Paths to Gory

still from Human Centipede 3 (Final Sequence)

Human Centipede 3 is interpretive chum as catharsis

“I don’t want anyone liking this!” the warden in Human Centipede 3 (Final Sequence) yells when he finds a prisoner who’s started eating his own feces in anticipation of becoming part of the titular monstrosity. That sentiment is a fair encapsulation of the colicky instincts that drive the kinds of horror movies often called torture porn. It’s a puritanical term of shaming that ignores the fact that forms of pornography focused on torture and masochism are both popular and, according to a 2013 study of BDSM porn viewers in the Journal of Sexual Medicine, have audiences that are “less neurotic, more extraverted, more open to new experiences, more conscientious, less rejection sensitive, had higher subjective well-being, [and] yet were less agreeable” than a control group.

The critiques against the idea of torture porn as a horror aesthetic end up fulfilling a masochistic mutuality with the spirit of the films themselves. As Laura Kipnis wrote of Larry Flint in Men: An Ongoing Investigation, “The existential dilemma of obscenity is that it requires our inhibitions in order to be effective.” One of the remarkable feats of the Human Centipede series that distinguishes it from much of the new wave of shock and gore horror is its adaptability, reflecting a protean willingness to take on any form that preserves maximum dislikability.

The first Human Centipede movie was a drab Victorian fairy tale about a retired surgeon (played by Dieter Laser) famous for separating conjoined twins attempting the reverse procedure. Far from the carnivalesque grotesquerie promised by its promotional materials, the movie had a depressive torpor that militated against pleasure on any level. Whereas traditional horror movies tend to build up and release tension around murders that interrupt happy young people mid-reverie and throw them into panic at regular intervals, the first Human Centipede offers no cathartic release. The movie’s cruelty to audiences came less from the gruesome idea of the experiment itself than in the fact that its subjects weren’t allowed to die. The internal tension of each scene began to seep into the next. Instead of building suspense by conditioning audiences to expect the unexpected, the movie marveled at how many little moments of deathly suffering one could endure (the film’s characters and audiences alike) in spite of a wish for death. It’s the only movie I’ve ever wished I hadn’t seen, not because it was too violent or immoral but because it was too overpoweringly sad. It worked too well.

The sequel, Human Centipede 2, was meant to be a klaxon of violence that warded off the drab slowness of the original with a full spectrum of graphic assaults, a cinematic pummeling of special effects and anatomical violations. Where the first film dwelled on the morose consequences of a single idea, the second is a reviling series of variations on that idea, performed as a comedy of incompetence by a pale goblin attempting to pass as a doctor and failing at every step. Filmed in damp black-and-white, it follows a parking-lot attendant (Laurence R. Harvey) obsessed with the original Human Centipede film who tries to make a 12-person centipede with people he kidnaps from the garage where he works. The attendant never speaks in the film and is himself the victim of intense emotional abuse from his mother, who shames him for soiling his bed and brings home men who humiliate him. In place of Dieter Laser’s disturbingly detached competence is a villain who terrifies by getting nothing right: his incisions lead to infections, his suturing is tear-prone. By the time he tries to put a pregnant woman into his centipede sequence, it’s clear that lacking the skill to execute one’s nightmares can be far more terrifying than having it.

For the final entry in the trilogy, Tom Six, who directed all three films, manages to create a radical break from the first two movies not by embracing novelty or invention but by abandoning it. Instead, he turns to camp, a transition that all horror series inevitably make, buckling under the diminishing returns of bodily horror and its escalating fakery. Laser and Harvey both return as new characters — a perpetually enraged prison warden and his accountant who try to keep their correctional facility operating efficiently amid political pressure to cut the budget and avoid bad publicity.

The final installment was filmed in the Mira Loma Detention Center in Lancaster, California, a prison that was closed in 2009 after negotiations over operating standards between the Department of Homeland Security and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department fell apart. The facility, which had been used to detain immigrants, had been a frequent source of complaints, with accusations ranging from illegally forcing inmates to waive their right to legal representation to the failure to provide adequate mental-health screenings. The sheriff’s department said it couldn’t afford additional resources for prisoners without more funding from the federal government and argued that allowing the DHS authority to investigate complaints was a violation of officers’ right to privacy.

