Did I detect a bit of subtext at work in Tom Six’s creep-out THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE? Could the movie actually be about how the shallow, impersonal connections we make with others cause us to lose our humanity? I believe so, and that’s more than I expected from a movie about a guy obsessed with sewing people together mouth-to-anus to form a living chain of horror.
THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE is also a strong revival of the long-dead “mad scientist” sub-genre of horror (something the upcoming SPLICE is looking to keep alive). We get a regular stream of vampires and slashers on a monthly basis, but we’ve gone without a good mad scientist for too long now. I didn’t even know I missed the dusty old trope until I saw Dieter Laser as Dr .Heiter, getting sexual satisfaction from administering shots or outlining the specifics of his experiment to his captive victims with blackly comic arrogance.
The set-up — a car breaks down in the middle of nowhere, two American girls wander in the rain before finding help at a creepy German’s house — is intentionally hokey, playing on audience expectations. We’ve seen this story before right? Of course, the crazy German guy will try to kill them. Wrong. He wants them very much alive; he just doesn’t want them to stay human. He needs a new pet — a human centipede.
I was afraid that the concept would be the whole movie, with no thoughts toward suspense or characters, and an over-reliance on gross-outs and gore. First of all, the film is conceptually troubling, but not particularly gorier than most studio horror films. The audience’s tolerance for watching human suffering is challenged, but not your stomach (unless you have a really weak stomach, but, then, you probably wouldn’t be looking up HUMAN CENTIPEDE reviews on a site called Horror’s Not Dead if you did). I was also surprised at how suspenseful the film actually is. You keep waiting on the edge of your seat for a grand escape or a hero to come in and rescue the sufferers from their surgical fate as things get progressively worse. You start to get the feeling that there probably won’t be a happy ending.
The biggest, most pleasant surprise of all was the characterization. While the two Americans, Ashely Williams and Ashlynn Yennie, are vapid bombshells (again, this may be intentional, playing on what’s expected from a stock horror “final girl”), Laser is amazing as Dr. Heiter. He’s a weird skeletal reptile of a man, preening and pathological. He hates people, but loves animals (to the degree that he sewed three dogs together into his “sweet three-dog”). Take note of the way he acts to the girls when they’re simply human, and the tenderness he shows them once they exist, not as individuals, but as one beast.
At the head of the centipede is Akihiro Kitamura, a resolutely defiant hero in a no-win situation. I don’t know if it was his Japanese-only dialogue that sold me, but I thought he did a stand-out job as well. Kitamura, by nature of the experiment, gets the most interaction with Laser, and I think their master/slave relationship is fascinating. It was more than I could’ve hoped for from a film that seems to be talked about like it’s all-gimmick, no substance.
I don’t think the subtext I spit-balled about earlier was Six’s explicit intent. The idea sprang from a joking form of punishment that he’d come up with, then snowballed into the feature film. For such a thin idea, he gets a lot out of it, especially since he never quite goes all the way with the inherent yuck factor. But, there’s something interesting about the loss of identity that everyone suffers at the hands of Heiter, far scarier than touching lip-to-butt in a Satanic conga line. The greatest horror that THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE has to offer is the fear of being trapped in your own body as a non-human, without a means of escape. That, and Dieter Laser.