I was watching You Have Been Watching… last night – Charlie Brooker’s brilliantly ascerbic quiz about the pap that passes for British TV these days. One of the rounds was about a film that’s coming out soon, called The Human Centipede.
The film is about a mad yet bizarrely talented doctor who is an expert in the separation of cojoined twins. He’s decided (for reasons unknown, but then, I haven’t watched the film) to use these skills to surgically join three kidnapped people mouth-to-anus, so that they form a ‘human centipede’. Hence the title.
Brooker’s gameshow featured the film’s trailer in its question-and-answer round – one of the contestants, slightly exaggerating, but apparently quite genuine, called it ‘the most disturbing thing I’ve ever seen’. The film is supposed to be part of a pair (the first film is, in fact, sub-titled ‘The First Sequence’). As a swift examination of the film’s wiki page will show, it’s received mixed reviews, but has won awards at several horror festivals. Metacritic gives it an average rating of 38. Rotten Tomatoes gives it a rating of 58%; although I notice that it’s top critic rating is 83%. One reviewer called it (apparently with positive intentions) ‘one for coprophiliacs and spanking enthusiasists’. Fair enough – he’s seen the film, I haven’t. I think, first, that ‘coprophages’ would be more appropriate; second, I feel I agree with David Edelstein of New York Movies, who says that ‘[Centipede] forces into our mouths what he forces into the mouths of his female characters. The movie stinks to heaven.’
I don’t think that Edelstein emphasises enough that it’s the female victims in the film (two, to the lone male sufferer) who are most humiliated and who suffer the most: who, quite literally, are forced to eat shit. In fact it bears mentioning that they are the only lead female characters in the film. Furthermore, that the torture they undergo requires the removal of their ability to vocalise. The other victim, a Japanese man, speaks no English; part of the film’s horror derives from the victim’s lack of control, which the lack of access to speech amplifies. And the mutilation of the women forms part of the film’s underlying horror: that humans are no more than sum of their parts; are no more than their bodies, and the functions of their bodies; these bereft, we lose access to those faculties – such as speech – which make us human. But I remain disturbed by the fact that it is the female characters that serve most forcefully to embody this trope. In fact, I gather that, during auditions, a number of female actresses walked out, upon hearing the full nature of the role.
About now’s good to give my take. One (large) caveat: I haven’t seen the film. I’ve watched the trailer a couple of times, and read several synopses, and familiarised myself with the background. If I was a critic, this wouldn’t be a strong enough basis to pass judgement. In this case, I’m glad I’m not a critic, and can pass this cup on. But, you know, fair’s fair: I haven’t seen it.
I don’t plan to, in fact. I was genuinely quite horrified by the idea. Not that this is itself a criticism; it’s a horror film, after all. But I wasn’t horrified in a good way (and better way to put that, on reflection, would be ‘a constructive way’. Horror works best when it uses the suffering of its characters, the sadism of its monsters, to make a point, to challenge the viewer and question taboo. Bereft of a point, a message, the only draw is the schadenfreude of watching people suffer. Horror for horror’s sake. I gather that the film implies that the three characters the surgeon gets to work on are shown to be deserving of punishment, prior to their capture. This is a horror standard. But it is also a standard trope of, amongst other things, mythic stories: the initial transgression – often performed by a mortal – that incepts the actions of the story invite a final, conclusive punishment – often enacted by a supernatural figure, or a semi-divine character – that is disproportionate to the act it recompenses.
Völundr the smith
The Germanic story of Völundr the smith is a good example; smiths are often quasi-mystical characters in mythic stories, engaged in the almost magical process of forging useful tools or beautiful ornaments from base, raw material.
Völundr is a smith of unparalleled skill He is kidnapped by king Niðhad, who wants the smith’s skill to be put to work producing beautiful ornaments for his court. Völundr is crippled by his captor, imprisoned on an island, and set to work.
Over time, the king’s daughter comes to pity Völundr’s fate, and eventually falls in love with him. Völundr fathers a child on the girl. In some versions, he rapes her when she comes to him with a broken ring of his making; said ring was originally intended for Völundr’s fled wife, a Valkyrie, and was stolen by Niðhad’s servants as the first example of the smith’s skill that inflamed the king’s greed.
Later, the king’s sons come to visit Völundr in secret, trying to convince him to produce weapons and jewellery for them, rather than their father. Völundr subdues the princes and promptly kills them. He then fashions goblets from their skulls, jewelled ornaments from their eyes, and inset broaches with their teeth. He presents these gifts to Niðhad and his wife.
