Strange Bedfellows: A Double Feature of the Grotesque

I love when films come along that are deemed immoral or have claims made against them that they glamorize violence and really serve no purpose.  This just reinforces the reasons for these films to exist: to push boundaries, make people uncomfortable with what they're seeing, and to provoke thoughts about what exactly are the roles that violence (in all its forms) play in our day to day lives.  While this may be evident in the discourse a film like THE KILLER INSIDE ME is having with the moral assumptions within every day society, being set in reality, and completely subjective in its point-of-view of a seemingly normal man who does unspeakably horrible things, it is also useful to understand that violence and its role in society has long been the territory of the horror film, and that Tom Six's THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE, for all its over-the-top shock value, is a perfect example of what power the visual realization of horrific circumstance on film can have on an audience, and how important it is that such images exist to provoke and disgust.

THE KILLER INSIDE ME, director Michael Winterbottom's dark noir adaptation of the pitch-black novel by Jim Thompson is the stronger of the two films in question, but with the pedigree behind it, that's not terribly surprising.  We're given small-town Deputy Sheriff Lou Ford (another absolutely spell-binding performance by Casey Affleck), who appears normal, and even knows and explains to the audience how he's appearing normal, to everyone around him, but who nonetheless has the impulses of a psychopath, and who isn't afraid to act on them when need be.  As Lou descends into an ever-growing spiral of sexual assault and murder, mostly in order to preserve his innocent status, the film forces the audience to experience his acts in the most visceral manner: explicitly, visually, and unflinchingly.

Winterbottom has never been a director to shy away from utilizing the medium's advantage of being able to give physical life to something that otherwise could only be imagined.  From the literal visions of Tony Wilson in 24 HOUR PARTY PEOPLE, to the explicit sexual relationship catalogued in 9 SONGS, and the very visual representation of adapting an unadaptable work (more successful than even ADAPTATION) in TRISTRAM SHANDY: A COCK AND BULL STORY, he is consistently one of the most confrontational directors for an audience to enter into a discourse with, specifically designing his films to provoke and push the viewer into places they may not be comfortable in, but which nonetheless serve to make them think about what they're watching.

The scenes in THE KILLER INSIDE ME that leave everyone so disgusted and puzzled as to just what the film is supposed to be telling us are the scenes in which Lou Cobb brutally murders his lovers, who he may or may not actually have any feelings for, but whom he nonetheless must kill in order to satisfy his need for personal survival.  The first murder in particular, of the prostitute Joyce (Jessica Alba), who Lou seems to regret his actions toward the most after they are complete (though he analytically decides there was really no other option), is exceptionally disturbing.  As part of a plot to get personal vengeance while also making a little money, he repeatedly beats Joyce in the face, her skin eventually giving way and exposing some of the bone underneath.  While this is definitely brutal enough, what I think most people find most repulsive is the desire for Joyce to kiss her lover and attacker one final time, and the fact that he does it.  The fact that all of this happens just after they've had sex so he could say goodbye to her only compounds this disgust.

But what does it all mean?  I think that, aside from attempting to tell us about society at large, these scenes are meant to get us thinking about how we process violence on a personal level.  What is more disturbing: to see this woman brutally murdered by the man she loves, and who apparently loves her on some level alien to those of us without a psychological disorder, and that she continues to love him despite his faults and the fact that she is very well on her way to death, or that we can watch countless action films where hundreds of people die and not feel anything at all about whatever brutal ways they meet their end?  I think both are equally disturbing, and neither is more condemnable than the other.  In fact, I think that both serve very visceral purposes for the viewer: thrills that are meant to provide some sort of release, whether it's one of disgust, or one of some sort of vindication.  Maybe both at the same time, and in varying levels.

Before getting into THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE, I'd like to address something that has been said of both films: that they are in some way misogynistic fantasies.  I don't know that this is necessarily an incorrect assessment of the films in some way, though I feel it oversimplifies and disregards a whole lot of other things the films are interested in or seek to provide some sort of insight into.  To simply say that a film is demeaning to women completely disregards the fact that sometimes the demeaning portrayals of certain acts toward female characters may come with the intent (and I think very easily noticeable) to deliberately make the audience feel disgust at the ways in which these characters are treated.  Why are women treated this way on film?  What advantage would a filmmaker have to simply make a film that absolutely does not care in any way about its female characters?  Is it the responsibility of the filmmaker to curb the possible or supposed interpretations of how "cool" some behavior may or may not be to the audience?  To the latter, I think absolutely not.  To the rest, I think these are things that must be considered at all times.

People lobbing accusations of completely pointless existence at THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE seem to be missing a bit of the point: the film is much more interesting if read as a companion piece to a film implicitly interested in showing violence to its audience like THE KILLER INSIDE ME (or HOSTEL, or A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE, or anything else).  Rather than dwelling on the fact that the victims are women, which is important, and which I want to discuss a bit more shortly, assume for a moment that you are shown the actual "violent" scenes of THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE.  Well, for one, they're completely antiseptic medical scenes, and in most cases you can find more graphic representations of surgical procedures on any number of television hospital dramas.  Aside from a few incisions, the most violent scenes involve gunplay and a couple of instances of physical altercations during escape attempts. This is actually pretty standard fare for any number of films.  Second, four of the six victims in the film are male: two abductees, same as the women, and two police officers in the climax.  That the women get the worst treatment, in that they form the second and third portions of the centipede, is kind of a hollow argument, in that it's all pretty horrible, no matter where you are in the warped creation.

In any case, I think that the key to what THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE is about is in the pivotal performance of Dieter Laser as Dr. Heiter, a stock mad-scientist with a diseased mind character.  Laser's interpretation is chilling, in that Heiter enjoys what he's doing more than anyone logically could, and is obsessed not with killing people, but in furthering the field of biomedical surgery.  It's a concept that is interesting in its implications, given not only that Heiter is of course German (and the ties to actual biological questions infamous Nazi doctor Mengele posed and attempted to answer), but that we are, as a society, constantly attempting to find ways to prolong and save lives by forcing our bodies to accept foreign biological elements (i.e. - another person's body parts) into our own ailing frames.  Arguably Tom Six's twisted little horror film is more interested in bio-ethics than in creating any sense of horror at all, though it definitely succeeds on that level as well.

The key to understanding these films (and any others like them), I feel, lay in attempting to understand ourselves within the context of what we're watching.  And while you can certainly find them to be murky, problematic, or in some cases completely non-existent, it's at least a more worthwhile exercise to think about why we are shown what we are shown than to simply dismiss it as something that shouldn't be shown to begin with, for any reason whatsoever.  There may very well be no moral compass at work within a film like THE KILLER INSIDE ME, and certainly there is less of one to be found in THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE, but that doesn't discount what they may tell us about our own sense of morality, or the world we inhabit, and who we inhabit it with.

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