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A UK Blu-ray review of THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE [FIRST SEQUENCE] by Gort
 

Torture porn, as it's been colourfully dubbed, has got itself a bad name. Actually, it's always had a bad name. In some ways this is inevitable and could actually be seen as a good thing. Horror filmmakers, after all, never really courted widespread public approval, and pretty much any genre film that offends public taste and has the Daily Mail screaming for a ban will result in a queue of hardcore horror fans standing outside the cinema. And torture porn has certainly caused offence. I can't testify to whether it's had the Mail in a tizzy (mainly because I won't have the tawdry rag in the house), but it's managed to get everyone from the quiff-haired Mark Kermode to The Guardian's Peter Cashmore foaming at the mouth. Which, of course, is exactly the sort of press these films are looking for. Nice one, guys.

For the horror familiar, such controversy will have a familiar ring. Remember the whole "video nasty" furore back in the 80s? A good many of the titles that found themselves on the DPP's hit list were what we used to call stalk-and-slash films, whose principal attraction was the gory creativity of their violent deaths. They're undergoing a nostalgia-driven popularity revival at the moment. Coincidence? I should coco.

There are certain similarities and some notable differences between this post-Halloween slasher wave and the current crop of torture porn horrors. Both sub-genres have developed their own set of stock elements and both involve violence against the lead characters by a demented other. But what really divides them is the fate of their victims. In the slasher movies they were killed quickly and gorily, and despite the best efforts of make-up wizards like Tom Savini, we knew it was all fake. That was part of the fun, like the red-splashed action frame in an EC horror comic. Torture porn, on the other hand, trades very much on its realism and the drawn-out suffering of its sacrificial lambs, making the "it's only a movie" argument a considerably tougher sell. And while the victims in slasher movies were the sort of annoying teens that you quite enjoyed seeing offed in spectacular fashion, their torture porn counterparts are generally sympathetic and even likeable beings whose pain and humiliation tends to register as real. Like their 80s predecessors, those working in this field are continually pushing the envelope to deliver a film that's more difficult to endure than those that have gone before. Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to The Human Centipede. Oh all right then, The Human Centipede [First Sequence]. To put the record straight, it's not a first sequence, but director Tom Six's idiosyncratic way with film series numbering. Number two is on the way, and that's titled The Human Centipede [Full Sequence]. More on that later.

The set-up is neither original nor encouraging, but there is, it turns out, some method in this front end waltz though generic cliché. Young American bubbleheads Jenny and Lindsay are touring Europe by car and have got as far as Germany. I'm not quite sure how, given that they drive by night, wear high heels while travelling and clearly can't read maps. They get lost in the countryside and cop a puncture in the one spot where mobile phones can't get a signal. The only motorist who passes is a big greasy pervert who thinks they look like porn stars and wants to have sex with them. After he departs, the girls abandon the car and start walking to the nearest something-or-other. I presume it's a warm night, which would explain why they set off in flimsy party clothes and leave the coats we can only presume they've brought with them safely in the car.

The next time we see them they've wandered off the road and are lost in thick woodland. Why? Never explained. An argument breaks out and Jenny refuses to take another step. Then it rains. Bet you wish you'd brought those coats now, eh girls? Then sharp-eyed Lindsay spots a light that suggests a house is nearby. Hooray, refuge! They bang on the door and it's answered by the glowering Dr. Heiter, who asks them if they're alone and invites them in, and glares and delivers lines like he's auditioning for a villainous role the village pantomime. But they go in anyway. Fuck me these two are dumb. He offers them water which he laces with drugs, and when Lindsay knocks hers over he raves like a lunatic and goes off to get a towel. Still the pair don't get the message. How, one wonders, have they stayed alive this long? Heiter returns carrying a drug-filled syringe and I had to resist the temptation to shout "Behind you!" at the girls. Jenny conks out and Lindsay makes a break for it but gets about two metres. The two wake up tied to hospital beds next to a portly trucker we saw being stalked in the opening scene, and this is where things take a turn for the downright peculiar.

Heiter has a plan, one he explains to his captives with the help of sketches and an overhead projector. Visual aids can be so helpful. An ex-surgeon who specialised in separating conjoined twins, he now has a new quest, to connect three human beings, mouth to anus, to create a twelve-legged creature with a single digestive tract. The Rottweilers he tried it on unfortunately died, but he's sure he can make it work with people. They need to have the same blood type and the truck driver is a bad match, so he's replaced by a Japanese man who speaks neither English nor German, a perfect qualification for European travel. Will Heiter succeed? If you don't want that question answered then steer clear of the trailer, the advertising material, and the rest of this review.

According to Mr. Six (which I assume is his real name not a winking rewrite of 'Sicks'), the intention of these archetypal early scenes was to mislead the audience into thinking the they're watching a regular post-slasher teen horror flick and then hit them with something they've never seen before. Well he does and he doesn't. Allow me to explain. The concept of the human centipede is certainly original, but structurally we're still in often familiar territory, with an escape attempt designed to raise and dash audience hopes, a cat-and-mouse battle between captor and captives, and investigating policemen unaware that the people they're looking for are downstairs in a cellar whose phenomenal soundproofing works even when then door is open. It's also unlikely an even half-awake audience would be completely surprised by what the doctor proposes, given the film's title and a promotional campaign that's centred around the results.

