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10 Years Out: The Enduring Horror/Satire Legacy Of ‘The Human Centipede’

Look at a list of the horror films released in 2010 and there’s a good chance you’ve heard of a few of them, even if you’re only a casual fan of the genre. There’s James Wan and Leigh Whannell’s back-to-basics Insidious, quietly one of the more influential films of the decade. There’s an awful remake of A Nightmare on Elm Street and a delightfully insane remake of Piranha called Piranha 3-D. Speaking of remakes, 2010 also saw the premiere of Matt Reeves’ Let Me In, an underrated remake of Let the Right One In. There’s The Last Exorcism, one of the best of the found-footage horror films to arrive in the wake of Paranormal Activity. There’s We Are What We Are, a chilling film about cannibals in contemporary Mexico City. There’s something for everyone, really.

Yet none of these movies took hold of the moviegoing imagination quite like The Human Centipede (First Sequence), thanks to a premise so outrageous that no one who hears it can ever forget it — even if they want to. (And if somehow you don’t know the plot of The Human Centipede and want to remain in blissful ignorance, you have permission to stop reading now.)

A quick refresher: Written and directed by Dutch filmmaker Tom Six, The Human Centipede stars veteran German actor Dieter Laser as Dr. Josef Heiter, the sole (permanent) resident of an isolated villa in the German countryside. Once the foremost specialist in separating conjoined twins, he’s gone mad and made a professional 180, trying instead to join three bodies together to form the eponymous human centipede. That sounds unsettling enough, but it’s where Heiter joins them that makes them so memorable. They’re sewn together anus to mouth to form one theoretically seamless digestive system flowing from the first section through the second and out the third.

It’s a gross idea. But it’s also proven to be a remarkably sticky idea (pardon the word choice), one that attracted viewers even before its release and has maintained a cult of admirers ever since. The Human Centipede arrived in theaters in 2010 with a reputation for repulsiveness already established, thanks to months of festival screenings the previous year. On an episode dedicated to the film, Stephen Sajdak, one of the hosts of the We Hate Movies podcast, recalls attending an opening-day matinee and seeing a hyped-up acquaintance arrive wearing a Human Centipede t-shirt before he’d even seen the movie. Nine years after that opening weekend, Alec Baldwin dedicated an episode of Here’s the Thing, a podcast more usually home to chats with Carly Simon and Itzhak Perlman, to an interview with Six. Barely able to contain his excitement, Baldwin volunteers to appear in Six’s next film.

The Human Centipede has inspired bits on Conan and South Park, at least one elaborate Halloween costume, and spawned a pair of sequels. Its weird staying power has made it a reference that’s even many who haven’t seen the film will get. In some strange way, it was the right movie at the right time. Which is odd, because a film whose centerpiece scene involve a man apologizing for defecating into the mouth of the woman behind him would seemingly be the right movie for no time.

So how did the film come to be? And why has it proven so enduring? The first question is easier to answer than the second. “I saw a child molester on television here in Holland, and I made a joke that they should stitch his mouth to the anus of a fat truck driver,” Six told Vulture’s Kenny Herzog as part of an oral history of the series. Developing the idea, Six dropped the idea of righteous retribution but kept the rest. (Even the trucker remained; Heiter’s first victim, he’s deemed incompatible for centipede use, but not before we see him enjoying a roadside bowel movement.) After consulting with a doctor, Six developed the idea then set about bringing it to life.

Doing so required a delicate touch. In New York, the Sixes auditioned actors to play the American tourists brought into Heiter’s lair after a roadside accident. Billing it only as a “controversial European film,” Six attracted many more would-be stars than he kept; many bailed when they learned the nature of their prospective roles. Ultimately, Ashley C. Williams and Ashlynn Yennie signed on as Lindsay and Jenny, who would, respectively, serve as the second and third segments of the centipede. Replacing an injured actor, Akihiro Kitamura came aboard later after auditioning by Skype, taking on the role of Katsuro, the Japanese man who would serve as the centipede’s head. Relative newcomers, Williams, Yennie, and Kiamura joined the well-established Laser, who’d won the German equivalent of the Best Actor Oscar for his work in the 1975 film, John Glückstadt, and appeared in the New German Cinema classic, The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum. Before long, Laser would be ordering them around with a riding crop and delivering dialogue like “Swallow it, bitch!” an order he delivers, like each of his character’s lines, with the unbridled enthusiasm of a madman.

