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Each year, a horror film fresh off a festival run marked of praise and hype threatens to shake the genre community to its very core, via either shocking imagery, savage brutality or sheer originality. Last spring, Pascal Laugier’s meditation on torture in the name of spiritual enlightenment, MARTYRS, was preceded by an onslaught of buzz proclaiming, “You won’t believe what you’re about to see.” Around the time that film finally saw Stateside DVD release, the next in line in extreme cinema began screening worldwide. Now, Tom Six’s THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE (FIRST SEQUENCE) is about to hit U.S. shores and must contend with a nation of non-festivalgoers who are begging for it to live up to its reputation.
Bringing the mad-doctor concept to a whole new level, THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE (beginning its limited release this Friday from IFC Films) focuses on Doctor Heiter (Dieter Laser), a surgeon with aspirations to create the eponymous “creature.” Consisting of three people stitched together at the mouth and anus, producing one digestive track, this will be his greatest achievement—and the worst nightmare for Lindsay (Ashley C. Williams), Jenny (Ashlynn Yennie) and Katsuro (Akihiro Kitamura), his captive test subjects.
From the beginning, Six knew THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE would cause a bit of a stir, as reactions to the very idea pegged him as sick and out of his mind. “When we were in preproduction, I made storyboard drawings—and then it already started,” he recalls. “When I showed them to actors and special effects makeup companies and such, everybody was like, ‘Oh, this is crazy, this is something insane,’ and many people didn’t want to work with me on this subject matter. But then I got a really cool team who loved the idea. In Germany and Holland, we did test screenings while we were editing the film, and there were people who walked out. A few ladies were angry with me because they felt I was unfriendly to women, so I knew it would cause a lot of commotion. And then we showed it at festivals, and of course those are where the horror and thriller and fantasy fans are, and they loved the movie. Finally, I had found the right setting for it.”
The small group of actors that Six eventually did assemble gave themselves over completely to what they saw as a boundary-pushing concept. It wasn’t easy, however, as Six literally traveled the globe from his native Netherlands, putting together a tiny yet international cast. “Casting was very difficult, but lots of fun as well,” he says. “We went to New York and said we were casting for a controversial horror film, so we got a lot of actresses at our space, a number of beautiful young women, and they all said, ‘I’m up for everything, I’m a really good actress!’ Then I just showed them the drawings I made to see what the general idea was, and so many actresses left the room because they thought I was a nutcase. Of course, quite a few of them, when I told them the story and what the camerawork would look like and what the story was about, were brave and very interested in the project. Some actresses only want to be pretty in films; others have the balls to be ugly. I wound up with these two great actresses, Ashlynn and Ashley, and the German guy, Dieter Laser, who was very cool. He has done lots of films in Germany, and I went with the script to Berlin and he absolutely loved the idea of playing Dr. Heiter.
“For Katsuro, we looked around for very good and daring Japanese actors,” Six continues. “Of course, they had to speak English as well because I don’t speak any Japanese, so eventually we came up with Aki, and he loved the script and was daring enough to be in it.”
One might assume that Six would simply cast any performers who were up for such an outlandish project, but the filmmaker insists there were more minute details that went into the process as well. “What I did at the casting with the actresses I chose was, I put them on their hands and knees,” he explains. “Then I cast several actors and put them on their hands and knees as well, because of course they needed to be the right height; otherwise it wouldn’t match. That was important for me, that the actors were the same height. I told the special effects guys to make this construction that was comfortable for them, but of course it also had to look right, like a real being. Of course, that was a daring process to make it look really cool and not hurt the actors too much. Because it was physically very stressful for them, and they often got massages after the shoot. They were on their hands and knees for many long shooting days. It was heavy, heavy stuff.”
Much has been made of the victims’ ethnic backgrounds, and especially Six’s choice of placing Katsuro at the front of the “centipede” with the two American party girls behind. To put it lightly, many have seen such a detail as symbolic of the Hollywood system and its reduction of Japanese (or other international) cinema into redigested, dumbed-down crap. While Six welcomes any discussion or thought the film provokes, that wasn’t exactly where he was coming from. “I wanted the girls in the story to not be able to talk, and I also didn’t want the lead victim to be able to communicate with the German doctor,” Six explains. “That was very important to me. I absolutely love Japanese horror films, so I always thought it must be a Japanese guy, far, far away in Germany so they couldn’t have any communication at all.
“I like the fact it’s the U.S.A., it’s Japan, it’s Germany, and of course they are all world players in WWII; that’s what I gave to it,” he continues, “I’m influenced by stuff from WWII, and it’s of course a very big subject in Europe still. When you are younger, you read a lot in school about the Nazis. For many Dutch people, it’s fascinating. A real nightmare of my own would be to be examined in WWII by the Nazi doctors, but it’s really fascinating at the same time. So when I came up with the idea of a surgeon performing this kind of operation, I always thought it must be some kind of Nazi-like doctor who’s so scary, has so much knowledge and uses those medical tools for a very bad purpose; that was a really big inspiration.”
With its theatrical run looming and comparisons to the likes of David Cronenberg being made, Six acknowledges his nervous anticipation of CENTIPEDE’s release to the masses. “It’s incredible hype,” he admits. “Of course, some people will leave disappointed, and others will go crazy. There has been such a buzz around the film. I hope as a filmmaker, of course, that people will like it, but I believe it will divide audiences. It’s pressure, yeah.”
Once the release of THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE has subsided, no doubt audiences and genre fans will begin looking for its successor to the envelope-pushing throne—and with Six beginning production on a follow-up this June, they might not have to look much further. Especially given the sequel’s promise of a horrifying, eye-opening, much longer “centipede.” “I’m not going to tell you much about it, because it’s going to be a big surprise,” Six teases. “I always try to find something that’s really original. It’s called THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE (FULL SEQUENCE). It’s going to be a 12-person centipede that’s many meters long. And the story will be very, very different from the previous one, very surprising. In part one, I really had to hold back on things because the subject matter itself is already quite disturbing; this time the audience will be used to that idea, so now I can move it a little bit further. I can imagine part two will be very hard to watch for some people.”
Six acknowledges that topping THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE (FIRST SEQUENCE) will be quite an undertaking. “I think I have a good idea, it’s going to be something fresh, unlike most Hollywood sequels I see. It’s completely different, which I believe people won’t expect. I hope that element will help the second movie be as interesting as the first one. It’s a lot of pressure.”
Beyond the HUMAN CENTIPEDEs, Six sees himself sticking with macabre and sickening cinema, and if Hollywood is willing to accommodate him, he’ll consider making a trip to the West Coast. “We got some interest and they want to give me scripts and stuff,” he says. “When I’m writing, I really try to look for very original ideas, because it’s a waste of time to make a film that takes so much effort if it has been done a thousand times. I’m trying to search out really interesting and daring new stories for myself. Of course, if Hollywood comes up with a really original, daring story, then I would love to consider it, but it has to be really good, something new.
“I enjoy the disturbing genres, horror and stuff,” Six continues, “but for me, horror films always have to be stories that can really happen. I’ll never make fantasy films about strange monsters. I really like the idea of the black spots in people’s brains where a lot of evil things can come out. I love to make films that are disturbing and controversial. It doesn’t necessarily have to be horror; it can be a thriller or something. In the Netherlands I made completely different films, like a children’s film and a comedy, but my true love is horror.”
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