Ever since The Human Centipede (First Sequence) skittered onto screens in 2009, Tom Six’s horror exploitation flicks have presented exactly what they promised: people stitched together into grotesque human chains. But that’s not what Six’s trilogy—ending this year with The Human Centipede (Final Sequence)—is actually about.
Six claims that he came up with the idea after seeing a news story about child predators, and musing about what a brutal punishment it would be to stitch them ass-to-mouth to fat truckers. But it would be an oversimplification to just lump the movies into the appropriate torture-porn subgenre. In truth, the Human Centipede movies are involved commentaries on miscommunication.
This is most apparent in the gut-wrenching ride that started it all. The recurring motif of communication (and lack thereof) announces itself very clearly near the beginning of (First Sequence), in the form of an obvious stereotype: the ignorant, crass American tourists. When Lindsay and Jenny’s car breaks down in Germany, they flee to Dr. Heiter’s (Dieter Laser) home to make a phone call. Instead, he sees the perfect two-thirds of his desired human centipede.
The thing is, up until now, Heiter has only worked with animal subjects; he is still reeling from the loss of his beloved Dreihund. So, he only knows how to treat humans on the level of animals—lower, even, as he clearly treasured the Dreihund as his companion. He drugs the glasses of water he offers the girls and hardly deigns to speak with them, instead regarding them with a steely non-communication we would eventually see reflected in the second film’s antagonist.
Later, when Heiter attempts to perform the same maneuver on the police who come looking for them, they absentmindedly reject his offer—and he shoves the glass in their faces, urging them to “Drink!” the way you would a disobedient pet. This, obviously, does not go as intended.
No matter, because Heiter has a new pet in the prized human centipede. That training montage is difficult to watch, not least because on the agenda is teaching the hybrid creature to defecate through each of its components. Here is where we note Heiter’s odd decision to place Japanese tourist Katsuro at the head of the centipede, cutting off any English the audience could be exposed to. Electric Sheep picked up on the same motifand commented, “With the two girls unable to comprehend Heiter’s German, and no one speaking Katsuro’s Japanese, the doctor has, perversely, given his centipede a head he himself cannot understand.”
What, asks the magazine, is Heiter going for with this choice? Is it a commentary on the absence of communication, on the uselessness of language when faced with a nightmarish situation such as this? Is it a condemnation of English, even to Heiter and his agenda’s own detriment? If nothing else, it unifies everyone: centipede segments, audiences, fans. The story is everyone’s and no one’s, so that we are all equally appalled during the surreal scene where Heiter is striking the centipede with a riding crop, screaming, “Feed her!” Helpless, Katsuro mumbles and shouts horrified apologies to the strangers hooked up to his anus as he succumbs to the unstoppable urge to go.
Ironically, it’s when Heiter is absent that the centipede best learns to work as one creature. While the doctor is dealing with the police threat, panic at their depraved future stretching ahead of them inspires the centipede components to learn to painstakingly make their way out of the basement laboratory and up the spiral staircase to try and escape.
Of course, it’s not to be. When their master and creator face each other, the former mortally wounded Katsuro takes the opportunity to deliver a longwinded speech about how he is an insect, less than an insect, for leaving his family behind, and Heiter is God, come to punish him. This is all in Japanese, and you can see the confusion on Heiter’s face; he has no idea what the hell Katsuro is saying. Then Katsuro cuts his own throat with a shard of glass. Here is where the centipede’s communication has fallen apart: pursuing his own selfish quasi-redemption, Katsuro resigns the girls to his fate. Jenny (at the back of the centipede) has already begun succumbing to blood poisoning, so it’s Lindsay who is the film’s “final girl,” except lacking the agency usually granted to that archetype. The only part of the centipede who is healthy enough to escape, she is chained to her companions on both ends, utterly silenced.
As a movie, The Human Centipede (First Sequence) achieved legendary heights of horror while still establishing some thought-provoking visuals and commentary. And it was just morbidly fascinating enough to encourage Tom Six to go ahead with his intended sequel. But in topping himself, Six didn’t try for another horror tale set in the same world. Instead, he went completely meta.
