Human Centipede II: Full Sequence (The Netherlands, 2011)
Over the past few months, on tour with my book that is partially about ghosts, I’ve been asked to address what I like about horror films. I get the question from three varieties of folks, the first most frequently: feminists who cannot understand why I would willingly consume rampant misogyny. Sure. I get that. Also: cultural and film critics who know my work on independent publishing, Southeast Asia, women’s rights, marketing, and art history and believe horror films to be less worthy of serious attention than these other subjects. (Note that I’m sort of with them on this one, too.) Finally: horror fans, who subdivide into two further categories: men, many of whom are interested in hearing from someone else on their favorite genre, but most of whom really are not, and women, who have no further questions for me except to ask for the URL of this site.
It leaves me in the sort of awkward position of my horror film criticism only making sense to those who already see what I do: A place to look, gleefully and sometimes far too closely, at how humans treat each other in fantasy and without oversight or retribution. Horror film is where we can watch power in the process of corruption, until it becomes evil—unadulterated, and without excuses. Horror films show us who, in our collective cultural imaginary, we endow with the ability to harm, to save, to fail, or to survive. It is a space where body integrity is not assured anyone and where the range of props for inducing otherworldly or far too corporal experiences is constantly expanding. Horror films allow for endless experimentation of the imagination, beyond morals, beyond ethics, where the solitary measure of success is whether an audience loses composure while watching. Comedian friends claim their arena is the only one where a palpable emotional response is the goal: so, however, do strippers. Horror films—or haunted houses, when available—are, in truth, the same. Sexual desire and laughter, however, have their boosters, many of whom are not considered amoral.
But the horror genre revels in the abject, and no one has ever lodged a solid, believable defense for deliberately scaring the shit out of people. I won’t, here, either, but I can try to explain why it’s worth thinking about. And I’ll do it by describing a horror film I didn’t at all enjoy, Human Centipede II: Full Sequence.
The first film in the now-trilogy established the series as a study in the abject—but kind of a pure one, in that it was easy to ignore unless you were interested in the genre. In other words, Tom Six’s Human Centipede was disgusting, but brought out more about the human condition in the film’s scorning as an object of ridicule than it did via artistry or narrative. It portrayed a vile world where a single overeducated and commanding man accrued enough power to mutilate three people out of sight from the rest of the world. People were revolted, but it does serve as something of a metaphor for how we allow men to, ha ha, operate. The film was pornographic, in the sense that people watched it and apparently got pleasure out of it—some, obviously sexual. It was medically believable enough, although more disgusting than scary, and mildly distressing if ultimately hollow and empty. But there was nothing new about it, including that it reminded film boards that censorship might be a good idea, which happens occasionally in film history, and is why the first cut of the second in the franchise was banned in the UK. Anyway my point is that Human Centipede was a horror movie—it explored and elicited fear—but it was not a very interesting one.
Human Centipede II, however, offers significantly less to get your mind around. The thin veneer of medical believability from the first in the series is gone; the crimer this time is a psychopathic parking lot security guard with no interest in medical knowledge save that gained from his obsession with the first film. It seems to me that the shots cut earlier, and are therefore less gory; certainly the use of a hammer and stapler to perform major reconstructive surgery is suspect at best, and one quickly loses the logic of the finer points in the narrative. In fact, the film’s star Laurence R. Harvey plays select moments for laughs, seemingly randomly, as when he gleefully induces his 12-bodied creation to shit into each others’ mouths. “[T]he ceaseless deluge of bodily functions starts to feel less like a confrontational film and more like the project of a poop-obsessed 14-year-old,” Scott Weinberg wrote in the Guardian, assuring the Brits that they were missing nothing of interest. Truly: the film loses quite a bit in the blatant desire to disgust—it even reintroduces some color, just to mark the difference between shit and blood. Fecal matter flies at the camera, and it is brown. When the laxatives Harvey’s character Martin administers kick in, brown runs from the anuses of the victims. There is also a rape, equally logicless. Who could buy this plot or technique for long enough to feel fear?
No one seems to, putting Tom Six on the fast-track to win a Most Boring Director Ever contest. Martin is affected—disgusted by the world, even. OK. Clearly excited by his creation, we are to understand that it is all that he has ever had that is his own. His father abused him sexually, his mother emotionally if not also physically. (Her only spoken lines are when she explains how she wants to kill them both.) Martin has a psychiatrist, who also abuses him sexually. Martin is mentally retarded, and does not speak in the film—yet he has a phone, and people are constantly returning his calls, so there are some consistency issues. Martin’s only beloved companions are a pet centipede and its literary avatar: a scrapbook he has compiled based on repeated viewings of the first film, a document that acts as his blueprint for the events of the second. There is nothing about this film that’s not insipid. No one pretends otherwise.
So I can’t really make the argument for Human Centipede II that I can for its predecessor: This is maybe not even exactly a horror movie. Except it is, because horror is where abjection goes when it fails to fit in anywhere else.
Still, it’s a hard film to take seriously, although some apparently manage. Those that do seem to have allowed the embrace of the abject to crawl under their skin, and are overlooking the film as a cultural product and instead viewing it as—I don’t know, a documentary? Of course there are always going to be crazy people in the world, but Laurence R. Harvey’s Facebook page has 1,417 “Likes” as of this writing, approximately ten times as many as the brilliant Angela Bettis. This may in itself not be so disturbing, but the enthusiasm of those “Likes” kinda is: several of his fans are downright obsessed with him, leaving graphic sexual comments on the wall of the page. Others are bitter, insulting the actor’s looks, demeanor, and activities without acknowledging their artifice. It’s actually disturbing, more so than the film itself. More than one fan details a sexual obsession with the overweight, mute, poop-obsessed asthmatic; some engage in arguments over who is best suited to receive his love.
Of course these folks are not in love with Martin the character nor Harvey the actor, not really. Which is almost the saddest part of the whole thing. They are playing out a drama on social media that expresses a devotion to the elsewhere scorned, an absolute embrace of what no one else desires.
I don’t want to put a metaphor to Human Centipede II that was never there to begin with (lest you think it worth viewing, which it isn’t) but these are people that live in dark places in the world, and stay hidden most of the time. You have to remove a rock or open a damp cellar door to see them, at which point they scurry out with their too many legs and uncomfortable noises.
I do not mean to be dismissive: these are people that identify with the abject. They are actors in our culture, and presumably harbor the potential for political engagement, and certainly maintain a strong voice in cultural politics. It is, occasionally, a voice I must express disagreement with. But they are people.
It is an argument that should strike a chord with feminists, whose job, after all, has always been to organize among the dispossessed. It’s not a popular way of thinking about a women’s rights movement at the moment, but a feminism that does not offer the abject a place to go when they don’t fit in anywhere else is as logicless as Human Centipede II.