Horror’s new lows or the inevitable progression of a genre?

Posted on 21 May 2010 by ShepRamsey

I should have learned my lesson a few months ago when I posted an article in which I made some comments regarding my impressions of The Blind Side without having seen the movie.  Any readers that happened across the article were up in arms that I was reviewing a movie I hadn’t seen.  (Which I really wasn’t.) I still haven’t seen it.  But that’s not what this is about.

I’m venturing down the same type of path—starting a discussion about a film I have not seen—for various reasons, ranging from shock, confusion, self-therapy, and to exercise my ability to play the devil’s advocate.  Now, I could just as easily see the movie and still start this same discussion.  But the reason I haven’t seen this movie can be boiled down purely and simply to the fact that I really don’t want to and that the actual merit of the film is irrelevant to my discussion.

Let me state right here and now, though—THIS IS NOT A REVIEW.  If you admonish me for reviewing a film that I have not seen, then please know that you are wrong, as I have done no such thing.  If I accomplish anything with this article, I’d like to just talk and reason through the simple idea of limit-pushing that’s prevalent in film (well, in all facets of the media, really) today, and will inevitably continue for years to come.

To stop myself from being so damn cryptic, let me go back about a week or so and fully explain myself.

Every so often I like to check out Roger Ebert’s website, read his reviews, and see what’s going on with the guy.  So not too far back, I was on his site and saw that he had posted a review for a film that I had only heard about through random mentions of its title.  It was called The Human Centipede, and, next to the title where he normally places the star ratings for each film, this one said “no star rating.”

I figured that must be something of a most intriguing nature.  I suppose I was right.  In reading Ebert’s review, I was treated to the plot synopsis for the film.  And…it changed me.

If you don’t already know what The Human Centipede is about and you tend to find yourself put off by any number of potential denizens of the darker recesses of the macabre, you can stop reading now and save yourself—I’m wishing I had heeded Ebert’s several warnings before he himself jumped into it.

For those of you that are still here, then I’ll get right into it.  The Human Centipede is a horror film about a mad scientist—more specifically a mad surgeon—named Dr. Heiter.  He’s a sad lonely individual.  His surgical specialty throughout his career has been the separation of conjoined twins.  But he has bigger dreams, and he’s decided to realize them.

Dr. Heiter has three captives in his basement—a male Japanese tourist, and two American females friends whose car broke down nearby.  (This is your last chance.)  The good doctor has plan to join his “patients” into the titular human centipede, connecting them mouth-to-anus, all sharing one long digestive track.  As in the front part eats real food, which he then defecates into the mouth of the second part, who is forced to eat said defecation and pass it into the mouth of the third part, who then completes the digestive journey.  The back two units of the centipede are kept nourished by an IV drip.  And he most assuredly succeeds with his plan.

You’re wishing you listened to me earlier, aren’t you?  If that’s not one of the most appalling concepts for a movie you’ve ever heard, please keep those that do qualify to yourself.

When I read that, the sentence “That’s fucking disgusting” instinctively hopped out of my mouth.  The concept alone struck me as the snuff-movie product some immature little twat filmmaker sitting at his computer underneath a framed Ichi the Killer poster and asking himself, “Hmmm…what’s the most disgusting thing I can think of?”

I knew instantly that this was a beast of which I wanted no part.  But, since I’m human, I knew it was also a train wreck from which I could not avert my eyes.  And to get a closer look, I checked out the trailer.

My opinion of the project didn’t change, however I couldn’t help but notice—at least from the small sampling of the film that was the trailer—that the director, a Dutch filmmaker named Tom Six, seems like a genuinely talented dude.  Now if we could just do something about his warped ambitions…

See, the thing is, there were bits of the trailer that hit me as scary—not merely gross (although that too), but genuinely, honest-to-God, make-your-skin-crawl scary.

Whereas the brief description I had read seemed to promise me only graphic, repulsive excess for the sake of it, from all accounts I have read, The Human Centipede is—as much as a film with this concept can be—the very portrait of restraint.  According to the reviews that I’ve read which champion the film, it’s of the same ilk as the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre, a film remembered as being a pinnacle of movie gore, which in actuality shows very little of its violence, leaving the gore to the viewer’s imagination.

It’s a noble approach, I suppose, but the concept is still beyond questionable.  I mean, really—has it come to this?

I’m sure I’ve made it abundantly clear that this “human centipede” concept makes me absolutely uncomfortable.  So obviously it’s not for me.  I don’t want to see it, and I won’t.  Sure, the seventeen-year-old version of me probably would have wanted to see it just out of that misplaced sense of edgy cinematic rebellion that all young film fans have to some degree.  But today it just makes me shudder.  I’m almost certain it crosses a line, but then that makes me question the nature of that line.