Six turns the site of these mundane outrages into the backdrop for a bombastic take on America’s institutional evils and bullhorn aesthetics. Shot with elaborate crane shots, gradient filters, and backed by an overbearing symphonic score that plays against a hysterical lead performance, Human Centipede 3 feels more like a spastic regurgitation of American culture than a critique of it. But then again, convulsive spew may be an apt approach to capturing the American spirit.

The movie opens with a sexual assault: After howling in barely intelligible syllables elongated by an awkward German accent, Laser’s character jams his hand into the skirt of his secretary, a woman he keeps as an informal sex slave as repayment for having gotten her father out of prison. The scene is shocking in its stupidity, but the fact that it is played ironically instead of as straight melodrama gives it an ugly clarity: an irredeemable act presented in an unforgivable way,  preloaded with a kind of joking self-justification that makes a viewer’s discomfort seem doubly pointless.

The scene sets the tone for everything that will come. Susan Sontag famously formulated camp as “esoteric—something of a private code, a badge of identity even, among small urban cliques.” As such, it offered creative outlet and protected space for groups endangered by the culture at large, those who must hold persona and personhood continuously separate in the public eye. But in Six’s hands, the retreat to a camp aesthetic is inseparable from his view on America, a culture obsessed with seeming like it’s in on the joke even when there isn’t one to be in on.

The rest of Human Centipede 3 unfolds as a series of seemingly metaphoric catastrophes that one wants to dismiss on grounds that they have no redeeming interpretations. A man is waterboarded with boiling water that causes the skin on his face to swell and peel away. In another, Laser’s character castrates an inmate and has the prison chef cook the testicles for his lunch. Later, he has a nightmare about being overrun in a prison riot during which the man he castrated rapes him through a hole cut into the warden’s kidney. These sorts of sequences have an adolescent bluntness that makes them difficult to treat as symbolic. When Laser’s warden breaks a black inmate’s arm while calling him “nigger,” it’s not a comment on America’s depraved racialized violence; it’s more an example of it.

When the movie finally turns to the business of building another centipede in its last act, which Six says involved almost 500 extras, the image is almost comforting, in part because it occupies so much space and so many bodies that it must be viewed from above, at an abstracting distance from which no individual abominations can be isolated or identified with. In the film’s structure, the centipede is the only element with any symbolic resonance, the originating horror becomes a kind of shelter from the tactless evil that is, and is probably meant to be, unwatchable when stripped of any semiotic pretensions.

 

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“I’m a big warrior for proper punishment of criminals,” Six once said, tracing the origin of the first movie to a comment he’d made to a friend while watching a news program, suggesting that a child molester’s mouth be sewn to a truck driver’s rectum. It’s hard to miss a similar kind of medieval sanctimony running beneath the cruel camp of the third movie, intensified by virtue of its staging at a former prison.

In 1995, 1,000 inmates in Lancaster’s nearby state prison went on strike after the warden proposed eliminating conjugal visits for some. In 2001, a 300-person riot swept across the prison, resulting in 20 injuries and a 9 day lockdown. In 2002, 300 black inmates in one of the prison’s cellblocks were denied en masse from receiving visitors because, as a spokesman for the prison guards said, “We have very good information that they’re trying to kill us.” In 2004, an inmate was killed in an altercation with guards that ended with his being pepper sprayed and having difficulty breathing. That same year a man was found castrated in his cell; officials claimed he did it to himself. In 2006, California secretary of state Bruce McPherson declared overcrowding in California’s prisons a state of emergency, citing (among other things) the harm to the well-being of prison workers, the overloading of electrical grids serving the prisons, and the inability to provide proper water and waste treatment, which led to the “discharge” of thousands of gallons of untreated sewage into the environment.

The third Human Centipede film is a woefully insufficient way of engaging with the subjects Six claims to be critiquing through it. It’s like a get-well card sent to someone having a heart attack on the floor in front of you.

It’s tempting to imagine a more empathetic version of the film, one that could rise to the challenge of addressing the abuses of California’s carceral society, but this seems to hold the medium accountable for purposes it was never designed for. Films themselves work more like prisons than ideological jailbreaks: They are technologically charged defense structures that subdivide human conscience much like hedgerows and locked doors subdivide the landscapes humans settled in.

