Envelope-pushing has been part of the lure of horror movies for many decades.
In the 1950s and ’60s there were would-be shockers that were hyped as being so scary that audience members were insured in the event that they should die of fright (no one did).
By the end of the 1960s, Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” had upped the violence ante to the point where graphically depicted cannibalism was one of the (underground) selling points of George Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead” in 1968.
The Romero flick made most of its money on the midnight movie circuit in the early 1970s when it was more than a tad scary to be in an urban movie house at that hour no matter what was on the screen.
Underlying the tension at those screenings of “Night of the Living Dead” was the fact that we knew that when the movie was over, we’d have to make our way home at 2 in the morning from a dumpy theater in a marginal neighborhood.
“Texas Chainsaw Massacre” quickly followed “Living Dead” on the midnight/exploitation circuit — with the immortal adline “Who Will Survive and What Will Be Left of Them?” — and then in 1974 “The Exorcist” became the first major studio film whose gross-out factor was part of the sensational word of mouth.
It was said during early engagements of the William Friedkin film that people were fainting and becoming ill, prompting one of the funniest quotes ever published in the trade paper Variety — a female moviegoer who told a reporter that she was waiting on a long line, “To see what everybody is throwing up about.”
“The Exorcist” now looks quaint compared with the slasher flicks of the 1980s and the wave of “Saw” and “Hostel” torture horror flicks over the past decade.
It takes a lot to generate “buzz” for a horror movie these days, but that’s exactly what “The Human Centipede” has done this year based on midnight showings at arthouses around the country and release as a video-on-demand title via IFC.
When Broadway star Kristin Chenoweth mentioned in passing on her Twitter feed in early summer that she had downloaded the movie, some speculated that watching “The Human Centipede” was what caused the star to miss a few performances of “Promises, Promises” over the next few days.
On Tuesday, the movie debuts on DVD complete with a cover quote from “Hostel” director (and “Inglorious Basterds” actor) Eli Roth saying that the movie had made him sick (and that he considered that a high compliment!).
Torture horror flicks are not my thing (I only made it through the first “Saw”) but when an advance DVD of “The Human Centipede” arrived in the mail, my prurient curiosity got the best of me, and I sat through the 90-minute flick ready to shut it off if things got too out of hand (one of the blessings of home video).
The movie definitely has a few disgusting moments — involving its villain, an insane German surgeon (Dieter Laser, above and below) who is determined to create “Siamese triplets” — but the nightmarish elements in the bizarre premise are quickly overtaken by writer-director Tom Six’s poor plotting and the absence of any suspense.
Once again, a modern horror movie is set in motion by dumb Americans on vacation in Europe. Two college age girls visiting Germany want to attend a hot party and inexplicably get lost in the woods with a flat tire as a violent storm begins (no GPS? no Mapquest?).
Soon they are knocking on the door of the only house they come across during an hour’s wander in the woods and it is their bad luck that the owner is the mad Dr. Heiter who has been looking for the second and third parts of his “human centipede” lab experiment.
The girls accept drinks from their very creepy-looking host and are soon unconscious and trapped in Dr. Heiter’s basement laboratory/operating theater.
All suspense ends at this point and Six substitutes disgusting suggestion for suspense or horror. Fortunately, the movie never feels “real” so the “centipede” situation the two women find themselves in is not very convincing (the critic in The Boston Globe wrote that “the final product looks like a scatological yoga parody”).
Almost the last third of the movie is devoted to the visit of two German cops who have noticed the abandoned cars on a nearby road and who have received reports of “screaming Americans” in the neighborhood (I’m not making this up). The cops turn out to be as dumb as the tourists, however, accepting drinks from a man who might as well have the words “Homicidal maniac” tattooed on his forehead.
IFC Films deserves some sort of marketing prize for stirring up so much chatter — and theatrical business — for a “shocker” that doesn’t have a single real scare in it. Disgust is not a substitute for suspense in a horror film.