The Human Centipede is the kind of film that makes people say—and I just said it two paragraphs ago—“Has it come to this?”  Is our thirst for savagery-on-display such that we need to get this outlandishly high concept?  It’s going to attract discussion—and if the movie were playing any wider you could bet that it would be the brunt of some major controversy.  There would be an inevitable call to arms to get filth like this out of the public circuit.

And several people who do know of this film’s existence have voiced such opinions.  Are they right to think so, or should they just accept that the movie isn’t for them and make it a point not to see it?  Right now I’m over 1,000 words into this article, and I think I’ve just now pinpointed what exactly it is that I wish to explore—is this movie some sort of cruel concoction of immorality or is it just simply not for me?

Let me attack this question plainly and simply—is it immoral?  Well, the actions it depicts are certainly immoral, but what movie doesn’t depict immorality in some greater or lesser form?  Is the movie itself immoral?

It’s tougher to say than my initial reaction suggests to me.  After all, it’s not what a movie’s about, but rather how it portrays it through context.

So yes—this is where I would benefit immensely from actually having seen the movie.  All I have to go on right now is speculation and hearsay.  But just give me a minute.  This will come full-circle, I promise.

Based on all accounts, The Human Centipede is a horror movie.  Fair enough.  Such things exist, and a scary movie certainly isn’t immoral.  But fear is entirely subjective.  What scares one person might be simply gross and off-putting to another.

It’s the exact reason why I was on the edge of my seat during Paranormal Activity, while others were struggling to stay awake.  And it’s the same reason why when I tell people that Carrie is the scariest movie I’ve ever seen, they look at me like I’m out of my mind.  Fear is subjective.

As such, The Human Centipede could easily play on someone’s fear of doctors or surgeons.  I even said myself that I found the trailer scary; the way it was shot and performed were genuinely eerie and unsettling.  It’s not necessarily the concept itself that unnerved me—the concept was just gross, inhuman, and way beyond the pale—it was the way the film was made; the mise-en-scéne, if you will.

Again, this Tom Six fellow may well be a very talented guy, but something is still a bit off about this whole endeavor.  I’m still not satisfied.

Mr. Six has successfully made something that I’ve identified as scary.  But I don’t want to see it.  And I like horror movies!  I like to be scared, unnerved, creeped out, made to have my skin crawl, what have you.  But this movie goes into a realm that I’m inclined to identify as “too far.”

How far is too far?  Is there even such a thing as too far?  If something exists just as firmly in the realm of the macabre as something else, why is one perfectly acceptable while the other is deemed too far?  You’d think that the macabre—in and of itself—is either acceptable or unacceptable, and all of its subsidiaries exist under the same decided label.  Right?  I mean, we’ve already established that fear is subjective, so either it should all be ok—so to reach out to each taste—or none of it should be ok—because horror itself is immoral and wrong.

Many people label a lot of bleaker horror films as nihilistic, but isn’t the desire to scare and be scared nothing if not a little nihilistic?  But we’re not inclined to label horror or the macabre as an immoral genre.  No one’s calling H.P. Lovecraft a deviant.

Still, I can say definitively that there’s an inherent reason that I’m made to feel the way I do when I hear the premise of The Human Centipede.  And I assure you that I’m not living in a bubble of my own tastes, and assuming the rest of the world should clearly feel the same.  In fact, I’ve been a huge horror fan myself at one time, and I can completely empathize with the desire to see the movie—to take part in that anarchic rush of extreme envelope-pushing terror.  I get it.

But I’m not so sure that Mr. Six and his Human Centipede get it.  Roger Ebert, in his review, questions what exactly the point of this movie is, and surmises that there is none.  I disagree.  The point, as I’ve explored, is to scare.  It’s a horror movie, and that’s the point of any horror movie.  But is the nobility of that goal such that it justifies the exploitation of complete inhumanity?

And the same question could be asked of the entire torture porn genre—of which The Human Centipede surely must be considered a member.  I recall thinking that there was more than met the eye to Eli Roth’s first Hostel movie.  I felt it had a distinct bite of satire that served as a grim comment on peoples’ inexplicable bloodlust.  With Hostel Part II, however, he betrayed my trust, creating an utterly appalling film which reveled in that aforementioned bloodlust, cancelling out anything of value that I thought the first film contained.  I now have no kind words for that ridiculous franchise.  To what depths of inhumanity are we willing to sink in the effort of securing a few cheap thrills?

