Tongue in Cheek

Ara H. Merjian on The Human Centipede 2 (Full Sequence)

Tom Six, The Human Centipede 2 (Full Sequence), 2011, still from a black-and-white film, 88 minutes. Martin and Ashlynn Yennie (Laurence R. Harvey and Ashlynn Yennie).

NOT SINCE Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salò (1975) or John Waters’s Pink Flamingos (1972) has shit made such a stink in the cinema. Initially banned in the UK by the British Board of Film Classification, Human Centipede 2: Full Sequence was released on DVD contingent upon thirty-two cuts; in the US it is showing primarily at midnight screenings. As the sequel to Dutch director Tom Six’s Human Centipede (First Sequence), the film continues the basic, gruesome premise with which the first work caused its own, more modest stir: In each instance, a man captures and literally conjoins the bodies of his victims, suturing them mouth to anus, creating the eponymous monstrosity of the films’ title. Very much a creature of the original film, the sequel begins with the first Centipede’s final sequence; as the camera pulls back, we realize that we are watching someone else watch the first film.

That figure is the latest film’s deranged protagonist: a copycat sociopath so obsessed with Six’s movie that he sets out to implement its nightmarish fiction. A security guard with a lot of time on his hands, Martin Martin Lomax (Laurence R. Harvey) even keeps a scrapbook of images and drawings from the first Human Centipede; its frequent appearance in the film calls repeated attention to the director’s self-conscious self-citations. Asthmatic, non-verbal, and morbidly obese, the mentally disturbed Martin is as twitchy and shifty as his squat body is lumbering. Improbably enough, the extra weight does not prevent him from effortlessly assaulting and kidnapping a series of victims, and proceeding with his ham-fisted design. If the director—adhering to the vow he made following the first film—pushes the already horrendous envelope of terror, it now bursts with horror-genre clichés. The new film is everything the first was not.

The original Centipede unfolded with literally surgical precision. The antiseptic, well-lit spaces of Dr. Heiter’s modernist glass house, his utter aplomb as he explains to his bound captives the medical procedure he is about to inflict—these were infinitely more disturbing than the crowbar that Martin bandies about. That the original protagonist was German—a German doctor at that—only underscored thinly veiled historical allusions to Josef Mengele and the unspeakable logic of Nazi science. This is not to lend Six’s larger project a gravitas it does not bear. His films aren’t about the politics of witnessing; they are about nausea and the pleasures—however unlikely and uncomfortable—thereof; Pasolini’s caprophagia bore more than an incidental allusion to Fascism and its afterlife in commodity culture. But any redemptive qualities Six’s earlier effort might have borne are in even scarcer supply in part two. The new film is all spit-and-sawdust, gore and guts. What the audience didn’t know about the unruffled Dr. Heiter made him all the more terrifying. Martin, by contrast, is a slovenly pervert; a survivor of incest and sexual abuse; a sputtering and infantile mess. Staple guns replace needles and sutures here.

Then again, as much as Human Centipede 2 duly features the ripping out of tongues, it keeps its own proverbial tongue firmly in cheek. As much as the audience cringes and whimpers, it also snickers and giggles—or, more often, guffaws outright. Judging from the canned camp lavished on certain sequences—a hysterical mother worthy of Mommy Dearest, a lecherous therapist—it is plain that outright disgust could not have been Six’s sole, or even chief, aim. A consistent and amusing sub-plot is Martin’s attempt to lure back the actors from the original Human Centipede by tricking them into thinking that they are auditioning for a sequel—directed by Quentin Tarantino, no less. The casual invocation of Tarantino, a master of ironized violence and cinematic citation, is one of many efforts at wry self-consciousness. Like most everything else, even the film-within-a-film motif is overdone, an intermittent flicker of interest doused in a heavy-handed murk.

The Human Centipede 2 (Full Sequence) is currently playing at the IFC Center in New York.