In all of the conversations I had leading up to and following my viewing of The Human Centipede 2, a single question kept reoccurring: “Why do you want to see that?” The answer to that question seems like it could have larger implications than just for me personally. Considering the extremity of its subject matter, the modesty of its budget, and the total lack of recognizable talent attached to the franchise, it’s alarming how effortlessly writer/director Tom Six’s sadistic, coprophagic fantasy has slipped into our cultural consciousness, producing everything from chew toys, to celebrity Halloween costumes, to high-profile parodies on popular television shows.
If I had to guess, I would posit that the magic of Human Centipede lay in the fact that its central premise is at once both shockingly repellent and hilariously absurd. Even as you feel that twinge of disgust at the thought of being sewn ass-to-mouth with another human being, there’s something so ridiculously over-the-top about it that it feels totally safe to laugh about. And indeed, for all of the furor, controversy, and invective tossed around regarding The Human Centipede (First Sequence), the end product is surprisingly tepid, almost campy. Compared to his torture porn brethren Eli Roth and the parade of Saw directors, Six is reserved, even tasteful, in his usage of gore, and once you get past the squirm-inducing premise, there isn’t a lot that happens onscreen to really shock or titillate. But more enervating than its lack of splatter is the overall laxness of its storytelling. You have a motiveless mad scientist inflicting surgical torture upon victims with no personality, backstory, or distinguishing characteristics. While Six’s intentions may have been to use horror movie clichés to lure his audience into a sense of security, the end result is a movie that feels like it is merely marking time until its leads are human centipede’d together. In short, it’s a film more deserving of shrugs than condemnation.
But Full Sequence outdoes its predecessor in almost every way. It’s shot in a stark, grainy black and white (captured beautifully by cinematographer David Meadows, whose previous work appears to have been primarily camera operation for various TV doc series) that paints every scene in a squalid pallor. In place of Dieter Laser’s bug-eyed demon surgeon, we have Laurence R. Harvey’s Martin, a corpulent, balding, mentally disabled parking lot attendant. Harvey is undoubtedly the film’s greatest asset. If the entire movie had just been 90 minutes of him eating cereal in his tighty whiteys, he would still have haunted my nightmares. He gives himself over to the role entirely, and the sequence where Martin titters and flails his arms with childlike glee as he surveys his handiwork is one of the few legitimately unsettling moments in a film whose only real strategy is to overwhelm the viewer with repulsive, nausea-inducing cruelty. Indeed, there’s nothing coy or timid about violence this time around. Like HC2’s protagonist, Six revels equally in the agonies of his mostly nameless extras as in the discomfort of his audience.
To a certain extent, the movie feels like a very expensive practical joke. The meta-fictional premise — in which a lonely miscreant, warped by years of sexual abuse from his father and psychological abuse from his mother, becomes obsessed with recreating the events from The Human Centipede film — is an obvious wink to Six’s most vociferous critics. Yet while the latest installment of the trilogy is better shot, better acted, and more extreme than the original, it still fails to provide a reason to care. There’s scarcely a character in the film that isn’t just a blank slate or a grotesque cliché, the great exception being Martin’s lecherous psychologist, Dr. Sebring, who speaks alternately in Freudian psychobabble (psychologists are still all about Freud, right?) and non-sequiturs (“I’d rather be fucking that retarded boy”), and whose presence in every scene is comically perplexing. The plot is about as linear as they come and can easily be summed up with “Martin collects people to make a human centipede and then makes them into a human centipede.” Moreover, if you can look past the stultifying brutality, then it becomes pretty obvious that Six was too concerned with looking for new and horrible things to do with human skin to worry too much about plausibility (Martin is never so much as visited by a supervisor, let alone a police officer, despite the fact that roughly a dozen people have gone missing over an indeterminate amount of time and their goddamn cars are all still in the parking lot where he works).
But all of the above shortcomings would be forgivable if I felt like Six were genuinely trying to communicate something to us. I don’t want to be so crass as to say a movie like this needs a “moral” or a “message,” but while Six likes to put himself in the same company as Cronenberg and Pasolini, his films contain none of the intelligence or commentary that made those legendary directors’ dark and grueling visions so captivating. The film doesn’t mean to inspire dialogue, except for perhaps the most facile sort about the limits of good taste and the legitimacy of censorship. You are meant to delight in sadistic acts for their own sake, to derive some kind of pleasure from your own disgust over those acts. Thus, I do not object to Six’s film for being too “transgressive,” nor do I condemn it for overstepping the bounds of decency; to do either of those things would be to give him too much credit. No, the real problem with Human Centipede 2 is that, when you see past the blood, shit, and viscera, what you’re left with is actually a pretty boring film. The only takeaway from HC2 is that people are, at worst, mean-spirited shits and, at best, empty vessels to be filled with pain, and frankly that’s just not a worldview that holds any interest for me.