To say Norwegian writer/director Tom Six’s The Human Centipede II is vastly better, or vastly more intellectually engaging, or considerably less likely to incite audiences to hurl objects at their screens than its predecessor is faint praise indeed, given the throat-clogging gratuitousness of his pointless 2009 vomit bag venture.
Nor is it a selling point for the vast majority of punters too sickened by the premise of this putrid pair of films to contemplate even uttering their names at the box office. They are cinema’s Voldemorts.
Describing the plot of either almost requires a classification system itself. The Human Centipede depicts the cunningly orchestrated ploy of a mad scientist who stitches together three humans, anus to mouth, and has them waddle around in his house and garden for his perverse amusement.
The film plays its bent premise straight — none of that smug self-referential stuff that pervades modern horror. Aside from bad acting and bland direction, the film’s central flaw is that its reach extends no further than the execution of its premise.
The sequel, a very different beast, is shot with top shelf black and white photography, bathes in post modernism and it’s borderline remarkable that the two films came from the same director. The Human Centipede II’s opening images are of the first movie; a carpark attendant, Martin (Laurence R. Harvey) watches, fixated. We soon realise soon it’s not just his favourite film but a how-to guide for grisly future endeavours.
This ugly, foul, obese toad-like freak is a foreboding figure, loaded with flaws and fragility, but dangerously fearless. Martin keeps a scrapbook tucked underneath his mattress outlining how he will execute his own human centipede. The film depicts him doing precisely that, but, in the spirit of up-the-ante horror-making, the sequel needs to outdo the first: he will stitch 12 people together. On the current trajectory, when the third film arrives — and may god have mercy on our souls — 48 unfortunate souls will cop it.
The first lesson of The Human Centipede II is that a fat, mentally challenged, asthmatic, sexually abused social misfit is far scarier than a cool and collected mastermind with a scalpel. Martin may not be humanised, per se, but certainly tormented. Laurence R. Harvey never utters a word but his performance is breathlessly unsettling.
The second is that atmospheria makes all the difference. Despite the turgid don’t-say-it-out-loud subject material there is no discrediting the film on a stylistic level. Cinematographer David Meadows understands the key to great black and white, drilling into the shadows of extreme contrasts between light and dark.
The third is that wrapping a postmodern meta commentary around an otherwise gratuitous exercise can throw an intellectual spanner in the works.
The box-like room Martin occupies at the car park, frequently shot through its window, resembles a screen itself. Inside he watches, a screen within screen, audience within audience.
The Human Centipede II adds a compellingly muddled addition to the media influence debate, ripe with contradictions, paradoxes and cyclical self-reflexive thinking for audiences who can be bothered looking beyond the gore. Considering the extremities it reaches and exploits, those who can’t can hardly be blamed.
The film is about something dreadful, ne’er to be replicated or spoken about at the Monday morning watercooler, yet it focuses on a character who does precisely that, replicates the unspeakable. It argues against its own right to exist while simultaneously advocating an ultimate libertarianism: to make something you know some loony might copy and to fantasise about what would happen if they did.
This is cake and eat it too doublethink cinema at its best and worst: a movie that provides a powerful argument that on screen violence can influence susceptible minds, but spews fake blood and laughs evilly at those who take the suggestion seriously.
When the fat toad’s macabre plan swings into gear, the film bottoms out into a cesspit of gratuity, ditches the post modern shtick and goes into grungy meathook gross-out mode. Then, at the last moment, Six brings it back to a wider context, but only just.
There is no greater argument against the existence of The Human Centipede II than the film itself, but not for the obvious reasons. It houses its own sense of condemnation; Six’s meta commentary affords the film the ability to question the legitimacy of its own existence and to then apply the same question of legitimacy to the question itself. The exercise of grappling with its merit or lack thereof is a cruel trap: if one is to ask “what was the point?” one comes perilously close to arguing there was one.
The Human Centipede II’s Australian theatrical release: November 17, 2011.