The second film’s antagonist (or, one could argue, protagonist) is Martin, an overweight, asthmatic, mentally challenged parking-lot attendant. Verbally abused both at his job and by his mother at home, and sexually abused by his doctor, Martin finds his only solace in his favorite movie, The Human Centipede. That’s right: the original film inserts itself like a Mary Sue, occupying the center of Martin’s obsession. He’s the worst kind of fan in this case, the one who wants to emulate Dr. Heiter for himself. He has a pet centipede that he lovingly feeds, and has even more lovingly assembled a scrapbook of how he would make his own human centipede pet.
He goes about his monstrous plan by picking up potential centipede segments from his daily interactions: two drunk girls who catch him masturbating, an unsuspecting couple, his vile neighbor…and Ashlynn Yennie, the actress who played Jenny in The Human Centipede (First Sequence).
The most interesting part is, Martin does all this without speaking at all. As EdgeBoston‘s review puts it, “It’s the words that Martin doesn’t say that will make you shudder: his non-communication is disturbing.”
According to an interview with IFC, Six originally intended for Martin’s character to spend the film quoting his idol Dr. Heiter. But when actor Laurence R. Harvey auditioned, he (in his words) “forgot to speak.” The next time the two met, Six had nixed all of Martin’s lines. “He doesn’t talk a lot in his daily life,” Yennie pointed out. “He doesn’t talk to anybody at his job, and nobody talks to him…[People talk at] him, but not to him. So it fit him better to portray everything through his actions and his face.”
Martin capitalizes on this relative invisibility in luring his test subjects, most ingeniously Yennie’s movie version of herself. Reaching out through the Internet, he masquerades as a talent agent bringing her to England for a Quentin Tarantino movie. When she arrives, he’s her silent, unassuming driver. It’s only when he brings her to the empty warehouse he’s procured for his experiments that she realizes something is wrong. Up until that moment, it’s too easy for her to believe that this is her big break—that her time spent on the set of a gruesome horror indie has actually gotten her somewhere.
If you can get past the awfulness of his stapling people together to make a 10-person centipede, the scenes where Martin tries to communicate with it are fascinating to watch. Whereas Heiter barked orders, Martin fumbles through some grotesque approximation of sign language, giggling the whole time like a deranged child. The worst is when he approaches Yennie, at the head of the centipede, with a funnel and a can of chili (and, after some resistance, some laxatives). I don’t think I need to describe any further his twisted intent.
Of course, with Martin being nonverbal, it only magnifies his frustration with his disobedient pet. It doesn’t help that he is cobbling together the 10-person centipede from multiple watches of the movie, with no medical method to his madness. Heiter’s tantrums are nothing compared to Martin’s emotional breakdowns when his dream cannot be achieved—whether it’s by the pregnant woman jumping up screaming and running away, or one of the segments breaking the centipede into two flailing pieces, or the encroaching fear of the cops bearing down on the warehouse. Upset by Yennie’s screams, he tears out her tongue with pliers, totally silencing her.
Thankfully, the poor actress gets him back near the end of the film, with a literal up-yours; she takes advantage of his brief flicker of sympathy for her to kick him in the genitals, stuff the funnel in his ass, and send his beloved pet centipede (the actual one) scuttling into his rectum. Martin’s screams of agony are some of the only sounds we hear from him in the entire movie, but they’re oh-so-memorable. Yet, he still comes out on top.
Compared to its predecessor, (Full Sequence)‘s ending is left ambiguous: we see Martin flee the twitching remains of his centipede, but then the movie cuts back to Martin sitting in his tollbooth watching (First Sequence). Was it a dream, or is he partway through the process? The screaming baby—abandoned in a car after Martin kidnapped its parents—would point toward the latter, but it’s an odd shift in timing that we don’t see in the rest of the trilogy.
When it came time to complete the Human Centipede Trilogy, Six returned to the notion of punishment that drove the first film, but made the proceedings more meta than the second installment. And, I’m sorry to report that The Human Centipede (Final Sequence) is the worst movie of them all.
Six’s idea to make a movie about his own filmmaking is ballsy, but the lack of communication between the sequels is to their detriment. The follow-ups don’t share the original’s high-minded ideal of “100 percent medically accurate” for even the most shocking procedure. Instead, they parody themselves, with the tagline of the second film gleefully presented as “100 percent medically inaccurate,” and the third unapologetically declaring itself to be “100 percent politically incorrect.”
