As any comedian knows, there’s a point in which disgusting becomes comical and, in reverse, comedy becomes so irresponsible that it becomes disgusting. In film this gets us quickly to Quentin Tarantino and others who understand that a misfired gun can really wreck havoc on the upholstery of your car and, not insignificantly, on the brains of the passenger in the back seat.
Shock for its own sake, if done with style, can be entertaining. Tarantino’s trick is that he is also a great story-teller. But what happens if an up and coming director picks up on the shock and forgets the delicate story-telling?
Enter director Tom Six, who says he is trying to put abhorrent on the map with his Human Centipede trilogy. The third film is a prison story that builds on same perversion unleashed in the first two, although the story line, reportedly, stands on its own.
The series began with the story of a German surgeon near the end of his career, who decides to use his skills – he specialized in separating co-joined twins – to join together three people by sewing the open mouth of one to the anus of another. This forms the human centipede, which has gained Six a reputation as a demented pervert in some circles. Not surprising, Six is reviled by various religious groups and his films are banned in some countries unless most of the scenes are deleted He even hired body guards so he could attend the premier of this third film, which he says provoked death threats.
Labeled a practitioner of “torture p*rn,” he calls his trilogy “dark comedies.” He would even like us to believe “these films have a lot of layers,” as he explained in an interview with the British Broadcasting Corporation. “They are horrible films, not horror films,” he says, perhaps groping for some rationalization that distracts us from his other explanation: “I have an urge to shock. It gives me pleasure,” he says.
Six explained that he was moved, with some perverse revenge instinct, to think of the worst punishment that a human being could be given after watching a news report about a pedophile. This brought him to his Dante-esque scenario reminiscent of the joke in which a tour of Hell brings a freshly dead individual to a room in which people are standing waist-deep in excrement. After thinking, “Well, this isn’t so bad for Hell,” someone says, “OK, breaks over. Now, everyone back to standing on your heads.”
In fact, box office receipts in recent years show a sure-fire slide into crazed revenge films that critics often praise. Liam Neesan was praised for a rampage of killing because his daughter had been kidnapped in the Taken trilogy, but by the time John Wick came out, all that was left was the killing spree. Although Wick’s revenge hinged on the fact that some hoods had killed his dog and dented his car, that was enough for audiences to cheer Keanu Reeves who spent the rest of the film killing about 40 people per minute.
Of course, the Human Centipede is not a killing spree; it’s Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein revisited by someone with a pre-pubescent sense of humor. And maybe that’s the connection. Shelley was accused of inventing a doctor who was trying to play God. Six’s doctor is trying to play the Devil: A needle, a thread and a childish mind.