But, going back to The Human Centipede, I need to remind myself that I haven’t seen the film.  I don’t know for a fact that it’s completely without merit.  However, having read reviews (both positive and negative) and complete plot descriptions, I’m going to wager that it’s got little in the way of lofty ambitions.

Although, let’s consider that the villain of The Human Centipede, Dr. Heiter, is a German character, and the film is reportedly rife with veiled Nazi symbolism.  So let’s say that Mr. Six is making a film about the horrors of Nazi medical experiments.  Well, I’d say he’s about 60 years too late, and the irrelevance makes the film suffer.  By the most clinical of definitions, his art is substandard and poor.

But there I go again—I haven’t seen it.  This is speculation, first impressions, conjecture based on hearsay.  I’m not being fair.  So, I’m going to give Mr. Six the benefit of the doubt.  Let’s say there’s something exceptionally clever, intelligent, and harrowing about The Human Centipede—that through its dark excesses it creates a stirring and original statement on the human condition.

How would I ever know?  In selling his movie on the deranged perversion of its basic concept, I cannot help but feel alienated and put off—I don’t want to see the movie.  They say you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but to some extent the cover will surely let you know whether or not it’s a book you want to read.

Mr. Six might be a talented guy, but he cannot change the fact that I don’t want to see his movie no matter how good it might be.  Ebert ended his review with one of my favorite quotes of his in recent years: “I am required to award stars to movies I review. This time, I refuse to do it. The star rating system is unsuited to this film. Is the movie good? Is it bad? Does it matter? It is what it is and occupies a world where the stars don’t shine.”

In my struggle to decide whether or not I should see the movie—and thus know what more clearly what I’m talking about—it begged of me the questions of why is this film worth my time, and why is it even worth judging?  A lot of movies I like to see so that I can have an opinion and be an informed part of the conversation.  But for The Human Centipede, I see no point.

It’s a product of the macabre, for sure.  And maybe there is no “too far” as far as that genre is concerned.  But in judging by its all-encompassing “cover”—the trailer, the midnight-only screenings, the positive reviews by rabid horror fans with insatiable bloodlusts, and the negative reviews by people I see as more like myself—my impression of The Human Centipede is that its questionable content subscribes to one other category outside of merely the macabre—exploitation.

Mr. Six is selling me a movie that he boasts is “100% Medically Accurate.”  According to the film’s Wikipedia page, he consulted with actual surgeons who told him so.  His obsessive behavior in such a quest speaks to the sick weirdo that I can only assume he is, and the realization of his vision is being sold to the public through debasing appeals of torture, misogyny, racism, and cold-blooded inhumanity.

If that’s not exploitation, then I don’t what is.  The basic premise of itself might well be suited to the macabre—in the appropriate context, I could even see something similar turning up in an H.P. Lovecraft story (after all, he created the original story for Re-Animator)—but is there honestly a way to make this film this way and not be completely exploitative?  Mr. Six is taking advantage of everyone he can—the audience, the poor critics whose job it was to review the film, the surgeons he consulted with, his actors (supposedly the actors—though they knew the general concept—weren’t allowed to see a full script until after they had signed on to the project), and even the people funding his movie who weren’t told the full nature of the film for fear they wouldn’t invest.

Oh, and he isn’t even done, either.  The full title of the film is The Human Centipede (First Sequence), and it’s intended to be part of a trilogy.  Mr. Six has supposedly already started work on The Human Centipede II (Full Sequence), which he promises will be more centered on the grotesque experiments and will—to quote Six himself—make the first one look like My Little Pony.  If his ambitions go anywhere beyond exploitation, he’s sure doing a good job of hiding it.

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5 Comments For This Post

  1. Quaid Says:

    After watching the trailer…this looks too goofy to really be offensive. And the crappy acting makes it impossible for me to be disturbed. If you want to talk about something messing with my head, look at Wolf Creek. So eerily realistic and brutal that I felt like it crossed a line somehow. But can I hold the fact that it affected me against it?

  2. Parry Otter Says:

    Nice article…I especially liked the last bit. I tried to watch the trailer twice and had to stop both times before it was over. I wanted to watch it so I could get a better grasp on this guy’s “potential,” (or whatever you want to call it), but every time I got a feeling that became so strong I COULD NOT watch past that point. Not because it was gross or disturbing (though it is!), but because it’s WRONG. Plain and simple. Ebert’s quote was so perfect…I’ve never heard something so serious and sad from a reviewer in all my life. This movie has nothing to do with humanity, or the culture that seeks to strengthen us and help us find ourselves and our place in Creation. “Inhumane” goes without saying. It’s evil. There’s no Truth in it…it just perverts and destroys what’s good.

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