The human centipede itself is certainly a unique creation and a horrible enough concept to send a sizeable portion of any audience noisily to the exit. If you want to get a flavour of the hostility it's provoked, then check out the user comments on the film's IMDb page. A lot of people really, really hate this film. It's not hard to see why. Surprisingly little is actually shown, but this doesn't make the surgical procedure any less unpleasant (teeth are removed and buttocks sliced open), and the post surgery humiliation is sometimes excruciating. Without doubt the most unpleasant aspect involves the passage of food through the digestive system of the lead human into the mouth of the second. We don't see it happen in graphic detail (happy about that one, thanks), but the idea itself and the despair of the recipient will undoubtedly make this a favourite check-out point for the even slightly queasy.

Six himself makes great play of the film's medical accuracy and a surgeon who advised on the plausibility of the concept, and on the basis of this I'd be careful about who you let operate should your appendix burst while travelling in Holland. It may well be that faeces can be safely ingested by the human body if it doesn't come in contact with air as Six claims, but he conveniently ignores the human gag reflex and the potentially fatal consequences if the substance that triggers it or comes up as a result cannot be orally expelled. And then there's the whole breathing issue. Hauling air through the nose might work when you're calm, but in times of physical exertion or emotional distress, even the most nasally gifted are likely to need the extra intake that an open mouth provides, particularly if your nose is buried in the buttock bandages of the poor sod you're surgically attached to. And these girls undergo a lot of emotional distress. Let's not even start talking about what happens if one of them gets a cold.

But does it matter? After all, this is a horror movie, and if you can transport a man down electrical cables and turn him into a human fly then you can sure as hell have a demented surgeon staple three people together to construct himself a new pet. Despite the originality of the film's biological creation, it's cinematic lineage goes back via O Lucky Man!'s Pig Boy, Cronenberg's body horror and even way back to 1932 and the animal mutations of The Island of Lost Souls, which was itself drawn from an 1896 novel by H.G. Wells. And for all my mocking, this is no thrown-together sensationalist cheapie but carefully constructed film in which clear thought has gone into every precision-framed shot. There's no sign of the current trend for frantic waggle-cam and hyperactive editing, the preference here being for locked-down shots or slow tracks, which are held on for longer than the current impatient norm. I was unsurprised to learn that Pasolini's Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom was a major influence, visible in the clinically observational camera style, the underlying themes and political referencing (Heiter was based not on movie mad scientists but real life Nazi doctors), and, of course, the the whole business of enforced shit eating. Pasolini devotees will doubtless snort at the very idea, but the jury's still out on whether Salò's critical rep is down to Pasolini's skill with extreme material or the mere fact that his name is attached to it. For me Salò remains the more powerful and punishing experience, but I see no good reason why The Human Centipede should be considered incomparable simply because it's a genre movie.

And you know what, come at the film a second time (I know, but I just had to) after listening to Six's explanation of his intentions and methodology and it makes a lot more sense. And within its own and the sub-genre's (perhaps narrow) parameters, it really delivers. Yes, it deliberately goes out of its way to shock and disgust, but this is a horror movie after all, and if I have to start listing now respected genre works that once did likewise then I'll be here half the night. But it's definitely more than a provocative shock fest. It may play at times like bite-size Pasolini, but the film's power-play subtext still effectively registers, most clearly in Heiter's attempts to train his new creature, whose verbal communication he has incapacitated by placing at its head a man who is unable to speak or understand the languages of either his tormentor or his unfortunate companions. The consistently dark mood intermittently gives birth to some pleasingly tense sequences, with Lindsay's attempt to flee dragging the unconscious body of her friend proving a bit of a nail-biter, despite playing strictly to genre expectations.

Despite initial signs to the worryingly contrary (a deliberate element of the early misdirection), the performances prove to be one of the film's key assets. After playing the ditzy bimbos to order in the early scenes, Ashley C. Williams and Ashlynn Yennie are really put through it once they're under Heiter's control. With their mouths incapacitated, it's all down to the power of facial expression, and they're convincing enough here to prompt even this cynical twerp to sympathise with their suffering and care for their fate. Every bit as committed is Japanese actor Akihiro Kitamura as centipede front man Katsuro, his hyperactive protestations giving way to sullen defiance, determined resistance, and in one of the narrative's most unexpected (and possibly frustrating) turns, self-destructive epiphany. And then there's chisel-faced German actor Dieter Laser, who despite playing Heiter to the evil doctor gallery, creates a movie monster so memorable that it's worth a second viewing just to watch him at work.

