As provocation, it’s hard to deny the success of Tom Six’s Human Centipede series (which awaits its final segment’s release next year). In a genre defined by mimicry and repetition, the horror concept that launched these films has clearly resonated as a fresh, frightening notion. The idea of a “human centipede,” human victims grafted together in a grotesque succession, was so aberrantly creative (or creatively aberrant) that it launched straight into the pop culture stratosphere, appearing in rap lyrics and countless hacky comedians’ jokes. The film’s iconography has even become a popular tattoo design.
The films themselves are substantially less successful. First Sequence is straightforward and sterile, surgically grafting three hapless individuals together before observing the medical and legal consequences with deadpan matter-of-factness. Its sequel instead wallows in the muck, wading through a mire of blood and shit in search of that perfect, disgusting flesh-beast. Despite their diametrically opposed approach, the films have much in common than the titular human-fusion. Each has the barest semblance of a storyline, and each fails to cohere as a satisfactory document.
They do each have at their centre one redeeming element: the villain. First Sequence is dominated by Dieter Laser’s unforgettable performance as ex-surgeon Dr Heiter, the centipede’s architect. He’s all officiousness and stern cheekbones; a paragon of perceived German superiority. He doesn’t see his victims as humans as much as components. Laser’s take on the material is on just the right side of camp – he’s aware of the silliness of the material but is intimidating nonetheless. He’s about the only reason to watch the film, a sluggishly paced slog through an underwhelming “story.”
Full Sequence casts its lot with the corpulent Martin (Laurence Harvey). Where Dr Heiter represents arch precision, Martin is defined by shoddy crudeness; his “surgical tools” include a rusty breadknife and a hammer. The sequel follows Martin’s attempt to recreate a human centipede after watching the first film; it’s at odds with its stylistic approach, which is more surreal (not to mention gruesome) than its predecessor. There are glimmers of light in the murk – some scenes in Martin’s apartment are reminiscent of Delicatessen – but largely its goal is to simply push the limits of unpleasantness. It’s a film that you endure rather than enjoy.
There’s a real potential for the Human Centipede franchise to exceed its scummy video-nasty trappings and produce a genuinely good film, but that potential remains unrealised.