Easy to deride, and easier to dismiss, "The Human Centipede (First Sequence)" nonetheless works as a calculated provocation. Demented in premise and execution, Dutch filmmaker Tom Six's grotesque exercise in shock cinema has enough competence on its own terms to allow for a deeper reading. Put bluntly, the movie involves a mad German surgeon kidnapping a trio of foreigners and sewing them together - mouth to anus, twice over, linking their gastric tracts - to create the multi-human apparatus of the title. Spoiler alert and warning to anyone with an aversion to graphically exploitative images: He succeeds.
Watching "The Human Centipede," I was reminded of two key lines of dialogue from Kevin Smith's "Clerks 2," of all things. (Both movies rely on vulgar indulgences, but the reference point is otherwise incidental.) The first, "You never go ass to mouth," describes the perils of the deranged surgical procedure indicated by the newer movie's title. The second - "I'm disgusted and repulsed and I can't look away" - explains its fundamental appeal.
As a blunt assault on political correctness, "The Human Centipede" has enough confrontational visuals to turn it into one of the most deplorable movies in ages. The infamous 2007 French thriller "Inside" showed a crude caesarean section in merciless, close-up detail, but "The Human Centipede" tops that with a scene in which one character involuntarily defecates into the mouth of an unwilling participant. It's enough to make the viral video sensation "2 Girls 1 Cup" look meek.
But the harrowing nature of the scenario resonates in scene after scene with thematic justification. That might not expand the range of audiences willing to tolerate it, but Six's blatant decision to imbue the story with metaphoric value endows it with significance beyond simple repulsiveness. The director names his psychotic surgeon (Dieter Laser) - a delusional Aryan villain for the ages - Dr. Josef Heiter, a stone's throw away from Josef Mengele. Like the notorious Nazi physician, Heiter's medical background involves research with twins, and his uselessly crude experimentation on human subjects echoes Mengele's own dreadful projects.
Heiter's victims include two clueless young American girls (Ashley C. Williams and Ashlynn Yennie) and a fiery Japanese man (Akihiro Kitamura), creating a mixture of nationalities that strikes me as messily arranged World War II symbolism. The girls, whose car breaks down in the woods, walk straight into the trap. Their cheerful obliviousness to the danger at hand forms Six's insight into American ignorance of a looming fascist threat. The Japanese captive, meanwhile, inhabits a zone of moral ambiguity: Placed at the head of the human centipede, his combative nature impresses the doctor even as he keeps him imprisoned. There's a categorical difference between this choice and Adolf Hitler's contradictory admiration of Japanese imperialism, but hints of the historical parallels linger beneath the surface.
The horror genre is no stranger to genocidal metaphors. For decades, Robin Hardy has explained the cultish murder at the climax of "The Wicker Man" as a fictional reconstruction of the Nuremberg rallies. Although few critics can see past the sheer insanity of it, "The Human Centipede" visibly represents an attempt at creating closeness with the infliction of suffering through genre conventions, which it accomplishes to a remarkably effective degree.
But since the revolting imagery comes hard and fast, the movie lacks the classical chills of "The Wicker Man" or Wes Craven's early works, where subtleties enhance the horrific finality of an innocent character getting tortured to death. Only in its early scenes does "The Human Centipede" successfully convey a low key spookiness, as its ill-fated American tourists gradually set themselves up for doom.
With the full scenario on view, however, Six traffics in extreme sensationalism. Many people will write off the movie for this factor alone. Fortunately, Six maintains sufficient production values to keep dedicated viewers in check; too many shaky cam shots would ruin the fear that comes with the belief that the medical procedure actually takes place. With that element of credibility comes the metaphor - a formless but potent stab at human vulnerability to the corruption of its own kind.
The context emerges from a thinly conceived arrangement that nonetheless makes the situation more bearable to my eyes than it has any right to be. Six dares viewers to look away, and many of them will undoubtedly oblige. That very impulse endows "The Human Centipede" with irrevocable power, and almost makes it profound.
"The Human Centipede (First Sequence)" opens on Friday, April 28th on VOD and in NYC theaters on Friday, April 30th, expanding on May 7th.