Relearning Disgust

Dutch filmmaker Tom Six dares his audience to squirm

High concept meets sustained graphic horror in Tom Six’s satirically challenged thriller, The Human Centipede (First Sequence). The film succeeds if only by the realistic treatment of its gross-out premise via the best mad-scientist performance in recent memory. Dieter Laser plays Dr. Heiter, a renowned surgeon whose expertise for separating Siamese twins has turned into an obsession with creating a “human centipede,” i.e., a chain of humans connected anus-to-mouth by carefully cut and stitched skin flaps.

Amateur performances by three newcomers—who signed on to parade around a chic German home on hands-and-knees—barely diminish Laser’s diabolically dead-eyed incarnation of pure evil. American best friends Jenny (Ashlynn Yennie) and Lindsay (Ashley C. Williams) get a flat tire in the rain while on vacation in Germany. The girls make the time-honored mistake of venturing into the dark woods to what turns out to be Heiter’s lab-equipped home. A couple of drugged glasses of water later and the clueless girls find themselves strapped to beds in a fluorescent-lit basement lab where a third “patient” also awaits. Blood-type problems mean that the good doctor has to go out to procure a replacement for his experiment—in this case a Japanese male named Katsuro (Akihiro Kitamura). Heiter’s diagramed explanation of his planned procedure, for the benefit of the doomed trio, is the stuff of a very witty nightmare. With Katsuro in the lead position, the girls are left to eat poo while desperately trying to escape from an intimate kind of hell from which there can be no painless getaway.

Although ripe for some amount of satirical thematic premise—perhaps about consumerist society or pollution, The Human Centipede falls short just where it should soar. But that still doesn’t mean it isn’t one of the most inventive and unsettling horror movies to come along since Lars von Trier’s Antichrist.

In interviews, Six has said that the concept for the film came from his idea for extreme criminal punishment, wherein someone guilty of a heinous crime would have their mouth stitched to the ass of a fat truck driver. If Six had followed through on his primary logic, he would probably have realized that both members of his involuntary food chain would have to be people guilty of some terrible offense, such as war crimes, for example. Nonetheless, there’s no mistaking a certain anti-Japanese and anti-American subtext to the proceedings. Six also smuggles in some not-so-subtle commentary about Nazi Germany’s proclivity for medical experiments under the infamous guidance Dr. Josef Mengele, the original Angel of Death.

It’s impossible to watch The Human Centipede and not contemplate the literal human food chain the filmmakers present. Once linked, the three victims are helpless to escape since they cannot separate from one another without professional medical assistance. Indeed, the mere visualization of Six’s bizarre “human centipede” is something the audience will be coerced into considering for days and weeks after witnessing it.

The filmmaker is working on a “full sequence” sequel that will feature a 12-person human centipede for all your dining pleasure. It could just be that Six is merely attempting to teach desensitized audiences how to be disgusted again. In that regard, he might be cinema’s latest and greatest success story.

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