It’s been over ten years since the shocking Tom Six film entered the cinema world with mixed results. In many cases, The Human Centipede won’t go down on the list as one of the greatest horror films of all time since the reviews were divided by critics and fans; in fact, The Human Centipede holds the distinction of being the only review to receive no stars from legendary critic Robert Ebert. However, there’s no denying the impression that this controversial film made. The Human Centipede did an excellent job of grossing out audiences, but the main reason that this film left such a lasting impact is that it taps into a different fear that the horror genre isn’t used to. Psychological horror is nothing new, but the mental fear that The Human Centipede plays on is. The Human Centipede explores the “what if” scenario, instilling the notion that there are fates worse than death.
The film is about a successful conjoined twin surgeon who has an unhealthy obsession with creating the world’s first human centipede: sewing three people, in a line, ass-to-mouth. Unfortunately for Lindsay (Ashley C. Williams), Jenny (Ashlynn Yennie), and Katsuro (Akihiro Kitamura), they’re forced to take part of Dr. Josef Heiter (Dieter Laser) sick fantasy of stitching three people together by their gastric systems. The thought of being attached to the another human being for the rest of your life is horrifying. If you’re the middle or end piece, there’s little chance for escape. Your mouth is attached to someone’s backside, and as showcased later in the feature, Jenny is forced to swallow the feces that come out of Katsuro. More importantly, all three characters lose their freedom. They can’t simply crawl back to their everyday lives of work, family, and fun; they’re eternally stuck with a sick madman who has little disregard for their humanity. Lindsay, Jenny, and Katsuro are serving a life sentence in the confines of Dr. Heiter’s home. They even lost the right to simply eat, sleep, and breathe like prisoners can do behind bars. At least with death, you’re not suffering physically and mentally each and every day under the rule of some lunatic who sees you as a pet.
Characterization is an essential tool in storytelling for every genre of filmmaking; however, it’s widely known that horror bends the rules a bit when it comes to this format. For example, Jaime Lee Curtis‘s Laurie Strode is a beloved final girl, but in truth, there’s not much depth to her character when she’s introduced in the first Halloween feature. That style of storytelling is prominent in The Human Centipede, as we don’t know anything about Lindsay, Jenny, and Katsuro, but their characters are crafted well enough that they don’t come across as unlikeable. This actually works in favor of the feature. Granted, if the backstory of these three protagonists were showcased, then viewers would’ve had a stronger connection to Lindsay, Jenny, and Katsuro. However, by leaving an air of mystery about them, it makes the incident more unpredictable. Though we don’t know who they are personally, it’s not hard to sympathize with these characters because it’s clear that Dr. Heiter has evil intentions in mind. Their panic and fear immediately strikes a chord with viewers.
That sense of dread overcomes our emotions as each second passes by; the drama and tension comes from the psychological hell that these characters are being put through. They’re scared because a perverted mad man with an equally unknown backstory has disrupted the status quo. Once the human centipede is officially formed, the anxiety is racked up even further because it’s now harder for these three to escape. This could’ve easily turned into some gross-out creature feature like David Cronenberg‘s The Fly or John Carpenter‘s The Thing, but Tom Six wisely doesn’t shatter the illusion of reality by not going overboard with this sort of tactic. It’s the reason the first feature in his three-part trilogy remains the best as Six went The Texas Chain Saw Massacre route by not going crazy with the blood and gore, focusing on the psychological aspect instead.
Seeing this newly formed centipede being treated like a dog may come across mundane or pointless, but the purpose was to showcase just how demented and cruel Heiter is. This helps gravitate towards rooting for Lindsay, Jenny, and Katsuro to somehow escape this unimaginable nightmare. These characters may be paper thin, but Tom Six does deserve credit for writing situations that make it incredibly hard to side with Heiter’s character. Even the infamous scene of Katsuro relieving himself into Jenny’s mouth is wisely played for a comedic effect, yet him saying, “Swallow it, bitch!” continues to show his disregard for human life and keeps him away from becoming a fan favorite like Freddy Krueger. The drama rises when it’s revealed that Jenny (the middle of the centipede) is dying due to lack of nutrition. This gives the protagonists a timer that forces them to act or die under the roof of this demented surgeon. The climax of the film is pretty simple, but is surprisingly haunting and effective.
Katsuro has lost all hope in surviving this ordeal, so he opts to kill himself. Katsuro had the best chance at survival, since he is at the front of the centipede, but he’s been broken down mentally throughout the feature and to him, this was his only option. Significant moments like this are overlooked because The Human Centipede is seen as a gross-out film; however, the examination of human behavior is the true theme of this 2010 horror feature. Is physical or mental pain is worse? Even the ending that sees Jenny eventually die following Katsuro’s suicide cements that statement. Lindsay is still alive by the time credits roll, but at what cost? She’s the tail end of two people whose corpse will surely rot due to the lack of food and oxygen. Plus, she won’t be able to eat anything herself because her face is stitched to Jenny’s backside. In addition, her only chance at help was killed off by Heiter before his death. Lindsay will die a slow and painful death unless she decides to call it quits like Katsuro.
It’s understandable why fans are so divided when it comes to The Human Centipede. On the surface, it comes across as a horror feature that’s meant to make you vomit or walk out of the theater. However, the film is actually deeper than the gross-out scenes. Does this mean that The Human Centipede is a horror classic? No, but it’s also not a bad film either. Whatever camp you stand in when it comes to The Human Centipede, it surely made a lasting impression that won’t be forgotten in the world of horror.