The Human Centipede

You are familiar with the type of horror movie in which attractive young people get lost in a rural area and seek refuge at the only house they can find, where they learn, to their great dismay, that the occupants are homicidal maniacs. That is the template. Only the details — the crazies’ motives and methods; which, if any, of the attractive young people get to survive; etc. — differ from film to film.

“The Human Centipede” is one of these movies. It has become infamous for its ideas, which are weird and gross, but don’t be misled. It’s not ultra-violent. It’s not “torture porn.” There’s more pain and suffering in any of the “Saw” or “Hostel” movies than in this. “The Human Centipede” is basically an unremarkable innocents-captured-by-maniac thriller that happens to have one perverse idea as its central gimmick.

That one idea is pretty gross, though. We’ll get to that in a minute.

Two impossibly stupid American girls, Lindsay (Ashley C. Williams) and Jenny (Ashlynn Yennie), are vacationing in Germany. One night, while looking for a trendy dance club they’ve heard about, their rental car gets a flat tire in the middle of nowhere. Their only option is to walk through the thick forest, in the rain, in search of help. The viewer is reminded of all the horrible things that have happened in German forests, as documented by the Brothers Grimm. But instead of finding a gingerbread house occupied by a witch, Lindsay and Jenny find an ordinary ranch-style home occupied by Dr. Heiter (Dieter Laser).

Unlike most of the lunatics in these stories, Dr. Heiter makes no attempt to conceal his creepiness. “I don’t like human beings,” he says, matter-of-factly. (Speaking in my capacity as a human being, I’d say the feeling is mutual.) Soon enough, the girls are captive, and Dr. Heiter is using an overhead projector and diagrams to explain his plan.

Are you ready?

Alt textDr. Heiter wants to turn the two girls and a third victim into a human centipede. Person B’s mouth will be surgically attached to Person A’s anus, and Person C’s mouth will be surgically attached to Person B’s anus. You do not want to be Person B. Everyone’s knee ligaments will be severed so they can’t stand up, only crawl. One of Dr. Heiter’s helpful drawings is reproduced here.

Now, why Dr. Heiter wants to do this is beside the point. Is there a reason he could give that would make you say, “Oh, sure, that makes sense”? He’s an old-fashioned mad scientist, with a sterile, well-lit operating room in his basement. His methods are precise. He is not a slasher or torturer. When he finds it necessary to reject a centipede candidate, he kills the person via lethal injection. He uses anesthesia during the surgeries. He doesn’t wallow in pain, nor does the movie.

Well, except for that one central idea, which is painful, humiliating, and absurd to look at. It’s also disgusting, though thankfully the particulars of that are not shown in great detail. (Considering the subject matter, the film is actually pretty restrained.) Once you get used to the image, the movie stops being shocking. In fact, while the film’s marketing and word-of-mouth campaigns have touted its gross-out factor — see this movie if you dare!, that sort of thing — I don’t get the impression that that’s what the filmmaker, Dutch writer/director Tom Six, was going for. If that were his intent, he’d have amped up the surgical gore, the scenes of torment, the cruelty.

No, it seems to me that “The Human Centipede” was meant to be a horror story about young people held captive by a lunatic — and perhaps even a parody of such stories. Lindsay and Ashley are one-dimensionally dim, and the actresses who play them are not, shall we say, gifted in the dramatic arts. (That’s one thing that helps the movie go down more smoothly: The acting is so bad that you never really believe they’re in danger or pain.) The central idea is ludicrous, like an over-the-top spoof of the crazy things mad scientists used to do in old B-movies (keeping severed heads alive in jars, attaching animal parts to humans, etc.), only portrayed more realistically. When Dr. Heiter carries his third unconscious victim (Akihiro Kitamura) into the house, there’s still a tranquilizer dart sticking out of the guy’s rear end. And there’s the doctor’s flat refusal to even pretend not to be insane, even when trying to lure victims. All of that is funny, right? Maybe funny on purpose? Maybe?

I don’t know anything about the German actor Dieter Laser, except that he’s quite effective as Dr. Heiter. His severe face is composed entirely of sharp angles and treacherous valleys, and his demeanor seems to match. The character’s voice — I hope that’s not Laser’s normal speaking voice — is guttural and otherworldly. It could be the voice of Satan himself, if Satan is German. (Who am I kidding? Of course he’s German.)

Six achieves a fair amount of suspense with the standard trying-to-escape scenes, but the whole enterprise runs out of steam before it’s done. I mean, once you’ve made a human centipede, what else is there to do? Films of this genre tend to have one-note plots — get captured; try to escape — and I don’t think the, uh, unique elements of this one entirely compensate for the lack of originality elsewhere. Still, there is some measure of skill on display, and I’m not just saying that because I’m afraid Tom Six and Dieter Laser will come to my house and make me into an aberration, although I am somewhat afraid of that.

B- (1 hr., 32 min.; Not Rated, probably R for a lot of casual nudity, some very strong violence, disturbing images, profanity.)