipede of his own.
The Human Centipede 2 (Full Sequence) aims to disgust, and succeeds. Its treatment of the main character is offensive, it’s openly cruel, and it seems to be on a mission to sink deeper and deeper to get the shocks it so desires. The one redeeming feature of this movie is Laurence R. Harvey’s performance, but even he is only working in the confines of a character that paints mentally challenged people in an extreme and dangerously negative light.
By the time Martin is stapling his 12 person creature together, bathed in a black-and-white (and brown) filter to obscure violence that would be too much to handle otherwise, I’m not afraid to admit that the film is quite scary, but not in the way the film intended. I feel that instead of being jostled by a good horror I’m instead looking at a snuff film, peering into a deeply disturbing world that I don’t want any part of.
In its last 10 minutes, the film veers into sexual violence and violence against children that simply makes it unacceptable. It sits in the same realm as Cannibal Holocaust, two movies that gain notoriety simply for exploding the boundaries of bad taste. That’s not a badge of honor, it’s the coward’s way out to making sure your movie gets remembered. It’s lazy. Maybe one day I’ll cover Cannibal Holocaust, but we still have one more Human Centipede film to get through.
In 2015, Tom Six set out to complete his “epic trilogy” with The Human Centipede 3 (Final Sequence). Featuring a 500 person centipede and a prison setting, this film is marginally better than the second for two reasons. First, it’s too silly to remotely shock. Second, it has Dieter Laser. As a prison warden who spouts off slurs and made the most obscene comments possible, he’s a comically despicable character, and he makes the film watchable.
His mousy assistant, played by the also returning Laurence R. Harvey, is similarly entertaining. The concept of the movie- about a failing prison whose sadistic warden uses the second movie as a blueprint for a punishment for the prisoners is decent as well. That’s not that bad of a concept for a movie. It works as a parody of the concept and the fandom, but The Human Centipede 3 (Final Sequence) goes for smugness, offensive dialogue, and cheap gore whenever it can.
The movie is full of lines that feel like they were written by the misanthropic kids that can be found in any high school lunch room. The script casually tosses out the word “r**e” (including characters chanting “death r**e” at one point) and uses sex and violence as a deeply unfunny punchline. If you want to parody the concept of your films, you have to rise above them or make some kind of an interesting comment. Final Sequence just sinks to the lowest common denominator. It’s tired, offensive in uninteresting, disposable ways, and just overall feels like something made for the edgelords in the seediest corners of the internet. Tom Six playing himself in the movie is just the cherry on top.
By the time Final Sequence gets to its main event, it’s too little too late. It’s not shocking, it’s just overblown and nasty. Final Sequence is the bloated shadow of a unique concept. For further proof, look at the taglines of these movies. The first film, like any good grindhouse flick, made the erroneous claim of it being “100% Medically Accurate”. The second film, which went for the gross and visceral, made the claim of “100% Medically Inaccurate”. The third film, reveling in its profane, juvenile “charm”, had the tagline “100% Politically Inaccurate”.
Maybe Tom Six could still be an interesting horror filmmaker. But for now, he’s tethered to the downfall of a series that should’ve been his calling card. It still is, but in the wrong ways. Six insists his films are meant to be watched as a “Complete Sequence”, back-to-back. Well, we need to a doctor to do surgery and separate the first film from those last two, because its legacy is irrevocably tied to a much lesser one. –James Preston Poole
The Human Centipede trilogy is, unfortunately, available on Digital HD and home video.