Director: Tom Six
Producers: Tom Six, Ilona Six
Writer: Tom Six
Starring: Dieter Laser, Akihiro Kitamura, Ashlynn Yennie, Ashley C. Williams
TRIGGER WARNING: THIS REVIEW MAKES MENTION OF THE HOLOCAUST (AND NAZI IDEOLOGY), BODY HORROR, AND TORTURE. IMAGES INCLUDE BLOOD. (As always, see this post’s tags for trigger warnings for the film itself.)
What is it about the American tourist that has inspired the grisliest in gore? From the ignominious boy-men of HOSTEL (2005) to the (at least mildly) well-meaning student activists of THE GREEN INFERNO (2013), doe-eyed Americans have a tendency to run into grave misfortune abroad (or Eli Roth has a bit of a complex). Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past seven years, I’m sure you’ve heard of THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE (the original installment is subtitled FIRST SEQUENCE; subsequent installments include FULL SEQUENCE  and FINAL SEQUENCE ) (2009). While the HOSTEL franchise remains my favorite incarnation of the travel nightmare, THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE wins most horrible in my book.
Lindsay (Ashley C. Williams) and Jenny (Ashlynn Yennie) find themselves in a millennial’s worst nightmare when, in search of Bunker, a nightclub where they are invited by young locals, their rental car breaks down and their phone calls for help fail—there’s no signal. (“There’s always a signal!” Jenny shrieks, panicked … but they’re not in New York anymore.) They initially decide to wait for a friendly passerby to help them (both are intimidated by the dark German woods surrounding them), but when the old man who drives up asks them to fuck each other rather than offering any sort of assistance, they quickly revise their plan. The two stumble into the first house they find and encounter the obviously sinister Dr. Josef (of course) Heiter (Dieter Laser), the man who will ruin their lives in the most brutal fashion imaginable.
Allow me to begin by saying that anyone with any reservations about gore will not enjoy this film. It is relentlessly disgusting, sickening to the nth degree—a textbook exploitation film which revels in its own filth. Naturally, body horror (including blood, gore, and graphic torture) are prominent represented, but paired with such comparably mundane features is the underlying Nazi ideology which fuels Dr. Heiter. The villain is renowned for his skill in separating Siamese twins, yet his desire is to conjoin people—paralleling, of course, Dr. Mengele’s sick fascinations which perverted even the rather chilling medical responsibilities he was given. Interestingly, Dr. Heiter is not solely motivated by scientific curiosity, like Dr. Frankenstein or Mr. Hyde; he also desires to keep the ‘human centipede’ as a kind of pet (or slave, more accurately), to perform such mundane tasks as delivering him his newspaper.
The definition of the abject—one of two basic psychoanalytic concepts that underlie all horror, the other being the uncanny—is a disruption of the distinction between self and other (according to Julia Kristeva’s widely-used model, presented in Powers of Horror ). Perhaps no other film presents such a vivid example of the self with all boundaries violated and, in fact, collapsed. Jenny, Lindsay, and another unfortunate tourist, Katsuro (Akihiro Kitamuro), are joined, mouth to anus, with one intestine running through all three bodies (which, post-operation, are, I suppose, one, but since separate eyes, noses, and—most disturbingly—minds remain, it’s difficult to accept this as a perfect conflation of three into one). The victims are robbed of the comforting boundary between self and other (or subject and object, in Lacanian terms)—as well as the boundary between human and animal and, as the film goes on, between life and death.
Eating is frequently used as a vehicle for presenting abjection to viewers in films (for instance, CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST , arguably one of the only exploitation flicks to rival this one purely in its ‘gross-out’ factor). In THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE, director and writer Tom Six pushes the envelope much further. One intestine: consider the centipede. What it eats travels through the length of its long, long body and is excreted. Well, if a centipede were to be constructed of three bodies, mouth to anus … you get the idea. Coprophagia (the ten-dollar word for “eating shit”) is not unprecedented in horror. Ingestion of the other, in his or her basest form, symbolizes quite a lot—at its most Freudian, the action is akin to a perversion of one’s origin: an infant breastfeeding.
Have I sufficiently grossed you out? Because, trust me, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. If you’re unaffected by gore, you may still be wincing: the medical paraphernalia; constant diegetic sound of moaning, whimpering, and sobbing; and gut-wrenching tension are enough to leave anyone screaming and running for the hills. While films of the New French Extremity (À L’INTÉRIEUR [INSIDE]  comes to mind) tend to be examples of excellence in exploitation, THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE (FIRST SEQUENCE) is nothing of the sort. Dr. Heiter is, for one, a total and complete caricature, not believable in the slightest—which effectively drains the film of any potential to be memorable for anything besides its shock value. He vaguely looks like an aging Mengele, has zero humanity, and often throws out laughably bad bits of dialogue, like when he yells at Jenny: “Eat it, bitch!” He is comically over-the-top where he should be eerily serious or quiet, whereas Jenny and Lindsay (described by producer Ilona Six ungenerously as “ditsy Americans”) are both memorable performances by their respective actresses, in spite of the filmmakers’ objectification and dismissal of them. (Katsuro, too—noticeably less denigrated by the filmmakers—is skillfully played.) Paired with the letdown that the ‘human centipede’ itself is—I, at least, expected it to be monstrous-cool, instead of sad-disgusting—the film largely fails. THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE may be a nightmare, but the Sixes so poorly execute it that it’s one that will likely fade in short order.
I screened THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE (FIRST SEQUENCE) on Netflix (instant stream), free with a subscription. You can also screen THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE for free on Hulu with a subscription, or rent it for $2.99 on YouTube or for $3.99 on iTunes. You can purchase THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE on DVD on the B&N Marketplace, new or used, starting at $3.24 on DVD and at $6.49 on Blu-ray. You can also purchase the complete collection on Blu-Ray at Barnes & Noble for $59.99 ($54.54 online).