Review: ‘The Human Centipede 2: Full Sequence’
Makes the First Film Look Like ‘My Little Pony’
Thursday, October 6, 2011
When I interviewed Tom Six for the controversial "The Human Centipede (First Sequence)," he said the sequel "The Human Centipede 2 (Full Sequence)" (playing at Landmark's Ken Cinema on October 7 and 8 at midnight) would make the first film look like “My Little Pony." He's absolutely right.
All you have to do is describe the premise of the first "The Human Centipede" and you are guaranteed to elicit an “Eeeew!” That premise involved a mad German doctor (are there really any other kinds in movies?) who wants to surgically attach three people – “ass to mouth” -- to create a perverse version of a centipede. That premise so shocked some people that they stayed away, but quite a few went or downloaded the film on demand because it is a top grosser (I use that term for multiple reasons) for its distributor IFC.
Now comes the sequel, "Human Centipede 2 (Full Sequence)." Gone is Dieter Laser's mad scientist and in his place is Martin (Laurence R. Harvey), a disturbed loner obsessed with Tom Six's "The Human Centipede." Martin keeps a scrapbook about the film and decides to gather 12 victims so he can create his own extended human centipede as a tribute to the film and to satisfy his own perverse fantasies. Here's the trailer:
Before I get to my review of "Human Centipede 2" let me address a little news about Tom Six's film. It had been banned in England and the filmmaker had been told that no amount of editing could change that but today the New York Times reports that British Board of Film Classification said it had certified “The Human Centipede 2″ for viewers 18 and older "after 2 minutes 37 seconds of footage were removed from the film."
Well that's great news. I don't like films being banned. But I think it's interesting though to read what the Board had originally stated about its reasons for banning the film because it actually addresses what I thought was effective in the film (SPOILER ALERT):
The principal focus of "The Human Centipede II (Full Sequence)" is the sexual arousal of the central character at both the idea and the spectacle of the total degradation, humiliation, mutilation, torture, and murder of his naked victims. Examples of this include a scene early in the film in which he masturbates whilst he watches a DVD of the original Human Centipede film, with sandpaper wrapped around his penis, and a sequence later in the film in which he becomes aroused at the sight of the members of the ‘centipede’ being forced to defecate into one another’s mouths, culminating in sight of the man wrapping barbed wire around his penis and raping the woman at the rear of the ‘centipede’. There is little attempt to portray any of the victims in the film as anything other than objects to be brutalised, degraded and mutilated for the amusement and arousal of the central character, as well as for the pleasure of the audience. There is a strong focus throughout on the link between sexual arousal and sexual violence and a clear association between pain, perversity and sexual pleasure. It is the Board’s conclusion that the explicit presentation of the central character’s obsessive sexually violent fantasies is in breach of its Classification Guidelines and poses a real, as opposed to a fanciful, risk that harm is likely to be caused to potential viewers.
Wow. In some ways that sums up some of the reasons why the film is a successful work of horror. It disturbs you precisely because it does depict something horrific. Here's Tom Six's response (in an email to Empire Magazine) to that ban:
Thank you BBFC for putting spoilers of my movie on your website and thank you for banning my film in this exceptional way. Apparently I made an horrific horror-film, but shouldn't a good horror film be horrific? My dear people it is a fcking MOVIE. It is all fictional. Not real. It is all make-belief. It is art. Give people their own choice to watch it or not.
People now have that choice in England and here in San Diego. And if you are a true fan of horror then I urge you to go see it. But don't expect "Saw Full Sequence" or torture porn. In fact I object to reviews and viewers who compare the film to the likes of "Saw" and "Hostel." It is nothing like those films. Those comparisons are only seeing the surface violence and not the thoughtful filmmaking behind the gore. That's why many of the torture porn fans will come out unsatisfied from "Human Centipede 2" because this is not a film about just designing kills. In fact if you take out all the graphic violence there is still a story here and Six asks you to engage in that story and not just look at the violence.
So I want to reiterate: yes there IS thoughtful filmmaking and artistry involved in "Human Centipede 2" even if the film is brutal and cruel. When I interviewed Six last year, here's what he said about his planned sequel:
I wanted to make a sequel because part one I could have all my ideas and couldn’t put them all in part one because the idea itself is so horrible that I first wanted the audience to get used to the idea first and now in the sequel I can use all my ideas so I am going to build a human centipede twelve people and I always say part one will be “My Little Pony” compared to part two because it’s going to be pretty horrible part two.
This reveals that Six had two films in mind from the beginning and with a clear plan of how to present the horror. The two films need to be seen together because they complement each other in clever ways that can only be appreciated if you see them both. The first film presented a grotesque and horrific idea in the most elegant manner. In that film, Dr. Heiter (Dieter Laser) was methodical and precise in his experiment, maintaining an immaculate lab. Six's visual style reflected that with crisp, clear images and long, steady shots all cut together in restrained fashion. There was a stark contrast between the film's style and the subject matter, and in that discrepancy, Six found deliciously dark humor.