In The Landscape of Fear the geographer Yi-Fu Tuan describes the relationship between fear and technologies of separation. “Generally speaking, every human-made boundary on the earth’s surface — garden hedge, city wall, or radar ‘fence’ — is an attempt to keep inimical forces at bay,” he writes. “Boundaries are everywhere because threats are ubiquitous: the neighbor’s dog, children with muddy shoes, strangers, the insane, alien armies, disease, wolves, wind and rain.”

When cinema drives toward horrors that wallow in their limpid view of free expression, you can detect the presence of something kept at bay, some imaginary threat that the crude reorganization of matter is somehow meant to repel. The shock in the Centipede movies feels like cover for a separate and unseen decadence. In an oral history of the movies, actor Ashlynn Yennie admitted the grimy fecal matter the cast was covered in during the filming of the second movie was made of coconut milk and cacao, a mixture the actors found so tasty the crew had to admonish them to not eat it off their own bodies.

 

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Beyond the co-dependence of obscenity’s exponents and opponents, there is a larger ugliness to the Centipede series. The decadence running through each film is not just a matter of the all-is-forgiven indulgence in dirty ideas that middle-class white men are often eager to embrace as creativity’s platonic core.

Whiteness instinctively wants to repel the idea of political action, to defend itself from having to participate in it. Creative culture for whiteness becomes a process of constructing a sentimental lethargy that makes change fundamentally impossible to imagine as anything other than satire, as media, as critique. Consciousness-raising is turned into an opiate to justify living in a state of perpetual uncertainty about what is to be done, as if there were some profound mystery in it, as if what mattered more than the bound hands and suffering bodies of others was the attainment of some conceptual clarity about alternatives, something the rhetoric of multiple readings and metaphoric interpretations ensures will never be possible.

There is a class reading to the Centipede movies that would put them in league with other great political horror films—The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Night of the Living Dead, Funny Games, Salo. The first Human Centipede is an example of what happens to highly skilled bourgeois labor when it becomes surplus labor—the mad doctor is a white-collar worker who can’t stop working even when there’s no systemic need for his labor anymore. The sequel cast a lumpenprole in the part of a white-collar specialist with none of the structural or cultural supports to prop him up, a blunt critique of the libertarian fantasy of pure aspiration being sufficient to eventually securing success.

The third film describes how easily the rich and poor will merge into a single superclass when presented with the prospect of a criminal class, ethnic or cultural outsiders whose unwillingness to settle for the scraps of wage labor make them fodder for legal discipline. The plot investigates how the pressures to make this system as efficient and inexpensive as possible licenses wild depravities — a straightforward critique of the ironic impossibility of reforming a system meant to forestall social reformation at large.

But the problem with these kinds of readings is they produce a kind of interpretative catharsis that feels sufficient in itself. In the same way that obscenity’s potency depends on its renunciations, critical insights have purpose only when set against a backdrop of interpretative stakes. Catharsis is a commodity in a culture oriented around inaction, marketed to people who know the chances that they would end up the necessary sacrifices to ending that culture. The point is not to find a side in this dialectic between good taste and bad taste, as if the great conflict of our time were settling on matters of taste in art, but in reminding people that critical energies have most force when they’re not turned into metaphors, when they’re given as blows and not smokescreens that require thinking through.

When I went to see The Human Centipede 3 (Final Sequence) in the theater, there was a sense of ending and abandonment among the crowd, the last holdovers from a party starting to see each other in the awkward first rays of morning light. I have always believed obscenity and taboo are important parts of creative culture, but in that near-empty theater (the only one playing the film in New York City) it was hard to miss how little staying power they seem to have and how little they leave to build on.

A week after the film was released in theaters, Los Angeles County was awarded a MacArthur grant to help solve its problems of overcrowding. One of the leading plans to make use of this money is a proposal to reopen Mira Loma as a women’s jail to relieve crowding in Lynwood, a facility running at 160% of normal capacity. By the time the plan goes into effect, the cast and crew of filmmakers who were energized by a desire reveal how ugly and inhuman the prison structure is will have long since ceded the territory back to Los Angeles County — a reminder the troop never actually meant to put up a fight but just wanted credit for having put on a show.