Like its characters, audiences may have similarly found the film tough to digest, but that only helped spread its reputation as a beyond-the-pale act of transgression. Also helping matters: Six’s gift for hype and a tagline boasting the film was “100% Medically Accurate,” a questionable assertion, but an intriguing one nonetheless. It would be a stretch to call The Human Centipede a hit, at least theatrically. Released in a single U.S. theater on April 30, 2010, it never played more than 19 theaters at once, earning just $181,467 domestically. But it moved DVDs, back when DVDs still made money. And, at a moment when VOD was coming into its own, the film found viewers willing to take a chance on the gross movie they’d been reading about online even if they wouldn’t take a trip to the theaters to see it. Its reputation grew over the time. The Human Centipede proved it had legs.

You could call it a brilliant bit of hype that found its suckers, but the description doesn’t really fit. Six made a real movie. Not necessarily a good movie, mind you, but certainly a movie that no one else would have thought to make. Six modeled his villain after Josef Mengele, and his admitted influences include Pier Paolo Pasolini’s divisive anti-fascist film Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom, David Lynch, and Takashi Miike. (The film’s long takes, deliberate pace, and interest in torture owe a particular debt to Miike’s Audition.) But The Human Centipede is more than the sum of its influences for the same horrific reason it found such a foothold in moviegoers’ psyche: it’s hard to stop thinking about the human centipede itself, what it looks like, how it was made, and what it might feel like to be a part of one.

“It’s definitive psychological horror, positioning the viewer to identify with the victim’s suffering and lack of free will,” Karina Longworth wrote in her Village Voice review. She continued: “The Human Centipede is startlingly relatable: Six uses the centipede to talk about humanity. In the tradition of the first Frankenstein films, various contemporary ‘advanced interrogation techniques,’ and certain interpretations of Catholic purgatory, Centipede plays on the notion that the only thing more frightening than death is a state bridging life and death, in which, though one’s body is no longer his own to control, the mind remains conscious. In Six’s view, the moral imperative to preserve life only goes so far—eventually, death is a relief.”

That reference to “advanced interrogation techniques” deserves special consideration. The Human Centipede arrived toward the end of a cycle of what came to be called “torture porn” film, horror movies that placed special emphasis on the details of pain inflicted on the human body. The Saw films popularized the form, but it’s no accident that it coincided with an international debate over the morality of torture. Those sorts of anxieties inevitably find their way into horror movies. But The Human Centipede was less explicit. Its protagonists’ horror is as much existential as physical (though the physical element probably shouldn’t be understated). Roger Ebert refused to assign it a star rating, but only at the end of a review that noted Six has “the soul of a dark artist.” “Is the movie good? Is it bad? Does it matter?,” Ebert concluded. “It is what it is and occupies a world where the stars don’t shine.” Made at the end of a decade defined by horror’s newfound extremity, its utter, inescapable hopelessness suggest a new sort of extreme.

It’s one Six struggled to reach again. Focusing on a disturbed Londoner obsessed with the film, 2011’s The Human Centipede 2 (Full Sequence) multiplied the bodies and the stitching and added a new layer of sexual violence. It earned little of the respect, grudging or otherwise, of the original and failed to capture the imagination of the public at large. Released in 2015, The Human Centipede 3 (Final Sequence) made even less of an impression. (I can’t judge this one myself, having bailed on the series after the second entry. Life is short and the brain can take only so many repulsive images.) Six has yet to complete a follow-up project. But, a decade on, the original’s dark vision maintains its weird attraction. It’s driven by an awful idea, but one that’s impossible to forget, and one whose disturbing resonance seems unlikely to fade away any time soon.

When Dieter Laser died earlier this month, headlines from Variety to The Guardian mentioned only one film: The Human Centipede. Some nightmares have a way of overshadowing everything around them.