On this week’s episode of Wandering Monster, John, Lemons, and I discuss medical monsters – a topic that has perhaps never been more relevant to the three of us for reasons I don’t need to go into here (not to mention this whole “pandemic” thing that I’ve heard might be going on). Make sure to check it out, as it’s a doozy of an episode!
Not to toot my own horn, but one of the things that makes it a doozy is my selection for monster of the week: Josef Heiter, the perverse sadist (and talented surgeon!) at the dark heart of the infamous Dutch film The Human Centipede (First Sequence).
NOTE: MASSIVE CONTENT WARNING AND SPOILERS.
Now, for the uninitiated, The Human Centipede is one of those films (alongside such delights as 1978’s Faces of Death, 1980’s Cannibal Holocaust, and even slightly tamer fare such as 1976’s Blood Sucking Freaks) that lives in the dark, twilit world of transgressive horror. In transgressive horror, the emphasis is often less on artistry than on attempts to elicit shock, outrage, and genuine revulsion. While all horror is, by its very nature, transgressive to some extent, the category of horror to which Human Centipede belongs places its primary emphasis on deliberately crossing lines and violating taboos, the better to induce a shocked state in the viewer or reader. Good transgressive horror can then use this shock-state to illuminate an existential question (and, often, to subsequently provide a nihilistic answer). Bad transgressive horror – which might seem to outside observers like a redundancy – resorts to mere oppositional-defiance shock-for-shock’s-sake. I will leave it to those brave enough to sit through it to determine which of these camps Tom Six’s little medical freak-show falls into.
In Human Centipede, perverse German surgeon Josef Heiter (played by Dieter Laser) devises an experiment which he performs on a trio of hapless tourists by stitching them together, mouth-to-anus, to form a “human centipede” with “one digestive tract.” (Yes, you read that right.) This charming little film dropped in 2009, which if you’ll recall was in the very early age of social media (how time flies!). As a result, word-of-mouth was still a powerful marketing tool, and The Human Centipede did not need much help in that department. I first heard whispers of it from a co-worker and, after I had subjected myself to the film (which is a tough watch, I’m not going to lie), immediately proceeded to spread those whispers myself.
My experience with Human Centipede reminded me of similar experiences I’ve had with transgressive art; hearing murmurs of something unspeakable, learning that said unspeakable thing actually exists, subjecting myself to it, and then spreading the word. It’s a lot like the journey I went on with the Marquis de Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom, or aforementioned films like Faces of Death. The rumors, the whispers, the dread and anticipation – all are part of the experience of transgressive horror, which is (perhaps more than even other genres of horror) only something that can be fully enjoyed when it is shared. Or, thought of another way, inflicted upon one’s dear friends like a malign prank.
The “punchline,” if one wants to think of it that way, of The Human Centipede should be obvious: you never want to be part of a human centipede, but if you are, you really don’t want to be the third segment. I’m a pretty tough customer, but when writer/director Tom Six treats us to the first bowel movement that the “centipede” engages in, hanging on to one’s lunch becomes a challenge. Sure, I’ve seen “two girls one cup” (for the love of Lucifer, if you don’t know what that is do not Google it), but Human Centipede actually has some dark artistry to it, which makes the transgression of coprophagia all the more upsetting.
The proliferation of social media and a generally more jaded, outrage-weary public have made it much more difficult to sneak a sleeper transgressive film like The Human Centipede under the radar, where it can work its black magick via the primal mechanism of whispered word-of-mouth. That might stand as a loss for the horror junkies dedicated (some would say addicted) to the genre’s most hardcore offerings, but I also think that it has removed what amounts to a cheap trick from the arsenal of horror. Fare that transgresses in a more subtle, intelligent way could bloom and flourish in the space opened up by this change. Time – and the creativity and perversity of horror creators – will tell.