While all this has been going on, Völundr’s also been gathering feathers discarded by the birds that live upon his island, and using the leavings from his smith-work to fashion a pair of artificial wings, with which he intends to escape his prison and seek his departed wife. He completes the wings, dons them, and flies to his captor’s castle, where he alights on the battlements, and calls out the king.
‘Where is your daughter?’ he demands of the startled Niðhad.
‘She is in her chamber, the door locked. She weeps, and refuses to open the door to us, and tells us she hates us,’ the king replies.
‘And where are your sons?’
‘They have gone hunting, and have probably become lost, for my finest trackers are unable to locate them.’
‘King Niðhad,’ Völundr replies. ‘Your sons are dead, and the broach your wife wears, the jewels that adorn you, the cups you drink from, are fashioned from their teeth, eyes and skulls. A child grows in your daughter’s belly who carries my blood. Like your sons, your daughter’s love for you is dead; and it was I that killed all.’
Niðhad cries out in horror, and his queen collapses in hysterical grief. He calls his archers, but before they can arrive Völundr takes flight on his wings, and is gone.
The punishment meted out by Völundr is in excess of the act that invited it. He was crippled, and murders in revenge. His property – his wife’s ring – was stolen, and he steals a daughter’s love in recompense. The act was unmotivated by affection, but rather the chance to soil the bloodline of his enemy. It’s worth noting that it is Niðhad‘s children who are the victims in all this. While the king’s sons were arguably guilty of treachery, his daughter committed no wrong, and indeed in some versions was made sympathetic by the pity she feels for the crippled smith. They exist in the story primarily as conveyors of Völundr’s revenge.
Centipede and misanthropy
As in Völundr, in Centipede we have three people who, I gather (once again, I have to emphasise that I’m going by second-hand reports here), have earned the suffering they endure by their past acts. The two women are described in reviews as American ‘party girls’, a description which hardly conjures images of evil, or even moral transgression, but rather a form of conservative contempt for frivolity and contented ignorance. The man, a Japanese tourist, apparently acknowledges that he deserves the punishment inflicted by the surgeon towards the film’s end, citing his poor treatment of his family.
Where this differs from Völundr is that the film’s dispenser of justice – the mad professor (if nothing else Centipede‘s given me legitimate cause to write those magic words) – has no reason to inflict the punishments beyond his misanthropy. ‘I hate human beings,’ he’s said to say; his hatred for humanity is utterly generalised. But by contrast, it is Völundr’s personal suffering at the hands of his enemy that is the cause for his vengeance. On a storytelling level, I find this is simply more satisfying: it unifies the threads of the narrative into a single, cohesive, self-referential structure; the conclusion specifically plays off against, and in effect resolve, the events that set the narrative in motion. On a moral level, even if we can’t support the methods by which Völundr pursued his revenge, we can recognise and sympathise with his reasons for doing as he does. We are invited to identify with him for his grief and suffering; a basis more solid than simple misanthropy.
In the case of Centipede, none of the people who suffer have committed any wrong against the figure who dispenses that suffering. The film shares this trait with Saw – in the latter, the inventively murderous Jigsaw chooses people on the basis of whether or not he feels they are wasting their lives by refusing to live it to its supreme (and thus, to Jigsaw, a terminal cancer sufferer, the only proper) extent. I should note that Jigsaw himself would claim that he’s never committed murder in his life, but only given people the chance to save themselves from death (in more ways than one), which they either do or do not exploit. This does, in its own way, make the character more satisfying, a smidgeon more dense, than Centipede‘s Dr Heiter.
We are asked to sympathise with Jigsaw’s judgement of those in his traps – even if we cannot condone his methodology, his central point is strong: that life is precious, and shouldn’t be wasted. Heiter lacks even this: the surgeon has no basis for his actions more than that he ‘despises humans’. His knowledge of his victims is minimal; he singles them out for punishment for no particular reason, but on the basis of expedience alone. That no crimes are specified has two effects:
- first, it terrorises the audience more, as punishment on a random basis is more threatening, more involving; we cannot evade the victim’s fate on the basis of our supposed moral superiority; and
- second, it invites the conclusions that, as the moral wrongs punished in the victims are general and endemic, we should sympathise with the punisher, seeing the victim’s crimes as, to a greater or lesser extent, our crimes.
This misanthropic approach has the effect of distancing the viewer from the on-screen sufferer, and inviting them to identify with the torturer purely on a cathartic, rather than a moral, basis. The threads are not unified: we’re brought on board by the notion that humans, basically, are shit, and that this reason is sufficient to justify the shit that happens to them.
