Every year at the Festival Internacional de Cinema Fantàstic in Sitges, Spain, there’s one movie that generates instant notoriety. In previous years, gore-drenched European shockers like Inside and Martyrs have prompted more than gasps from audiences. People flee the theater, get sick to their stomachs, even require a trip to the emergency room. Or so goes the legend.
This year’s barf-bag classic was, hands-down, The Human Centipede. The warped brainchild of affable Dutch filmmaker Tom Six is equal parts The Breed-era Cronenberg, The Island of Dr. Moreau, The Vanishing, and some 1960s grindhouse creepfest, with a little Rocky Horror and Hostel thrown in. One dark and stormy night, two American party girls are off to a bar when their European holiday comes to an unfortunate halt: They get a flat tire. Too brainless to do the repair themselves, they stumble off to a house in the middle of the woods. There, they are greeted by German character actor Dieter Laser (his real name), who gives one of the great mad-scientist performances in recent memory.
What happens next? Well, I’m not going to ruin it for you. Let’s just say the evil doctor has plans for the gals. And after drugging them, he installs them in his basement hospital ward where he hopes to create, you guessed it, the human centipede. Although the film indeed builds to moments of vomitous disgust—which can certainly happen when three people share a single disgestive tract—and would be disappointing otherwise, Six is far more interested in diabolical psychology. He puts this purely awful scenario inside your head, and then makes you squirm with the implications as the tone veers between extreme dark comedy and over-the-top bio-horror.
Paste sat down with the astoundingly cheerful Six—dapper in a white shirt and slacks, with a straw plantation-owner’s hat on his head—at the patio bar of the Hotel Melia in Sitges, took a sip off a fresh draft beer, and just had to ask: What’s a nice guy like him doing making a movie like this?
Paste: What a sick, sick movie.
Tom Six: Yeah! That was the intention, hey!
Paste: What inspired this vision of hell?
Six: It all started with this very sick joke I always made to friends, when somebody’s nasty or annoying or a child molester, I sad they should stitch his mouth to the asshole of a fat truck driver. That would be a real punishment. Everyone said, oh that’s so crazy, that’s so sick. And that was the basic idea for a horror film.
Paste: You just made it up?
Six: Yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Paste: So how do you proceed from that premise?
Six: Well, then you start thinking, “OK, how would I visualize this?” And then I came up with the “Human Centipede.” People on their hands and knees, attached in a string. And then you think, “Who could do that?” Well, it must be a surgeon. The stitching must be done by a surgeon. And one of my biggest fears, in my scary nightmares, was the Nazi doctors in the Second World War. Oh man! It had to be a German surgeon. So I put down all the basic stuff. And then I went to a surgeon in Holland, and we invented the operation together. So it’s actually 100% medically accurate.
Paste: That’s the selling point, right? Like in the old days of exploitation. It’s real. It could happen to you!
Paste: How is it possible, though? Wouldn’t the second person get sick?
Six: You see in the film, they have those IV machines attached to them. So they can get vitamins and fluids. You can live for a really, really long time that way. In the feces there is some nutrition left, but the third person in the chain, the more digested it gets, really nasty.
Paste: That was the worst moment in the movie. [Reciting a key line]: “FEED HER!”
Six: It’s universal. You see how horrible it would be.
Paste: Have you had extreme reactions?
Six: Oh, yes. During test screenings, people walked out. They were really angry. One girl was afraid to look at me. But I’m a really friendly guy.
Paste: Did anyone yell at you?
Six: Yeah, during the auditions some of the girls thought I was sick and they left.
Paste: How did you present it to them?
Six: I didn’t want to distract them with other things so I just gave them the basic idea first. Finally, we chose actresses and we had them sit on their hands and knees during the audition. And we slowly put their mouths really close to the… Some of them thought they could do it, but when they were on their hands and knees they said, “I can’t do it. It’s too much.” But we got these two actresses. You need good acting to make it real and believable.
Paste: Dieter Laser is the most amazing, crazy, terrifying mad scientist. But I had never heard of him.
Six: He’s done almost 80 films in German television. He’s also in American films, mostly as a supporting actor. Not many people will recognize him.
Paste: Is that how he usually is, or was this a push for him?
Six: In real life, he is a really friendly guy. Of course, he has this intense mimic in his face, so you are a little scared of him when you see him around. He has also the kind of mind that can understand the level of horror, so of course he loved to play the part. In the German films, he plays a real villain sometimes.
Paste: He’s the new definition of creepy. Anyone in their right mind would run like hell the minute he opens the door. But, of course, this is a horror movie. So the girls don’t do that.
Six: All horror films are so clichéd. The girls are naïve and stuff. I did it on purpose to use all the cliché stuff and then, bam, there’s something you didn’t expect in your wildest dreams.
Paste: What movies did you grow up on? Was making this kind of movie something you always thought about?
Six: I like the early work of David Cronenberg. I like the fact they use human bodies, diseases—that can actually happen. I like that kind of horror where there’s a reality element. I would never make a film with a big monster. It’s not really believable. A film that’s really inspiring, a really old film, is Salo, by Pasolini. There’s some resemblance with that. It’s a masterpiece. Those movies give you the creeps. I always intended when I make horror films, I want to do something like that.
Paste: Is there a moral? What’s the message of The Human Centipede?
Six: No. Usually, I don’t put messages. No. No, no.
Paste: Maybe it’s a story of hope?
Six: For the girls, yeah. They keep believing in hope.