So there you have it. The Human Centipede [First Sequence] is not going to convince anyone with a hatred for torture porn to change their opinion, and is even likely to reqcruit a few new members to the campaign for its obliteration. But horror devotees prepared to look beyond the taste-busting premise and suggestively horrible content may just find themselves part of a small but enthusiastic cult. This has certainly been recognised by UK distributor Bounty, who shipped the review discs with a nicely produced press notes, a copy of Heiter's hand-drawn concept for the finished creature, and a small sewing kit. The film's notoriety has apparently even spawned a porn movie rip-off entitled The Human SEXtipede, in which the mouths of two victims are attached to the sexual organs of person in front and whose poster wittily apes the one produced for Six's film (you can check out a couple of images here). It's perhaps not surprising, given his unwavering cheerful approach to just about everything, that Six himself appears quite delighted by the news.

sound and vision

The film was shot on a high end Sony HD-CAM and the 1080p Blu-ray image was presumably transferred direct from the HD master, and the results are terrific. The picture is eye-slicingly sharp, the colours vibrant, the black levels punchy and the contrast as spot-on as HD will allow. The detail on faces, particularly Deiter Laser's weathered fizzog, is remarkable. It still has that high-def look that doesn't quite feel like film, but it's lost nothing in the transfer to Blu-ray.

The only soundtrack option is DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 stereo, which we can presume is faithful to the original mix. It is an in die film, after all. Clarity and dynamic range are very good and the drones and rumbles of Patrick Savage and Holeg Spies' unsettling minimalist score are nicely reproduced, and running the bass to the subwoofer adds a small extra kick.

English subtitles for the hard of hearing are included – if you don't select this option then subtitles are provided for the Japanese and German dialogue only.

extra features

Director's Commentary
The perpetually upbeat Tom Six provides plenty of interesting background detail on the conception, casting and making of the film, but says "I love this [shot, design, performance, scene, etc.]" so many times I started thinking about surgically attaching his mouth to a fat trucker's anus. It's actually worth putting up with or attempting to ignore this (bloody difficult, I'll admit) for the info provided, though some of it is repeated in the other extras here.

Trailer (2:24)
A pretty good sell without too many spoilers.

Deleted scene (1:17)
Heiter dancing with joy after completing the surgery and surveying his work. Hilarious.

Behind the Scenes (8:39)
A welcome if brief and unstructured look at the filming plus a couple of cast interviews. It's something of a relief to see Kitamura and the girls having fun on set, and they even do a little dance while attached to each other.

Interview with director Tom Six 1 (23:39)
A Stetson-wearing Six talks to British interviewer Chris Cooke about many of the things also covered in the commentary, sometimes using the very same wording, though there's still enough good stuff here to make it worth your while. The sequel, he assures us, will make this film seem like My Little Pony, will involve the joining of twelve people, and will show everything that the first film only implied. His aim, he assures us, is to make it almost unwatchable. Sounds like a challenge if ever I heard one.

Interview with director Tom Six 2 (5:07)
A second interview at a different location, probably a press conference, that tends to like a compressed and abbreviated version of the above. There's nothing here that you won't find elsewhere in more detail.

Foley session (4:41)
Foley artist Angel Perez Grandi shows us the fruit and bony meat cuts he'll be using to create sound effects and the mess that's left afterwards, but there's no footage of him actually creating the effects, which is frankly the thing I really wanted to see. Appears to have been shot on a mobile phone.

Casting session (1:58)
A brief bit of Ashley C. Williams and Ashlynn Yennie's casting sessions.

Q&A with director Tom Six and actor Dieter Laser (22:08)
The same facts about the film get a fourth airing, but with the added bonus of enthusiastic contributions from Dieter Laser. It's here that Six talks cheerfully about the porno version and his amusement at its poster image, which clearly excites audience and interviewer interest.

summary

Some will love it, most will loathe it, probably with a very vocal passion. I can see where they're coming from, I really can, but despite my early cynicism (can you tell?) I was increasingly drawn in, and that post-commentary second viewing pretty much sold me. Bounty's Blu-ray release really looks the business, and though I could have done without the information repetition and the hundred or so uses of "I love this..." on the commentary, the extra features are largely worthwhile. Most should steer clear, but for my fellow adventurous sickos it comes cheerfully recommended.

Devoted fans can order a limited edition steelbook release containing both the Blu-ray and DVD versions of the film, and a t-shirt featuring the human centipede drawing that Heiter uses in his AV presentation exclusively from the official UK web site at: http://www.humancentipede.co.uk/store.aspx

The Human Centipede [First Sequence]

Netherlands 2009
92 mins
director
Tom Six
starring
Dieter Laser
Ashley C. Williams
Ashlynn Yennie
Akihiro Kitamura
Andreas Leupold
Peter Blankenstein

Disc details
region code unspecified
video
1.78:1
sound
DTS HD Master Audio 2.0 stereo
languages
English / German / Japanese
subtitles
English
extras
Director's commentary
Trailer
Deleted scene
Behind the scenes featurette
Interviews with director
Foley session
Casting session
Q&A with director and star
distributor
Bounty Films
release date
4 October 2010
review posted
12 October 2010

related review
Human Centipede 2 [Full Sequence]