“Don’t ever say you love film as much as I. I think we’ve found your limit.”
—Bill Hicks, Relentless
I’m pretty sure you have yourself to blame for The Human Centipede 2: Full Sequence. Whether you’ve seen the first movie or not, writer/director Tom Six has reached deep into our collective unconscious and pulled out a gooey, nasty answer to the question, “How far is too far?”
Let’s take a step back.
The original Human Centipede is not a gross movie. The premise is unnerving, but I’d single out maybe a minute-and-a-half of ninety as being more than a little “out-there”. People either stayed away from Six’s movie about a deranged surgeon who kidnaps three people and fuses them together, mouth-to-anus, in order to create a new life form—or they flocked to art-house theatres and the Internet to see what such a thing would look like.
I still have arguments with people who tell me how offended they are by the film’s over-the-top gross-outs—all of whom admit to never having watched it. When talking to fans of The Human Centipede, much of the conversation centers on how tame the movie is; indeed, how disappointingly tame. A director choosing to film a man shitting into a woman’s mouth can either go the Two Girls, One Cup route, or make a scatological My Dinner with Andre. Relative to the concept, and with minor exceptions, the first film is pure Louis Malle.
For his sequel, Six succeeds in blowing up mainstream cinema. Full Sequence is both smarter, more artsy, and far, far (far, far, far) more graphically obscene than its predecessor. The story follows a proud tradition of meta-horror films—such as Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, and, um, Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 —by making the reality of the first film into a fictitious work admired by characters in the sequel. We see the closing minutes of Part One, when poor Jenny (Ashlynn Yennie) finds herself stuck between two dead people, trying to scream for help in a sound-proof house in the middle of nowhere. The credits roll, and the camera pulls back to reveal the movie playing on a laptop belonging to a slovenly, British car-park attendant named Martin (Laurence R. Harvey).
Martin is a huge Human Centipede fan—literally and figuratively. Everything about him is fat, glistening and weird, from his bulging lizard eyes to the manner in which he fetishistically licks his chubby fingers before turning the pages in his secret Human Centipede scrapbook. Yes, he has a giant binder full of promotional artwork, magazine clippings, and his own notes on the film. The centerpiece is a collection of red-carpet-style photos of Yennie, looking happy and proud of her work. Almost instantly, we know Martin is more than just a bit unbalanced: spying a young couple arguing on his suite of surveillance-camera monitors, he heads into the garage with a crowbar and pistol and renders them unconscious.
Later, he rents part of a run-down warehouse, where he begins dumping his hapless customers. These include two party girls, his tattooed bully of an upstairs neighbor, and a very pregnant lady. Martin nabs twelve people in all, visiting their bound and moaning forms when he’s not either working or stopping by his apartment to take abuse from his elderly, bitter mother (Vivien Bridson). From their interactions, we learn that Martin is mentally challenged—which explains why he never speaks in the film, only uttering squeals of delight, frustration, or terror—and that he sent his father to prison by testifying in a sexual-abuse case. Mom blames him for breaking up the family, and passively plots a murder-suicide between cups of tea.
Much of The Human Centipede 2 is a character study of Martin, a man whose back story gradually comes into focus and evokes… sympathy isn’t the right word. Neither is empathy. But given his upbringing, limited acuity, and unsupervised obsession with a movie about extreme psycho-sexual domination, it’s not surprising to see him act out like he does. Remove the kidnapping and battery angle, and you have a bona fide Oscar contender.
Alas, we must contend with the kidnapping and battery—and the actual creation of the new human centipede, which doesn’t get under way until the last twenty minutes. Leading up to this is a brilliantly funny sequence in which Martin convinces Ashley Yennie’s agent that he works for Quentin Tarantino’s production company. The actress flies out to London for an audition and meets her “driver”, who takes her to “the set”. In playing a version of herself, Yennie amps up the Vacuous American Tourist routine she played so irritatingly well in Part One. It’s hard to imagine a twisted sitcom scene in the middle of a movie like this, but there it is. And it’s spectacular.
Yennie’s reward for having crappy management is to be placed at the head of the centipede—meaning she gets to keep her teeth and doesn’t have to inhale methane the way she’d pretended to in the role that made her a star. The other eleven aren’t so lucky. In the “meat and potatoes” portion of the film, the crowd-pleasing stretch, Martin rips out knee tendons and saws open butt cheeks in a shoddy re-creation of Dieter Laser’s techniques. The problem is that Martin is dealing with both real life anatomy and the ineptness of a car-park attendant—leaving him to abandon the skin-flaps-and-staples grafts in favor of dozens of rolls of duct tape.
The result is a sloppy, blood-splattered monstrosity that Martin is able to control for about five minutes—before one of his discarded subjects (the pregnant lady) surprises him and makes a break for the outside world. This leads to one of the most tasteless moments I’ve ever seen in a movie (hint: her escape scene really delivers); rather than getting offended, I marveled at Six’s twisted imagination, and his ability to one-up his bizarre gross-outs twice in as many minutes.
I’ll leave the rest for you to discover, if you dare. And I use the word “dare” in all seriousness. If you’re a passive moviegoer, there’s probably no reason to watch The Human Centipede 2. You’re likely right in assuming it will be the sickest, most unconscionable thing you’ve ever seen in your life—precisely because you don’t watch enough movies to know better.
But if you’re really into movies, why not watch this one? Yeah, I know there are thousands of other Important Films that “deserve your attention”, but I promise that most of them will not challenge your expectations and notions of what constitutes a solid film the way this one will. Tom Six isn’t just a cheap, freak-show huckster. He’s a genuine artist pushing the boundaries of taste while making great-looking, thought-provoking movies. Sure, there’s a strong sense of playing to the peanut gallery (HC2 is presented in black-and-white, but portions of the film are tinted during the human centipede’s first meal—a scene that is, thankfully, not presented in 3D), but, as I said before, you could chop thirty minutes off of this thing and have a critically acclaimed, Tom Hanks-produced weepy about overcoming adversity.
Hell, this isn’t even the most upsetting movie I’ve seen in the last couple years. That honor goes to August Underground, Fred Vogel’s “found footage” masterpiece that could easily pass for a genuine snuff film. Six, in his meta-narrative and fantastical imagery creates a filmic wall of safety around his movie that August Underground absolutely does not have. If anyone is up for the challenge—and to losing an itty-bitty piece of their soul—watch August Underground, followed by Human Centipede 2, and tell me how depraved you think Tom Six is then.
I know ninety-nine-point-nine percent of you won’t take me up on that. The point isn’t to offend anyone’s sensibilities, but to help put movies into a clearer perspective. Roger Ebert called Human Centipede 2 “artless”, and while I respect him as the king of all film critics, I have to wonder if he was mentally writing his review during the screening instead of paying attention. If your concern is not simply aesthetics but also coherent storytelling, interesting characters, and a grander message that seeps through the work itself, I would place this film far below movies like Contagion, Moneyball, and Drive in the list of “artless” movies.
But, hey, I’m just a guy who loves The Human Centipede 2.
[Originally published @ Kicking the Seat on 10/12/11.]