Friday, April 30, 2010

That's a Pretty Funny Looking Centipede

.Here's what I think happened: Tom Six was struggling to think of a truly ghastly and shocking hook for his new horror film, and was coming up empty. Everything, it seemed to him, had been done already. Every conceivable bit of grotesquerie that might make an audience vomit or flee had either already been done in the 70s, or by the Japanese, or by Pasolini all by his lonesome. Disconsolate, Six tried to unwind with a little on-line pornography, when he stumbled across a particular type of video, and thought, "Well now hey..." As a result, we now have The Human Centipede. Thanks a lot, porn.
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The Human Centipede is, of course, the new arthouse shock-horror film that's now being talked up everywhere that might be likely to talk up such things, and Tom Six is its writer-director. The reason the film is on anyone's radar is because of the premise, which is very nearly described by the title. That premise is as follows: in Germany, two hard-partying American girls (Ashley C. Williams and Ashlynn Yennie) find themselves lost in the rain and trees of the semi-rural German countryside when they stumble upon the house of a mad doctor (Dieter Laser), who drugs them both. Adding to his new cache of guinea pigs a Japanese tourist (Akihiro Kitamura) who he kidnaps off-screen, the doctor -- who publicly specializes in separating Siamese twins -- conducts his dream surgery/experiment, and slices and grafts and stitches his three victims together, connecting them mouth-to-anus, forming what he calls a "human centipede".
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And voilá -- instant shock classic, I suppose. Because make no mistake: that premise is the movie. Well, that and Dieter Laser, who I'll admit has an undeniable presence, and provides the film with a better central performance than it deserves. But outside of that the film is curiously inert and unimaginative. Stylistically, it's positively barren, unless by "style" you're willing to count the fact that the inside of the doctor's house is mostly white. I can recall no setting of mood through framing, or pace, or anything that might indicate that Tom Six has a filmmaker's eye. The only thing he brings to the table, if you want to view this as a positive, is that centipede idea, and here's the joke about that: it's not even that shocking. On paper, yes, sure (but also kind of stupid, and strained, and inorganic), but in execution what you end up with is three people on all fours whose lower torsos are swaddled in bandages, and whose faces are connected to the next-one-along's posterior also by bandages. Besides some hint of Joker-style scarring on their cheeks, bandages do the work that, in most horror films, would be handled by the make-up department. The final effect of this is of three people not surgically grafted together, but rather tied together, and not even that securely.
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Please understand, it's not that I desired to see this idea presented in a more robust and direct manner, but I would think that if you're going to have this idea in the first place, and like it enough to base an entire film around it, you'd at least have the courage of your own convictions and go ahead and actually do it. But no, this shocking film is almost ridiculously unshocking, and I was left wondering why anyone even bothered. And it's not even that the film has other things on its mind: there is a particular biologically unavoidable bit of awfulness inherent in this whole human centipede idea that is addressed, and it's handled by having Kitamura, who plays the front of the centipede and therefore is the only one who can speak, say "Oh no, that's about to happen!", followed by a shot of the girl behind him making eye motions that indicate she'd rather it didn't happen. That's it, and this biological imperative is never made apparent as an aspect of their daily torture. Again, I'm glad I didn't see anything like that, but I say to you, Tom Six: This movie was your idea, motherfucker. You shoulder the burden of thinking things through, and showing, or addressing but not showing -- depending on the form, structure, and style (which you don't have) used to make the movie -- what can reasonably be extrapolated from your premise. I shouldn't have to do that for you.
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The final question about The Human Centipede is how we're intended, finally, to take it. Quite a few people are claiming that it can only work if viewed as a black comedy, and I'll grant that Laser's performance does feed that theory at times, but if that's the tone Six was aiming for, he misses for one very simple reason: it's not funny. Not in the "such things shouldn't be joked about" sense, but in the "I didn't laugh when I guess I was supposed to" sense. So with that out of the way, we're left to wonder how it works as a horror film. The answer is "Not that well". Among the reasons for that is the poor execution of the film's only horrible idea, and that colors everything else. I could also argue that the three victims don't exist as human beings, even before they get turned into a centipede, but that would be okay if I ever believed they were truly suffering, which, because I don't find pretty clean-looking bandages to be inherently terrible, I didn't. The closest the film comes to achieving horror is at the very end, when we reach what could probably be regarded as the inevitable punchline. This coda is pretty unspeakable, but we reach that point because one character behaves in a way that is completely illogical, and which in no way reflects their behavior up to that point. So the one moment that might actually have an impact isn't even come by honestly.
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Like I said at the beginning: thanks a lot, porn.
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The Collection Project Film of the Day:
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One thing I've heard more than once from admirers of The Human Centipede -- and so intended, I can only conclude, as praise for what Tom Six has given us -- is "This isn't Hostel." No indeed it is not, because Hostel (d. Eli Roth) is much better.
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There's no question that Roth's film -- about a small group of horny male tourists finding themselves up-for-sale in a Slovakian club that offers human beings as high-priced murder victims -- is a flawed film, but viewed in relation to The Human Centipede it seems positively inspired. Roth has taken a lot of flack over the years, sometimes for good reason, but I think it's impossible to deny that the guy has talent. My frustration with him as a filmmaker is that he sometimes lacks follow-through, but watching Hostel again today I was once again impressed not only by his eye, and sense of tone (the opening credits of Hostel have more style, mood, and sense of creeping dread than the entirety of The Human Centipede), and, more than anything, his ability to craft small moments amidst the over-the-top mayhem. There's the moment when one of the clients of the Slovakian murder club, a German man, realizes that his victim can beg for his life in a language that he, the client, understands (he bought an American, but the guy happens to know German), and the client then loses almost all sense of power. Or Rick Hoffman in a brilliant turn as an American client, whose aggression and sociopathy almost overwhelm his ability to speak. Or the Japanese client (Takashi Miike) , who says of the club, "Be careful -- you can spend all your money in there", as though he were just leaving a casino.
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Hostel is full of little touches like that, and when you get right down to it, I think that's the real difference, because The Human Centipede has no little touches. There's no eye for detail, or humanity, or behavior, and no ear for human speech (Roth has a bit of that, too) beyond the level of competency. Hostel is, whatever you think of it, a real movie, and The Human Centipede exists only so people can say "Can you believe they made a movie about stitching people's mouths to other people's asses?"

