Dutch filmmaker Tom Six starts Centipede off in typical horror movie fashion. Two young American women, Jenny (Ashlynn Yennie) and Lindsay (Ashley C. Williams) are traveling through Germany. Their car gets a flat tire on a deserted road, so they hike through the woods looking for help, only to end up on the doorstep of Dr. Heiter (the awesomely-named Dieter Laser). You know the drill on this sort of thing. Horror rules dictate that Dr. Heiter must be some kind of psycho, ready to do heinous things to the innocent help-seekers.
But this is no typical slasher or torture porn picture. What Dr. Heiter has in mind is far more elaborate than mere torture. He's obsessed with creating the title creature, a three-person entity made (essentially) by connecting the anus of one person to the mouth of the person behind them. There's an extraordinary sequence in which the doctor explains the technique in great detail, and I am fascinated to learn that Tom Six worked with a real surgeon so that the procedure is 100% medically accurate. This includes sharing a digestive system. Yes, great attention is paid to that idea in what is destined to be one of the movie's most talked-about scenes.
The Human Centipede scores high on the freakiness meter. In fact, it blows the meter out. It is no spoiler to say that Heiter does indeed complete his creation, which consists of the girls and a Japanese man. What's even freakier is seeing what they go (it goes?) through afterward. The film asks whether it is possible to escape once you're sewn together with two other people. Believe me, when you see the human centipede crawling through Heiter's house, it is a sight you will not soon forget.
At the same time, Six generates an uncomfortable sense of horror not just from the bizarreness of the images but also from the psychological torment it would cause. The three people who make up his centipede are helpless. They can do nothing without each other. The one in the middle has it especially rough, and the film forces you to imagine what she, in particular, is going through. That creates a very particular kind of fear. Blood and gore are one thing, but envisioning a combination of inescapable claustrophobia and paralysis is even more terrifying.
The performances are quite good, with Yennie and Williams both effectively conveying immense fear. Yet it is Dieter Laser who drives the movie. The actor has mastered the concept of being demented without going so far over the top as to become caricature. Heiter is absolutely chilling because, in Laser's hands, he seems like a real doctor who has become too obsessed with the idea of playing God. He recognizes the suffering of his victims, but selfishly sees a greater good coming out of his "research."
I suppose it goes without saying that The Human Centipede is not for everyone. The film is strange, disturbing, gross, and shocking. You either have a taste for such things or you do not. I cannot tell you which camp you fall into. I can only say that when it comes to horror, I like movies that actually horrify me. Forget most of the generic horror crap churned out by Hollywood; most of it isn't really scary. This movie is. I watched it, squirming throughout and feeling panicky at the ideas it was putting into my head. This is what horror flicks are supposed to do.
You may have guessed from the words "first sequence" that more than one installment is planned. In the official press notes, Tom Six promises The Human Centipede II (Full Sequence), which he says "will go full force in graphic details, making part one look like My Little Pony." I can't wait.
( 1/2 out of four)
Note: The Human Centipede is currently in theaters and available on demand via IFC Festival Direct. Contact your local cable company or satellite provider for details on how to order.
The Human Centipede (First Sequence) is unrated but contains graphic violence, profanity, nudity, and other extremely messed up stuff that will screw with your head. The running time is 1 hour and 32 minutes.
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