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The Human Centipede (First Sequence) (Tom Six, 2009)


     Designed to be notorious, Tom Sixís The Human Centipede (First Sequence) seems determined to push the envelope of exploitation film weirdness past previous boundaries. While it may not definitively succeed on that count (Archibald Flancranstinís 2006 skullfucking romp Header outstrips it in audacity, for one), itís so far outside of the mainstream that it will most likely strike viewers used to bland, recent theatrical torture porn as a truly transgressive oddity. Living up to the promise of its title, Human Centipede features a German mad scientist who wants to reconfigure the bodies of a few tourists into a mouth-to-ass monstrosity. With such an unimaginably absurd setup, the film has nowhere to go but headlong into delivering on its conceptual promises. It does so, with more clinical resolve than one might expect, at which point it begins to evolve into something more than a gimmicky gross-out.


     Itís no great spoiler to say that the grand plan of the human centipede is realized by the movieís midpoint. After this momentous event, which renders the victims of the mad doctor all but helpless, Sixís style shifts subtly into a more abstract rendering of the horrors heís dreamed up. The pace of the film begins to slow down, emphasizing the tasteful symmetry of the doctorís homeís decor, as suspense gives way to abject degradation. As the hopeless scenario plays out, the latent suggestion that there are fates worse than death is made literal. As viewers are left to dwell on that possibility, Six begins to construct his scenes as one-off shots of the doctor training and punishing his new creation. The unfathomable human centipede almost becomes a fixture of the environment, as a routine with no clear end in sight builds. Itís in this midsection, as the insane threatens to become mundane, where the film is at its most disturbing.


     When The Human Centipede begins moving toward its conclusion, and deliverance from stasis in the form of narrative resolution becomes visible on the horizon, the effect is mostly one of relief. The last act of Centipede is its most conventional, by far, lacking the comedic tonal shifts of the first and the uncertainty generated in the middle. Still, it does point toward the reasons why Human Centipede feels like something less than a classic of the horror genre. Instead of offering the uncharacterizable art/horror hybrid that Six seems capable of delivering, the movie ends up feeling like early Cronenberg, stripped of subtext. Thatís not to imply that The Human Centipede (First Sequence) is a failure. For better or worse, it delivers exactly (and only) what its title implies.



Jeremy Heilman