If you were a teenager at the tail end of the noughties, you probably remember the first time you heard about The Human Centipede. For example, I recall the repulsion and dark intrigue of a friend describing the entire plot to me as we browsed the DVD section of our local branch of CEX. Within 24 hours, I had my laptop perched on my bedside table and entered the stomach-turning world of Tom Six's high-concept body-horror film. The slice of cinematic outrage bait is now 10 years old, having been unleashed upon the world at London's FrightFest horror festival in August 2009.
For those who are unfamiliar with the grotesque tale, it focuses on the German surgeon Josef Heiter, played by the delightfully serpentine Dieter Laser. He attempts to stitch three kidnapped humans together from rectum to mouth, connected via a joint digestive system to form a twisted, single organism. The phrase “don't shit where you eat” has never been more darkly ironic.
Whether you love or hate the film, it remains a compelling example of a cultural artefact that managed to plug itself into the zeitgeist, spawning two sequels, a tabloid press panic or two and even an episode of South Park that took aim at the corporate dominance of Apple. It's got a premise to make grandmothers shudder and benefits from the fact its creator is essentially PT Barnum for the world of scatological cinema – albeit a take on Barnum that Hugh Jackman will likely want to avoid in any Greatest Showman sequel.
But in order to trace this bizarre phenomenon, it's worth going back to the beginning.
“We gave birth to the centipede,” laughs FrightFest founder Paul McEvoy. He recalls being invited to a screening of the film, months before its release and before it even had a page on IMDb. “I think it was on a wet Wednesday morning and there were maybe six people in the screening. By the end of the screening, it was just me and maybe one other person.”
McEvoy describes the film's progress around the world after its packed-out FrightFest premiere as a “legend” and it's certainly true that The Human Centipede quickly became mythologised in a way that few movies in recent years can claim.
“It was one of those films that everybody seemed to be talking about,” says exploitation cinema expert Dr Johnny Walker of the University of Northumbria. “It was released at a time in which you had the whole torture porn thing happening with the Saw movies and Hostel. You also had extreme art cinema from Europe, like Irreversible and Michael Haneke's films. These were movies framed within media discourse as challenging, grisly or tasteless but also as mainstream, commercial cinema. Gory horror movies, at that time, were very much part of mainstream moviegoing culture.”
The Human Centipede (First Sequence) gained instant notoriety thanks to the immediate talking points provoked by its high-concept. Cannily, the movie was promoted as “100% Medically Accurate” in one of Six's most obviously Barnum-like moves – a clear exaggeration born simply of a desire to keep people talking and a gimmick reminiscent of William Castle's multiplex-based silliness in the 1950s and 60s. The film received mixed to negative reviews from critics, but its status as a buzzy cultural object was assured, not least because Six kept promising a sequel that would make the first movie look like My Little Pony in comparison.
In 2011, the legend deepened a step further. When The Human Centipede II (Full Sequence) was submitted to the British Board of Film Classification, the organisation decided that the movie's “graphic images of sexual violence, forced defecation, and mutilation” were too extreme to even be classified with an 18 certificate and “would risk potential harm” to audiences. As a result, the film was effectively banned from British mutiplexes and filled column inches in many tabloid newspapers as part of something of a moral panic, akin to the controversy of the video nasties scandal in the 1980s.
Eureka Entertainment, who distributed the film, worked with the BBFC over several months and ultimately secured an 18 certificate after making 32 individual cuts covering a total of two minutes and 37 seconds and including images of the protagonist masturbating with sandpaper and raping the woman at the back of the centipede with barbed wire wrapped around his penis. For fans of the first film, and extreme cinema in general, the only way to see the full, uncensored cut of the movie was to resort to dark corners of the internet. This only made its status as a grotesque rite of passage more powerful.
Dr Walker says: “It harks back to an earlier era of accessing horror films in a clandestine manner, which adds to the experience of the movie and its cultural status as a bad object to be feared – especially if you're a journalist writing for the Daily Mail. That's all a right-wing journalist needs to spin a narrative about how dangerous these films are.”
And it's this that remains most potent about The Human Centipede, a decade after it first splattered on to cinema screens. It doesn't actually matter whether it's any good or not because the story behind it all is so scandalous that it becomes impossible to look away. Much like its tabloid panic bedfellow A Serbian Film – released in the year between the first two Centipede movies – the quality of The Human Centipede films has always been incidental. It's about the badge of honour of having seen them.
When film critic Mark Kermode referred to Eli Roth's Hostel as a “dumb, teenage endurance test” in his 2005 review, he captured the essence of torture porn and its associated, delightfully grubby branch of horror perfectly. In order to be significant, these films don't always need to encourage an audience to think, and they're not even necessarily about providing entertainment. They are about testing the stomachs of teenagers determined to seek out the most forbidden of fruit. In the 1970s, it was A Clockwork Orange. In the 1980s, it was Ruggero Deodato's early found footage flick Cannibal Holocaust. And as the noughties became the 2010s, it was the Human Centipede trilogy.
Notably, The Human Centipede III (Final Sequence) is not a film that provoked much discussion on its release in 2015. It brings back Dieter Laser and Laurence R. Harvey – star of Human Centipede II – in different roles and is a more broadly comedic take on the idea, marketed with the tagline “100% Politically Incorrect” in reference to its wilfully offensive sense of humour and, of course, sexually violent gore. It barely registered a flicker on the outrage scale in the mainstream press, and Dr Walker thinks it's a symbol of culture moving past its arse-to-mouth obsession.
“There's only so many times you can re-run the same moral panic within a discrete historical period,” he says. “The media chooses to focus on something else. Moral panics expire, and then they're reinvigorated in a different time. If you panic about something too much, it becomes the norm, it becomes anodyne and people become bored.”
But that's not to say that The Human Centipede has disappeared from culture. McEvoy says that the phenomenon is “still going strong”, with new audiences discovering the film every day, and Six happily sharing their views – positive or negative – with his rabid online fanbase. According to McEvoy, the Dutch auteur is an “agent provocateur” in the mould of Irreversible and Climax director Gaspar Noé. “Tom absolutely thrives on people despising him or the trilogy,” McEvoy adds. “As long as people are talking about things, it doesn't matter – fuck the haters, love the lovers. He's obviously thriving on that notoriety, which I think is brilliant as the proper showman that he is.”
Six is certainly the engine driving the Centipede trilogy into the future, more than a decade after McEvoy first sat down in that wet London screening room. He will be hoping that his fanbase moves with him towards new film The Onania Club, which looks set to be another provocation on a cinematic scale. A teaser trailer for the movie landed last year and is focused solely around a group of wealthy white women masturbating to footage of the 9/11 terror attacks. So far, so Six.
Love it or loathe it, The Human Centipede is a film that has reverberated through culture as, if nothing else, an interesting case study in where movie classification bodies draw their line – far short of what sufficiently depraved audiences are willing to consume. The first movie stands as an intriguing slice of body horror, while the subsequent sequels are equally idiosyncratic and unusual. They're undeniably the work of an auteur with a unique vision, even if that vision largely amounts to sewing people's nether regions to the faces of others – and laughing maniacally at the poop-splattered aftermath.