Horror: the sublime and the mundane
I’m a horror film fan. Especially East Asian horror (known with more brevity but less inclusiveness as ‘J-horror‘, short for Japanese horror): I immensely enjoyed Ju-On:The Grudge, The Ring, Pulse. Ju-On especially is one of my favourite films ever, managing to accomplish an incredible amount with very little, and succeeding in terrifying without becoming a gore- or torture-fest. Many of the other films I love that aren’t specifically horror have horror elements: Alien, Pan’s Labyrinth, Akira even a supposed ‘kid’s film’ like Spirited Away makes reference to the fear of being eaten and the loss of identity. But I’ve never been a fan of ‘gornography‘: things like Saw, Hostel, and their imitative ilk. I wasn’t exactly sure why this was, but I think the trailer for The Human Centipede crystallised things, and gave me some clarity.
Terror and horror
As I see it, there are two types of what might be called ‘scary films’ (or, more accurate, two broad types of scares in films): horror, and terror.
Terror derives from sudden scares – short, sharp shocks that pierce through a pre-established air of tension to startle the viewer, or that simply explode on-screen to elicit a startled reaction. An example of this is the appearance of the cat, ‘Jones’, in Alien: Ripley and co have been using Ash’s ad hoc motion detectors (‘micro changes in air pressure my ass!’) to close in on what they think is a small, if fast and deadly alien critter hiding in a locker. They open the door of the locker and BOOM, the cat appears, all claws and hissing, and darts out of the room. It scares the shit out of everyone, viewers included; but there’s nothing fundamentally scary, in and of itself, on screen. The scare is accomplished by the build-up of tension and the sudden explosion of activity on screen, emphasised by fast cutting and a musical/sound effect sting.
Another example is in The Exorcist, when Chris MacNeil is wandering through the attic of the house she shares with her soon-to-be demonically possessed daughter Regan (again, the context is that of a search: she’s heard strange noises, and is investigating). Suddenly, the candle she’s holding flares up into a bright, loud plume. – a sudden, unexpected motion, piercing through tension to scare the audience.
Terror, perhaps paradoxically,relaxes an audience. Part of the conventional ‘deal’ that’s established between film-maker and viewer is that, once a scare has occurred, you’re safe for a few minutes – nothing bad will happen. This is sometimes used to the film-maker’s advantage. In Alien, the first (partial) reveal of the creature in its fully-grown form occurs immediately after the search for Jones, and the locker-scare – the deal has been, well, not broken, but its terms have been stretched by the film; a false, ‘safe’ scare is immediately followed by a re-ratcheting of tension into a true scare.
Terror is life-affirming. It quickens the heart, gets the adrenaline following, encourages a response of flight-or-fight in the audience; it draw upon the innate desire for self-preservation that is part of being alive. It’s why people enjoy rollercoasters; the experience of mortal danger whilst in a position of utmost safety.
Terror hides off-screen, waiting to burst in and make its appearance. Horror is on-screen, centre stage, there, in front of you. The Thing is a horror film; the fear comes from the disgusting demi-human shapes assumed by the creature. Alien is a terror film; the creature lurks, mostly unseen, and offers brief, violent glimpses of itself that startle and enthrall.
If terror affirms life and its value, horror affirms life’s pointlessness; or, at least, the selfish isolation of living things. Terror involves the invasion of a rogue, external element, a threat, into a safe, stable and comfortable existence; horror seeps into and poisons existence itself. Neil Gaiman said of H.P. Lovecraft: ‘You can’t just walk away when the story’s over’. The demons have been banished, but not conquered, because they reside within the fabric of the world itself. Reality has been revealed, in its true nature, to be unstable, unfathomable and deadly.
Horror comes in two forms, as I see it. Or maybe a better way to put it would be a spectrum with opposing extremes. At one end, you have body horror, which seems to prevail in Western cinema, and includes The Thing, Saw and, now, The Human Centipede. At the other, you have what I call sublime horror, and includes Ju-On, Pulse and The Ring.
In body horror, a human is a fully-understandable machine, a system that is fully comprehensible simply through an analysis of its parts, with no mysteries remaining. The horror resides in how fully our identities as thinking, experiencing consciousnesses are dependent on fragile, flimsy material structures. It lurks in the gap between how it is to perceive, to have consciousness, and the general Western tendency to understand what constitutes reality only in terms of what is materially existent, which has no place in it for consciousness.
In sublime horror, reality is revealed to be ultimately ungraspable. The horror lies once more in a gap that surrounds our perceptions, but now in this case the gap is between our perceptions and the world, rather than our perceptions and their material (bodily) bases. Sublimity looks outwards from our selves, with a dismally short view, while materiality looks inwards, with an overwhelming and self-abnegating depth of penetration.