9 comments:

Dennis Cozzalio said...

It is interesting that this movie is getting a lot of good notices from people who have also been very vocal in their disdain of Roth's movies and other grandiose moments in the history of what as come to be known as "torture porn." Is Michael Haneke available for comment?! I didn't much care for Hostel, though I did like Part II and I can see why you bring the first film up in relation to this new one, which I have not yet seen. The writers who are going out of their way to be generous to Six and his film seem to be reaching for a lot of reasoning that doesn't sound very convincing coming from their keyboards. (I'm thinking particularly of Karina Longworth's review.)

As a horror fan I will see it, and I'll be very interested to communicate with you further when I do because I find your reaction-- the absolute lack of shock and revulsion (at least in the form the director obviously intended)-- to be interesting in and of itself, especially as a contrast to David Edelstein's sincere disgust and outrage. I'm not being facetious when I say I had a similar reaction to Precious-- this is a movie that should have horrified me but didn't because it was so bedrock phony and ineptly made, and that's what ended up shocking me about the whole enterprise.

How did you see this, Bill, theatrically, or on cable? Just curious, 'cause it hasn't opened in L.A. yet, and I noticed someone on Movieline live-blogging his viewing of it his afternoon from Time Warner cable.

bill r. said...

I very much look forward to you seeing this, Dennis, and reading your thoughts on it. I predict that, like me, you'll like Dieter Laser, and then call it quits from there.

I haven't read Longworth's review, but I heard she liked it. I'll check that one out, and Edelstein's. The film just seems to me to be pretty useless, and I can't see any reason to get worked up either way. I would probably have been more indifferent to it had nobody run to its defense. It's like they want to be in on something...

I saw it On Demand. It's an IFC film now, and my cable package has IFC Same Day as Theater VODs.

Roderick Heath said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Roderick Heath said...

Something that links The Human Centipede and Hostel, and an aspect which a surprising number of critics feign ignorance of, is that this branch of the horror film is influenced less by commonly cited factors like anxiety over the War on Terror or anything, but by internet pornography. Both of these films are built around the imagery and paraphernalia of S&M fantasies but with overt sexuality removed and replaced by raw sadism, designed to tap into the sleazier side of our beloved internet culture and the anxieties it provokes.

bill r. said...

That's a fair point, Rod, especially when you consider that Eli Roth has said that a friend of a friend of a friend, or something, came across the kind of website that offered the kind of services depicted in HOSTEL. Not that I buy that, mind you, but it still provides an internet link to the whole thing.

And the connection to internet porn, or at least porn, is I think pretty unavoidable in HUMAN CENTIPEDE. And of course most porn is to be found, well, here -- very broadly speaking, you understand -- so, yeah, I think you're on to something.

Dr. J said...

...I say to you, Tom Six: This movie was your idea, motherfucker. You shoulder the burden of thinking things through, and showing, or addressing but not showing -- depending on the form, structure, and style (which you don't have) used to make the movie -- what can reasonably be extrapolated from your premise. I shouldn't have to do that for you.

Hehe. Amen to that.

Bryce Wilson said...

My theory on Roth is that he's kind of our generations William Castle. He talks a better game then he plays but its an awful lot of fun to hear him talk that game.

I agree with Dennis that Hostel II is his best movie, as it actually hit some real thematic depth with the way it showed how things that shouldn't be for sale often are (I still maintain that "the auction" scene is the most frightening thing he ever shot and there's not a drop of blood in it).

If I had my druthers, I'd put him on a strict movie every two years regime for the rest of the decade. Not all of them would be good, but it'd build up a big body of work for him to develop and play with, which is kind of what I think he needs as a director more then anything.

Dr. J said...

My theory on Roth is that he's kind of our generations William Castle. He talks a better game then he plays but its an awful lot of fun to hear him talk that game.

That sounds about right.

Little as I've cared for anything Roth has produced so far, at his very worst I don't think he'd be capable of putting out something so flat-out stupid as this "Human Centipede" thing sounds.

bill r. said...

Bryce - I honestly don't think Roth talks a very good game. To me, that's when he often comes off as obnoxious, at least when he's trying to force political subtext into his films after the fact.

I also think HOSTEL II was a step down from the first film. Many of the problems I have with HOSTEL are amplified in the sequel, like the cut-off penis scene, and the head-soccer, which I think is an atrocious idea. Not that it doesn't also have its good moments, and a terrific central idea. But my main problem with HOSTEL II is that I think the clients should have been the main characters, and the girls should have supported their story. That would have been a really interesting film.

Also, that "two film a year" thing seems to be playing out already. Three years between CABIN FEVER and HOSTEL, two more until HOSTEL II, and nothing since. I know HOSTEL II was a financial disappointment, but I hope he gets back on track soon. I'm curious to see where he goes next. He could make something terrible -- this is a distinct possibility -- but I'm curious anyway.

Dr. J - Roth has a good eye. Tom Six, from what I've seen, doesn't. So stupid or not, Roth is going to win out until and unless Six develops any kind of style.

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