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REVIEW: The Human Centipede: First Sequence

Posted by Aaron Dries on October 7, 2010 at 7:50 PM

This is such an easy film to retell, but such a hard one to review.

The plot concerns Lindsay (Ashley C. Williams) and Jenny (Ashlynn Yennie), two American tourists travelling presumably alone through an unspecified part of Germany, not too far from the reputable Autobahn. Through some contrived plotting they end up stranded in the woods with a broken down car and a non-functional mobile phone. It’s Whales’s The Old Dark House story playing out all over again; they end up knocking on the wrong door. The very wrong door. But then again, don’t they all? A minor struggle and two drug-spiked glass of water later, Lindsay and Jenny are at the mercies of mad-scientist Dr. Heiter (effectively played by Dieter Laser), a man with a God complex who wants to create a “human-centipede”. We all know how, and yes, it’s 100% medically accurate. Add to this “sequence”, Japanese man Katsuro (Askihiro Kitamura), who too has been captured and awaits the same fate.

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At the core of this film is an implicitly evil conceit. And that’s why it is scary. Does the material match the heights of the conceit though? No way and that’s a shame. It is however, stylishly made, understated and serious. It’s a thin concept stretched over too wide a canvas but it’s still effective. This is a sucker-punch of an experience that most people will want to hate. And a lot of people simply will. But it’s hard to deny that the idea has a way of worming into your subconscious, of disturbing you and shaking you up. Bodily modification is a horrific notion. Just the thought of it is enough to turn your stomach. Sensitive viewers are not encouraged, although like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Midnight Meat Train, The Human Centipede: First Sequence is the kind of film with a title that weeds the horror aficionado/viewer of controversial content from your casual remote flicker.

If writer/director Tom Six’s title doesn’t warn you enough, then hear it from me. There are no excuses because this film will offer no appologies. This is the joy of cinema and of being human. We are mature enough to make our own decisions and to see what we do and do not want to.

Now where were we? The film, that’s right! Look, it’s not perfect. Far from it. But it does have a lot of butts (ahem) to Six’s credit. And yes, I apologize for that terrible pun.

Let’s discuss how it could have been better. I would have recommended Six bring in a co-writer, someone with a better palate for dialogue, to flesh out the earlier scenes among the two girls. I’m not saying give us some sort of contrived back-story, but give us something at the very least. As a viewer we need a reason to empathise with the girls. They are presented as unsophisticated, unadventurous, ditsy and inarticulate. They are screechy caricatures that insist on making all the wrong mistakes- constantly, who are not smart enough to check to see if their rental car would have a spare tire, and if it did, to have the smarts or the ability to change it.

As a result the entire first act simply does not work. Why? Because there is no empathy and a film like this needs it. It’s very cold and calculated, both in content and visual design, so you can’t look for that emotional affection via those technical means. It’s all going to be through the characters and we get less than zero motivation.

For example, there is a brief conversation when the girls talk to an un-named friend on the telephone in their hotel room. Here is a prime place for some exposition. Instead of talking to an equally cold twenty-something, for whom the girls have bought a gift, why not have one of the girls talking to their parents? The effect of this change: instantly she has a family, someone who loves her and who would be worried about her if they were to miss a call. Through some very simple lines we could have found out something –anything- about these girls. Instead we get superficial annoyances that do nothing to enhance the story.Second mistake: the contrived capture. To be fair things do pick up once the girls are inside the house of the mad scientist, but prior to this we are subjected to an embarrassing car-break down sequence. The girls fumble and bicker and then embark upon a silly forest trek.

What was Six thinking?

It’s these structural mistakes that undermine the seriousness of what he was embarking upon. The girls look for help in a rainy, dark forest… Wouldn’t it make more sense to look along the road, or to turn back and go in the direction from which they came? How it should have gone down: home invasion. They are kidnapped. Simple and effective. Had six done this he would have eliminated the awkward and obligatory “the mobile phone isn’t working” scene and the stupid decision to run up the “figurative staircase instead of running out the door clichés.” Hasn’t Six seen Scream?

These initial flaws aside, the character empathy is redeemed via an act of courage by one of the girls during an attempted escape in which she makes some commendable choices. We almost get a strong heroine who you want to live. This act does gain your sympathy, but not quite enough. In all honesty it is the viewers own fears and insecurities about body mutation that carry the rest of the film. If Six had made these structural changes and then simply let his film play out as it did ... we would have a small, humble and disturbing satire. I’m not kidding. It’s not particularly explicit by horror movie standards; our minds do the majority of the slicing and dicing.

Six obviously understands the conventions of terror, but he’s yet to show the talent of a young Cronenberg, to whom this film does owe a debt. The difference between Cronenberg and Six is that Cronenberg, even at his most remote and frigid, still had back-up ideas to his primary concerns. Those films (think Rabid, Shivers and The Brood) all were three-tiered experiences; there was character, ideas and fear. This has two out of three, and one part of that (the fear) is lessened significantly due to the lack of the other. The concept of the centipede is fitting, without one segment it all will fall apart.

The central performance by Dieter Laser as Dr. Heiter is chilling and effective, if again under-developed. There is a perfunctory opening sequence which does nothing for the story at all, in which prior to shooting a trucker preparing to shit in the woods, Dr. Heiter is looking over photographs of a dog-centipede. I can guarantee you this: had he been looking at anything else, the film would be better. A) it blows the idea too quickly, the central image has been cemented in our minds and thus detracts from the impact of the human centipede reveal, and B) he should have been looking at photos of something that fuelled his motivation. Anything!

Come on people, we’re playing with simple screenwriting principles here.

Even better, get rid of the opening scene, cut all references to his prior medical history and just have the monster run free, unmotivated completely- like the shark in Jaws. You can have it one way or the other. Pick one and stick to it and make that choice work.

The fire and drive of the film is in Katsuro, the Japanese man with some fight to him. He literally saves the film. You sense his shame as his bowels release into the mouth of the woman behind him. You suddenly understand the implications and consequences of what is happening. And there is distinct power in these scenes. You understand that Katsuro refuses to be made into an animal, that he refuses to let go of his humanity and be degraded. I’m unconsciously impelled to like films which feature culturally unexpected heroes; he is not your average, white, male, hero-type. This was a wise and non-discriminatory decision. It pays off because it keeps in tune with Six’s cold, unprejudiced depiction of violence and it’s implied consequences.

The cinematography is controlled and elegant. The color palate reeks of antiseptic and bile. It’s not gritty, it’s very sleek, without being over stylized, as so many modern horror films are. The music is not overpowering and the performances of the two girls are actually quite good, once their mouths have been sewn shut. You see the fear in their eyes. That’s what counts.

Look, this is as hard a film to review, just as it’s a hard film to watch. It reminded me of early Rolf DeHeer. This film, like DeHeer’s, is paint-stripper … but it could have been acid. It’s got the concept driving it and a building reputation. Is that enough to get by? Apparently yes, as it’s doing quite well for such a stridently independent film. Added to this the sequel is already in the can.

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I hope that Six has learned from his mistakes, because he displays enough talent here to make me want to see more films by him. Just get a co-writer, listen to the criticisms this film is getting, improve and grow as a storyteller. Continue to disturb us and don’t back down and compromise. There are few voices doing it today.

RATING: Officially- 2.5/5, but I'm inflating it to 3/5 because I think Six shows promise.

Categories: Random