The 13th Floor

THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE: More Than Just a Gross-Out Geek Show?

We all remember the first time we heard about THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE (FIRST SEQUENCE), Tim Six’s 2009 freak-out flick about a mad surgeon (Dieter Laser) who kidnapped three people and, in a fit of whimsy, surgically connected them mouth-to-anus, creating his own human centipede. We all remember the descriptions, we remember the tagline (“100% Medically Accurate” is a phrase that should never appear on a movie poster), we remember seeing the preview online, and we likely remember being dared to see it by a group of rowdy (and likely partially intoxicated) friends. And we had a great/awful time, didn’t we?

While one can squint a little bit and kind of pretend that THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE is a real horror film all about fear and despair and frightening the audience, I think we all inherently know the truth about the flick: It’s meant to function as a geek show. Audiences are not meant to feel anything beyond the rowdy thrill of being repelled by something so gross and off-the-wall. It’s not the work of a gonzo filmmaker who had an “important” story to tell à la Jörg Buttgereit, nor was it meant to be an arch, icky comedy, à la John Waters.

THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE was — obviously — deliberately constructed to be a disgusting midnight movie for drunken friends to wiggle around at. This notion was reinforced by the film’s two sequels (FULL SEQUENCE) and (FINAL SEQUENCE) wherein the human centipedes merely involved more and more participants, and the films got grosser and grosser.

It’s easy to reject a geek show as a legitimate entertainment. Geek shows, just like their old days at the circus, only strive for immediate visceral reactions. And while there can be a bracing quality in deliberately consuming vile experience, it’s not exactly sophisticated art.

But surely — some of the dissatisfied may cry — there is something to THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE movie that warrants thought, that elicits an emotion beyond disgust, that confronts us on a philosophical level. They can’t just be pieces of gross filth, right? A bit of analysis may prove that to be true. THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE movies, in fact, may function as a wry criticism of the way media functions.

Consider the premise of THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE 2 (FULL SEQUENCE), which was released in 2011. Shot in black and white (largely because the blood and poop in color would be one toke over the line), FULL SEQUENCE follows the dark adventures of a mute, mentally ill weirdo named Martin (Laurence R. Harvey) who, having watched THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE (yes, the first film is a fiction in the universe of FULL SEQUENCE), gets it in his mind that making a centipede of his own would be a keen idea.

The film is about his miserable existence with his horrid mother, and his steady process of renting a warehouse where he can do his own sick surgery himself. Oh yes, he’s not a surgeon. He just has duct tape, staples, blunt scissors, laxatives, and a lot of gumption.

When I first saw the 2011 sequel, I recoiled at the notion of director Tom Six venerating his own 2009 as being powerful enough to “influence” people; he clearly thought his “clever” premise was bold and striking enough that it needed to be depicted as “too gory to ignore.” Six was essentially assigning notoriety to his film that it had not necessarily earned. Sure, it was a cult hit, but I wouldn’t say THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE had leaked into the culture.

Or maybe it had. The ass-to-mouth thing is such an odd idea to base a movie around — a film that someone actually made — that people became familiar with the idea, even had they not seen the film. Online chatter swarmed around THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE, and it became the newest go-to “extreme” flick. Tom Six clearly saw this happening, and made his sequel not as a continuation of the first geek show, but an even darker geek show that communicates something kind of important in a media-saturated age: That notorious entertainments — indeed violence and outrage itself — can become refracted, embellished, and exaggerated through the eternal echo chamber of the internet.

Make no mistake; THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE 2 is one of the most repellent films you will ever see. But, given the reputation the first film garnered as a horrid geek show, it makes a small amount of logical sense that a sane filmmaker should make his follow-up about that reputation. Six, perhaps only partly intentionally, seems to have made a boldly disgusting comment on the way we consume media in the modern age, and how it warps our minds. Like Michael Haneke in FUNNY GAMES, Six is implicating the audience in the horrors we are witnessing. You wanted a geek show? Well, you made this happen. Your own tendency to exaggerate and embellish my weird movie has led to this.

FULL SEQUENCE, then, is a satire of reactionary media culture. No one would watch the first one and take it seriously like Martin, right? No, but we’re drawn to the disgust anyway. We have a need to poke at our own wounds, giggling a little bit, commenting that it hurts a little. Tom Six is merely grabbing us by the wrists, and forcing our fingers deeper into the gash. As William “Bibbs” Bibbiani once said, FULL SEQUENCE is the film you were afraid FIRST SEQUENCE was going to be. Tom Six merely met your expectations, catering to the way you talk about and consume media.

By the time we got to THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE 3 (FINAL SEQUENCE), made in 2015, the conversation had changed again. If the first HUMAN CENTIPEDE was a gross joke to be seen on a dare, the second was too extreme for anyone. You can’t have fun anymore. What’s more, the gross premise became open common knowledge by 2015, having been referenced in other TV shows and movies; SOUTH PARK famously used the idea to parody the cults that spring up around Apple products.  By 2015, the idea behind THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE had lost much of its initial shock. The films were still gross and awful, but the anus-to-mouth premise was now old hat.

Tom Six took a look at that, and elected to turn his geek show back in on itself again. FINAL SEQUENCE is a “comedy” film (in quotation marks because it’s aggressively unfunny) which seems to be satirizing… well it’s hard to say. It’s over-the-top in the worst possible way, contains scenes of cannibalism, sexual assault, dehumanizing abuse, and, yes, a 150-person human centipede… all played for laughs. Sitting through FINAL SEQUENCE is one of the most uncomfortable experiences of one’s life, and I don’t recommend it to anyone. It made several Worst-of-2015 lists.

But Six, in addition to pushing his own sick little envelope, does seem to be making a extended comment on media once again. Six appears in the film, playing himself, as a way of declaring, out loud, that he kind of hates THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE. He is, once again, aping the voices of fans and detractors alike by playing into the reactionary politics that he has — deliberately or not — constructed around his films. The final scene of FINAL SEQUENCE is that of a noisy madman (Dieter Laser again) firing machine guns into the air while an American flag billows in the background. The actual politics of FINAL SEQUENCE aren’t the issue (the film is ostensibly a comment on the American prison system), but the media politics are.

The films themselves are devoid of anything worthwhile; they’re meant, as I have said, to be geek shows. But, when taken as objects, they function as perhaps the single greatest media gag in the history of cinema. They are a surrealist experiment on the inescapable notion of reactionary media politics. In that regard, they may actually be worthwhile.

The modern age is the Age of Media. We are presented with more information that we could possibly use in our lifetimes every hour of our lives. And the only way we can organize and make sense of the media madness is to log onto the internet, post comments, give reviews, give half-baked analyses (Hello, reader!), and plant whatever rudimentary guideposts we can to make sense of things. We shout out into the inky blank abyss, hoping to hear an echo, and hang onto any of the myriad voice that happen to match our own. We gain sanity by being reactionary. THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE heard your voice, turns right back, and mocks that system. It is the abyss looking back into you.