"The Human Centipede" became the unlikeliest of cultural memes when it surfaced back in 2009. From hipster art projects on Etsy to an episode of South Park, "Centipede" was the movie that nearly everyone seemed to know about but only a handful had actually seen. This level of success likely surprised even director Tom Six, but one wouldn't know it by the way Six immediately started discussing his planned follow-up -- one that would make the original film "look like My Little Pony."
With the wait finally over, it is safe to say that Six is not a liar.
"The Human Centipede II (Full Sequence)" pushes further, indeed much further, than the original ever dreamed. Dr. Heiter's professional, clinical approach to creating the monster of his dreams here gives way to Martin: a mentally handicapped, sexually abused, mute sociopath. Six's initial challenge was finding a way to keep the "Centipede" story alive, even in the wake of Heiter's death. He does so with a clever flourish, by setting the sequel in our world. That is, a world where "The Human Centipede (First Sequence)" was merely a film.
Martin, who is perhaps the most anti of antiheros, has become obsessed with Six's original film. He watches constantly, several times in one day, all while working as a security guard at a parking garage. Martin scrapbooks his obsession, collecting marketing material and sketching nearly every graphic from the film. Short, balding and heinously ugly, Martin lives a life full of horrors, from living with his hate-filled mother to a violent psychopathic neighbor to a past rife with abuse and disdain.
With Martin, Six truly touches the depths of human experience. But even as this central character appears to be bottoming out, he is himself plotting and executing his own human centipede, one that will rival if not surpass that of his cinematic forebear. Martin collects links for his centipede at his garage, where he seemingly kills at will between viewings of his inspirational film. Thus even as the audience wants to feel sympathy for this utterly destroyed human being, the character himself dives lower into the depths of sadism than would seem believable.
It's here that we arrive at the real crux of "Human Centipede II" because if not for this push into the very extremes of sadism it's difficult to see why or how the film exists. With the original, Tom Six brought to life an idea that while detestable, was certainly novel. That film itself is memorable not just for the "oh no he didn't"-ness of the whole affair, but for the blackest of black humor that adds depth even as the viewer is assaulted.
With "II" Six again deploys a pitch black sense of humor, but the balance is off, and the weight of evil on display tips the scales away from anything resembling humanity and toward an abyss. The darkness embodied by Martin is so absolute and complete, not because the character is himself beyond humanity, but because he has been made a victim of the vilest and most grotesque crimes. He is beyond understanding, and one would hope, beyond empathy, which also seems to be part of Six's plan. Where Martin transcends the evil of Heiter, though is in his confusion and conflation of the sadism of the centipede with sexuality. Where Heiter's clinical or even scientific interest may have been merely a cover for repressed sexuality, in Martin the repressed lives at the very surface of his ego, and in the film it burbles out in scenes more extreme than anything Heiter concocted.
Watching Martin, walking around with him, living through him for the 85 minutes of the film, will be among the most disturbing things that most audience members ever need experience. The horror here is not only in the acts, but in our experience of the actor. Without any counterweight, this darkness at times becomes unbearable.
Despite the carnage and near soul-destroying nihilism, the film does manage to be visually interesting. Six, in nods to Lynch and perhaps Aronofsky's "Pi," shoots entirely in black and white. The effect casts an even drabber pall over the film than that of the subject matter, and it also opens the door for some compelling framing and use of lighting. And if nothing else, Laurence Harvey, the previously unknown actor who plays Martin, should be commended for taking on a role that virtually everyone would never have touched and bravely taking it to the end of the line.
"The Human Centipede II" is a film that is impossible to recommend. In fact, it's a film I can't even say I'm comfortable was made. It's hard to see this sequel as anything beyond a provocation, or an exercise in free speech. Comparing the film to pornography would be an easy, cheap way to degrade it, but it's not exactly true. Six, for as demented and horrible a film as he has made, has done something that is more than an expression of sexual explicitness. It is in many ways more disturbing, more horrifying and more depraved than simple pornography. For all these reasons, "Human Centipede II" is a film I would be happy if no one else ever saw.