Each Human Centipedesuccessor is like an unsuccessful game of Telephone, with the message getting more warped the more often it’s reproduced. Or perhaps a better analogy is copies of copies, with the template eventually blurring into something indistinct. Six returns again and again to the source material of (First Sequence), cannibalizing his original characters for subsequent villains, and in doing so creates characters who are more upsetting than entertaining to watch. Most notably, he brought back Dieter Laser to portray evil control-freak prison warden Bill Boss, on whom the third movie’s atrocities hinge.
Laser was the best part of (First Sequence), gnashing his teeth and marching around as Heiter. But here, there is absolutely no connection between the characters, aside from them both being German. For Heiter, submission is a benefit of having a broken-in pet. Boss is completely obsessed with the notion and spends most of (Final Sequence) employing various experiments to break 500 spirits: waterboarding with boiling water, castration, and finally stitching them ass-to-mouth. That final solution comes from his financial adviser Dwight (played by the man who terrified us as Martin in the second film), who is—surprise surprise—a diehard Human Centipede fan.
Heiter dresses like he lives: austere, cool, only the elements that are completely necessary. Boss, constantly sweltering in the Texas heat, alternates between his warden’s uniform and various stages of sloppy undress. All of Heiter’s decisions—every silly hand-drawn diagram and ass incision—were carefully developed and weighed. Boss shoots a gun into a man’s stomach because he’s upset that the inmate cannot be part of his centipede. The more self-aware the movies get, the more difficult it is to explain away their excessive gore and senseless brutality.
The one trait that Heiter and Boss, and Martin and Dwight, share is their violent opposition when plans do not proceed as expected. While getting a check-up from the prison doctor (whose license has been revoked but who has a job thanks to the warden), Boss outright refuses to hear that his blood pressure is dangerously high. Instead, he growls, “I demand some fucking good news.” “You’re in perfect health,” the doctor stammers, and that’s that. Once Boss fixates on Dwight’s idea of uniting the inmates into one submissive creature, he will literally blow a hole through any obstacle in his path.
For some inexplicable reason, these men are so emotionally invested in the human centipede being a viable creature that when each creation invariably fails, it’s the end of the world. They would rather shut themselves in their dream worlds, marathoning the Human Centipede movies and lovingly poring over their scrapbooks and inspiration boards, than face their shortcomings as humans. Except that in this case, the experiment is a cautious success… though not without at least as much bloodshed as the first two failed tries.
And so it goes since (Final Sequence) doesn’t reveal its money shot—the 500-person centipede—until the last 10 minutes (I know because I counted down the running time)! As Boss proudly shows off his handiwork, it becomes clearer and clearer how much he has dehumanized his inmates. Compared to Heiter’s private joke of placing Katsuro at the head of his centipede, it doesn’t much matter who sits in front of the 500-person monstrosity. Though it is worth pointing out that most of the inmates with whom Boss interacts speak languages other than English: Spanish, Arabic, Yiddish.
What also sets this centipede apart from its predecessors, and likely contributes to its overall success, is that the punishment is temporary. For the duration of their sentences, these men will be strapped in place, mouths over asses, end over end, forced to defecate in each other’s mouths, for months or years.
But once a prisoner’s term is up, he can be easily detached from the centipede and released back into society. The only marks he carries from his ordeal are scars around his mouth, which broadcast his punishment to all people he crosses. Boss’ eventual hope is that without the man even having to say so, people will know: he was temporarily silenced, he was made submissive.
There’s one prisoner who has to serve only a short punishment before being released. In a reversal of Katsuro’s defiant death speech to Heiter, this prisoner blubbers an effusive thank you peppered with religious invective. His speech is in Arabic and is untranslated, but it doesn’t need to be. Boss knows exactly what he is saying.
So, the Human Centipede movies come full circle from fatal miscommunications to achieving a higher plane of communication. But while the characters are weirdly united by this gruesome experiment, the movies are forced to separate themselves from the original, and in doing so, to alienate their oldest fans.