The first impulse when discussing the gruesome details of "The Human Centipede II (Full Sequence)," Tom Six's simultaneously anticipated and feared follow-up to the 2009 cult hit, is simply to describe them. First, here's the plot: A bite-sized British security guard takes his fetishization of the first movie to maniacal extremes, gathering 12 victims and enacting an elaborate and much gorier centipede of his own.
[Editor's Note: This review was originally published during indieWIRE's coverage of Fantastic Fest where "Human Centipede II" had its world premiere. It comes out in limited release this Friday, October 7 through IFC Films.]
For those unfamiliar with the original, the act in question (devised by a mad German scientist) calls for the sewing together of three victims, bluntly put, ass to mouth. With four times as much centipede this time out, the gory expectations have exponentially increased. Less outright horror than relentless in-your-face physical insanity, the premise is self selecting: It invites only those viewers up for the task.
Of note: Distributor IFC Films had an ambulance stationed outside Austin's Alamo Drafthouse, where the film premiered on opening night of Fantastic Fest. The ambulance was intended as shtick that echoed the promo efforts of William Castle, as were the barf bags at every seat. However, after the screening two very real paramedics were helping a woman in the lobby who felt sick. With a movie like "Human Centipede II," you have two choices: Use your imagination or confront the real thing. Those falling into the latter camp should read on.
So here goes. The provocations take a while to arrive, but certainly leave a mark. These include: Tendons sliced in graphic close-up; teeth hammered into a gullet one by one; butt cheeks sliced along a dotted line; and a scene (admittedly inventive) of anal rape involving barbed wire. Staples take the place of stitches. There's also enforced diarrhea that passes through each member of the ill-fated centipede clan in a moment that includes the primarily black-and-white movie's only use of color.
In each instance, the offending act includes no anesthetic, not to mention any merciful cutaway for potentially squeamish audience members. "The Human Centipede II" is about as sick as you might expect from the material.
And yet, like the original, the most shocking aspect comes from the revelation that Six can actually tell a story. Unable to resurrect the memorable character played by Dieter Laser in the near-iconic lead role of the original, Six centers his meta-narrative on Martin (a perfectly chilly Lawrence R. Harvey), an eagle-eyed little person who never speaks a single word. Think Peter Lorre in Fritz Lang's "M" crossed by Mini-Me with a dose of Norman Bates-caliber psychological trauma. Six wastes no time establishing Martin as a textbook lunatic.
Haunted by James Edward Berker's creepy soundtrack, Martin's world is an oppressive place. He lives at home with his mom and suffers from traumatic memories of his incarcerated father sexually assaulting him in his youth. He keeps a real centipede as a pet and watches the original movie on constant loop, dreaming of the possibilities therein. From the first scene, he begins gathering his targets (one of whom, Ashlynn Yennie, portrayed a victim in the first movie and here plays a fictionalized version of herself) and rounds them up in an abandoned warehouse.
When he finally gets to work on his subjects, "The Human Centipede II" turns into a meandering shockfest redeemed by the finale's clever twist. Six maintains a grasp on the material in certain scenes, but as a whole it wanders all over the place. Most scenes pit the grotesque ingredients against a pervading dry wit that sets the movie apart from the persistently grim aura of the first installment, although when it veers into farce, "The Human Centipede II" loses any semblance of scariness and turns into Troma-style camp.
While the first movie invited comparisons to the early visceral horror films of David Cronenberg, the new work plays like Six's attempt to channel Darren Aronofsky. That would be the first half, anyway, a black-and-white psychological thriller about a seriously confused man that suggests "Pi" meets "Psycho." Once Martin makes his centipede, however, the sequel becomes a lesser work, littered with gimmicks that dare you to look away but don't exactly raise the bar compared to innumerable other modern examples of torture porn.
The disconnect between the enjoyably old-school spookiness of the first half and the surgical mayhem of the second gives "The Human Centipede II" an absurd sense of purpose. It showcases Six's willingness to sacrifice his genuine skill for the sake of a single ludicrous grain of inspiration. Parodied on "South Park" and adapted as videogame, the human centipede concept has a life of its own and Six prevails over it like a proud papa. The sequel adds to the legacy without deepening it, celebrating its status as a provocation; this is a party with a selective invitation list.
Six's screenplay puts it out there plain and simple when one man breaks free and gets the opportunity to plead his case. Instead, he can only state the obvious: "The Human Centipede," he shouts, "is a fucking film!" But Six, having already promised a third installment, realizes it's more than that. "The Human Centipede" is an idea, and he runs with it as far as he can.
criticWIRE grade: B
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Given the cultural appeal of the original, this sequel is bound to land a huge audience on VOD as well as solid theatrical returns in limited release, especially from midnight screenings.