But "Human Centipede 2" serves up a stark contrast to its predecessor, and it's a contrast smartly presented by having Martin obsessed with Six's film. Martin is a rank amateur compared to Heiter, and he's mentally inferior. So the visual style of the sequel matches the main character and is crude and blunt. There's no elegance here. The black and white photography is grainy and stark, the editing and camerawork are deliberately rough and unsophisticated. When Martin assembles his tools he lays out pliers, scissors, knives, and duct tape, and his anesthesia is a crowbar that he whacks people over the head with. Six's style informs us from early on that this isn't going to be pretty.
Another difference in the film is that the victims in the first film were completely sympathetic. We empathized with them and were caught up in the tension of whether or not they would escape. Martin's victims, on the other hand, are deliberately presented as mostly unlikable (yes we feel some sympathy for a pregnant woman and for one of the actresses from the first film who plays herself). Yet we don't feel the same sympathy for them as we did for the characters in the first film. That's not to say that we condone Martin's violence but it gives the sequel a much different feel. By taking out part of the emotional component, Six can focus more on Martin's perverted desires and the means by which he pursues them. Early on in the film we even feel a bit of sympathy for poor Martin. His mother treats him horribly, he seems mentally challenged, and he just has nothing in his life to enrich him. It's a bleak existence and watching "The Human Centipede" is his only escape. Martin evolves from a pathetic loser we feel sorry for to a perpetrator of horrific violence. And through almost the entire film he maintains a blank, deadpan face. His expression only changes on occasion as when his mother destroys his scrapbook or something goes wrong in his experiment. His reaction to a failure of his crude surgery to work as planned is one of the best moments in the film -- Martin is like a little kid who has just pulled the wings off a fly or the legs off a spider and then is baffled that the creature has died.
I also have to highlight actor Laurence R. Harvey as the bug-eyed Martin. Whereas Dieter Laser's Dr. Heiter gave us wicked laughs, Harvey's Martin is more creepy. His performance is more akin to Michael Rooker in "Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer." Dr. Heiter comes across as a creation of the horror genre, Martin is someone who could really exist. That's what's unnerving. Harvey makes Martin the guy of guy no one ever notices but who's building up a sense of dissatisfaction that's about to erupt. In that respect he's also a little like Travis Bickle in "Taxi Driver." Harvey is brilliant. So brilliant that I'm not sure I can imagine him in any other role but I'd love to see someone else tap him for a role. This is his first feature film.
Six is unflinching in showing the crude surgery. He selects images designed to make you squirm and want to look away. It's horrific and it should be. People who watch this and shrug it off are simply failing to engage in the movie and appreciate what Six is trying to achieve. Six pushes buttons just like Gasper Noe's "Irreversible" did. Six takes on taboos -- putting babies and children in jeopardy and as victims of violence, assaulting a pregnant women, sexual deviance, a mentally handicapped character -- and forces us to confront them.
If you are a true fan of horror then you will appreciate what Six is doing. If you are not you may ask why put yourself through the grinder and watch something as uncomfortable and disturbing as this? Well the answer for a horror fan is that there's something deeply satisfying about going to the dark side, to looking as what can lurk inside a person and discover that the most terrifying thing is the darkness that can lie within the human soul. It's also a carefully constructed work of art that makes us think about how we view violence, about how we have been lulled into numbness by horror films that sanitize violence and make it palatable so that you can walk out of a Hollywood horror film and only talk about where to go to dinner. Six wants to jolt you in order to remind you that violence in films should offend you, should upset you. If seems like the "Saw" and "Hostel" films are creating a generation of viewers who just want to watch horror so they can say, "oh yeah, I saw that, it wasn't that bad, it didn't scare me." These are viewers who seem to be playing a game of one-upmanship with other viewers, always looking for something bloodier and more violent that they can claim to have watched. But what's the point of that? Six reminds us that horror should make us squirm and flinch.
(ADDENDUM and SPOILER ALERT)
In seeing the film a second time and on the big screen (for review purposes I watched it online), I now see the ending of the film more clearly as a defiant statement by Six. His film makes the argument that part of the function of horror is to serve as a release, as a catharsis. Again, this proves the savvy way Six has gone about making his pair of films. By making "First Sequence" and then placing that film inside "Full Sequence" as something that a troubled man watches, he suggests how a horror film can offer escape and stimulate a fantasy life while not necessarily encouraging actual violence. In the end, "The Human Centipede 2" is an artist's argument and justification for his art.
"The Human Centipede 2 (Full Sequence)" (no one under 18 admitted) is a worthy companion piece to the first film. It ups the ante and delivers a film that does indeed make its predecessor look like "My Little Pony." Its reminds me of a similarly disturbing film, "Man Bites Dog," which had a deliberately crude visual style as it depicted one man's brutality. But both films are incredibly well crafted and calibrated despite the lack of a slick surface sheen. I commend Six for taking horror to a higher level. Yes, I do mean a higher level. The fact that he designed a pair of films with careful thought as to how the violence and visual storytelling of each would work reveals a dedication to the genre that is too rare today. Six is a storyteller and that's what's lacking in so many of today's horror films. "The Human Centipede 2" is not a film that I can say I enjoyed in the usual sense of the word, but it's a film that I admire for its craft and for its dedication to pushing the envelope on horror.
Companion viewing: "The Human Centipede (First Sequence)," "Man Bites Dog," "Psycho," "Irreversible," George Romero's "Martin"