I think we made Tom Six angry. When Human Centipede came out a couple of years ago, the Dutch indie director was accused of being lazy, sadistic, even of perpetrating “a crime against cinema.” That film’s now-familiar story, of a grossly malpracticing plastic surgeon and his three interconnected victims, did seem calculated to provoke, but the final product was surprisingly tame—more of a spine-tingler than torture porn. Through some unusual combination of restraint and incompetence, Six managed to combine the core elements of ultra-shock—nudity, violence, and coprophagy—into a package of mild horror clichés. I can only imagine the director shaking his fist at the splattered tomatoes on his doorstep: A crime against cinema? I’ll show you a crime against cinema!
Angry Six had a problem, though. Once you’ve made a feature film about a lunatic who kidnaps innocent people and then sews together their throats and rectums, how do you raise the stakes? I’ll say this for Human Centipede 2: Tom Six has done the impossible. He’s created a sequel that’s several orders of magnitude more vile, more nihilistic, and more repellant than the original. And he didn’t even need to change the premise.
The genius of HC2—you heard me, the genius—lies in the way in which it repurposes the original. Once again, we’re following the exploits of a lunatic kidnapper with a fetish for artificially induced digestive continuity. This time, it’s a simple-minded parking attendant named Martin who’s obsessed with Human Centipede in a film-within-a-film kind of way. He watches it on his laptop, again and again, and takes copious notes for a re-enactment.
The film opens with a scene from HC1 as viewed on Martin’s grainy monitor. Watched at this remove, and from the perspective of a more disturbing, and much sweatier, villain, the antics on display seem positively lighthearted. When Dieter Laser, the creepy German who played the doctor the first time around, spreads his arms wide and bellows “Feed her! Feed her!” there’s real joy in his face—he’s an artist who’s just pulled the veil from his greatest work. It’s as if we’re watching Tom Six himself shouting notes at the actors in his Grand Guignol.
But Martin is neither an artist nor a surgeon. In fact, I’m not sure he’s human. In a shrewd casting move, Six appears to have recruited his discomfiting lead actor, Lawrence R. Harvey, from a forgotten race of bespectacled troll people. He’s shaped like a gumdrop, or maybe an avocado, but jiggly and balding, with buggy eyes that do the lion’s share of his acting work. He has no lines, so far as I could tell, just a sequence of snarls and stares; every once in a while, when his centipede-plans are going particularly well, he breaks into a wormy smile. Harvey deserves an Oscar.
When Martin’s not being harassed by his mom, bullied by his upstairs neighbor, or sexually menaced by his therapist, he stomps purposefully around the garage like an evil Oompa-Loompa. He brings a tire iron on his walks, so as to conk drivers on the head and then whisk them away to his warehouse for the final centipedification. When that time comes, however, the villain is woefully unprepared. Unlike the fictional (or meta-fictional) doctor from HC1, Martin has no idea how to go about connecting one abductee’s mouth to another’s behind. He’s not a famous plastic surgeon who’s gone insane, as in the original—he’s just a guy in a warehouse with some needle and thread.
Therein lies the twist. In Human Centipede, the victims were dosed with anesthetic and sutured together in an aseptic surgical suite. Like Tom Six, the doctor plied his trade according to strict rules and best practices, so as to create something truly monstrous—a grotesque work of art produced by conventional means. Human Centipede 2 upends the original formula by stripping away all the professionalism: Instead of sutures, Martin uses a staple gun and masking tape; instead of a scalpel, he applies a hammer and a power drill.
That movement from the expert to the amateur allows Six to double down on the grossness of his premise. He’s done away with conventional, Technicolor spooks and subbed in a much sicker language—a methodical snuff film, shot in somber black-and-white. I’m guessing we’re meant to see the films as their own sort of centipede: What came out of the first has been rammed down the throat of the second, and transformed into something more disgusting. Human Centipede 1 allowed for some lowball entertainment. Human Centipede 2 offers only sadism. Here’s the best I can say about Tom Six: The man has managed to outdo himself, for better or for worse.