Audience members and critics alike bemoan the lack of originality in popular entertainment these days. Sequels, remakes, prequels and re-imaginings have taken over the box office, so when something truly original comes along it tends to make people sit up and take notice. And sit up they did when word started spreading about a low-budget genre film that went into some strange new areas of exploitation. The Human Centipede likely could never live up to that advance word, so the real question becomes whether the central concept is enough to carry a 90 minute horror film. The answer, however, is a little more complicated than yes or no.
First, let's take a look at the rather basic and oddly familiar plot of the film. Dr. Heiter (a scene gnawing Dieter Laser) is a famous German surgeon, now retired, who specialized in the separation of Siamese twins. After two rather vapid vacationing American girls show up at his door looking for help after getting lost, Heiter is glad to include them in his latest experiment. After drugging them and restraining them in his lab, along with a Japanese man he picks up to complete the project, he surgically sews the three together anus to mouth to create a single digestive system, eventually hoping to train this "human centipede" to be his plaything. However, his project might be in jeopardy when some police officers start investigating the recent disappearances in the area.
The first thing to get out of the way is that The Human Centipede isn't nearly as revolting as you might think. Certainly the core idea is hideous, and psychologically it's a mind-bender, but director Tom Six is almost restrained in his presentation of physical horror. There's some brief messy surgery footage, and the climax gets plenty bloody, but if you're expecting a cavalcade of gore you're likely to be surprised. That said, most people won't be able to get over the centipede concept, and for good reason. Six puts our three antagonists through absolute agony, showing them little sympathy as they scream (or, at least attempt to scream) about their bizarre fate, and once the deed is done they are still put through their paces (Heiter memorably attempts to train them to bring him a newspaper). Six's camera never stops moving, dollying slowly to show off Heiter's dapper surroundings and creeping through the hallways and inside the underground lab.
But this is Dieter Laser's show, and the actor obviously takes great pleasure in tearing into the material - both literally and figuratively. Six makes great use of Laser's snake-like features, his face frozen in a perpetual grimace aside from the moments when he explodes in anger. Rejecting the modern horror convention of giving villains sympathy by digging into their background, we get no idea why Heiter does what he does - aside from that he simply enjoys it. There are hints of the surgeon's wish to play God, and Heiter's jackboots and riding crop are obvious Nazi imagery, but only add a layer of kink to a film that rejects subtext in favor of cheap thrills.
What the film gains in Cronenbergian body horror, it loses in suspense. While there's a certain fascination in the film's first hour of how exactly Heiter is going to collect the subjects he needs for the titular operation, Six unceremoniously dismisses his female leads who decide to make a series of awful decisions right from the beginning. In fact, even when the operation is complete it's the Japanese Katsuro who shows the most initiative in trying to escape, while the females are shown to be ineffective at every turn. This streak of misogyny runs right up to the end, where an odd (and rather ridiculous) decision by a character leads things to peter out prematurely.
Which is a shame as there is some wicked black humor - such as when Dr. Heiter first explains the concept of his surgery to his horrified captives - but the film's tagline ("100% Medically Accurate") implies an attention to detail that just doesn't exist. I was left with dozens of questions about how the mechanics of the operation and the aftermath would work, but once the first bowel movement occurs, the film decides to abandon any sense of morbid curiosity for a generic "suspicious police" plot device.
Certainly not a complete waste of time, The Human Centipede is neither shocking enough to make a lasting impression, nor unique enough to make it worth contemplating at length, though there are a few rewarding gross-out moments and a truly amazing central performance. Despite an obvious low budget, the film is actually rather slick and I can't help but applaud the attempt to do something original, even if it doesn't quite succeed. Six has promised a sequel in the near future, and perhaps the international attention given to this film will propel him to live up to this film's promise.