REVIEW: The Human Centipede II (Full Sequence) is Gruesome, Masturbatory Torture
Dutch director Tom Six struck a genre nerve (sliced clean through with cold, sterile precision, really) with his 2010 body-horror endurance test The Human Centipede (First Sequence), in which a mad surgeon stitched together three poor souls, end to end to end to end, in the name of twisted science. In the very least, it seems Six has thought good and hard about the film's success and why some of the most disturbed sights and ideas this side of Salo -- his favorite film, naturally -- titillated horror fans so. But in going meta with The Human Centipede II (Full Sequence), in which a mentally challenged British fan of the first film plays copycat with a dozen more unfortunate "patients," Six frequently falls parallel to his own villain, indulging in a depravity of his own design with a masturbatory glee that becomes taxing and torturous to anyone else.
Laurence R. Harvey stars as Martin, a short, overweight, emotionally disturbed middle-aged Brit who lives with his abusive and loathsome mother in a cramped flat and works as a security guard in a sparsely populated underground parking garage. His true, and only, passion in life? Tom Six's The Human Centipede, which exists in the film as it does in real life: A perverse shock movie that became a cult hit around the world thanks to a sense of depravity that can only -- hopefully -- exist in fantasy. Here, however, with Six (the real-life director) manipulating reality with a narcissistic self-reflexivity, the very nature of fan worship and celebrity becomes the basis of new horrors.
When he's not spying on the moneyed strangers who come through his parking garage, Martin is obsessively watching and re-watching The Human Centipede and salivating over its images of mutilation, humiliation and torture. (He also phones the real actors of the first film to lure them to London under false pretenses, posing as a famous genre director's casting agent.) Attempting to find more meaning in the madness, Six hamfistedly draws connections to Martin's obsession with his first film -- and its villain, Dr. Heiter, whom Martin sees as a role model and, perhaps, an ideal paternal figure -- and Martin's own lifelong victimization. Aural flashbacks to sexual abuse at the hands of his own father, the cruelty of his hateful mother, the derision of normal folks who see and treat him like a freak, all hammer this home all too obviously, nearly matched by Six's attempts at commentary on other perceived social ailments: The ease with which anyone can procure weapons, the breakdown of the family unit, the mistreatment of the mentally disabled, the poisonous cycle of sexual and physical abuse. You want to tell Six that yes, we get it already. But then subtlety isn't exactly his thing.
Six almost succeeds in creating sympathy for Martin, a product of his society whose suffering explains the atrocities he eventually commits in the name of claiming some measure of power for himself. (Harvey deserves kudos for pulling this off with nary a line of dialogue; co-star Ashlynn Yennie, who appeared in the first film, earns points for sheer bravery for coming back to play herself.) In his own twisted, cognitively stunted way, Martin has his own moral limits; he'll shoot, maim, mutilate and kill with no qualms, but he makes a point to leave a crying baby alone even as he adds its parents to the pile of hogtied, injured victims imprisoned in his warehouse lair. When some of them die from their wounds, or from choking on their own vomit, Martin sobs over the loss -- but only because it keeps him one step away from realizing his master plan.
But then Six's own desire to shock mucks it all up. At a certain point the affronts become so repetitive they're hardly surprising anymore but instead, predictable; soon enough they go from predictable to downright contemptible. Right around the time Martin, mimicking Dr. Heiter's surgical procedures as best he can (i.e. not well at all), begins prepping for surgery by tossing household items, kitchen utensils and the contents of a toolbox into a suitcase, it becomes clear that things will get a lot messier than they did in Heiter's pristine home laboratory; "100 percent medically accurate" this is not. Once Martin rolls up his sleeves (and takes off his pants) to get to work, hammer and staple gun in hand, the film takes a nosedive into its ugliest, most revolting depths.
This is about when the woman next to me checked out against her own will; her mind and body simply said, "Enough." The last scene she remembered seeing was one of the film's most difficult to watch, and one of the scenes that got Six's director's cut banned in the U.K. It should be noted that I watched Six's director's cut, which includes at least two instances of graphic and highly disturbing extended scenes not included in the domestic cut released by IFC. Those moments needn't be seen in order to feel Six's intended effect, but the gratuitous harm and violation they suggest (all is still implied, after all) -- one step beyond what's needed to simply disgust -- tests the viewer's threshold to the point that you may begin to wonder, amid the unthinkable agony onscreen, what you've been doing with the past few hours of your life.
And what if it turns someone's own body against them -- is that a measure of success? To some degree, yes; it's designed to turn the tables on its own gore-hungry fans by depicting a fictionalized version of one of their own so revolting they think twice about their twisted tendencies. But it's so indulgently perverse, and so viscerally disturbing to watch -- not to mention a painfully vain exercise in self-worship -- that the lesson is incredibly hard-won. Take a word of warning, if you're on the fence; you don't have to see The Human Centipede II to know you don't want to see it.
[Portions of this review appeared earlier, in a different form, during Movieline's coverage of the 2011 Fantastic Fest.]