The Human Centipede, an indie horror movie that shocked the world in 2010, seemed to be an infamous hit that infected pop culture. Sequels, parodies, and high school rumors surrounded the movie as it spread like a virus. Some people were genuinely horrified by what they saw, while others treated it as a “so bad it’s good” type of movie. However, underneath all the noise that this film generated, it resembles a familiar formula that Universal had used to make their classic monster movies.
When you look at Universal’s iconic monster series, there were two types of movies: one where the monster invaded society (Dracula, The Invisible Man) and one where society sought after the monster (Frankenstein, The Creature from the Black Lagoon). Both types indicate persecution against the unknown. On the surface, one can surmise that The Human Centipede mostly resembles Frankenstein, but that idea can be taken one step further once the formula is examined.
What made Universal’s monsters so endearing was the empathy audiences had for them. In most cases, they were not asked to be transformed and messed with, always living in fear of normal society’s persecutions. In The Human Centipede, the victims were a couple of lost girls who needed to make a phone call. They had no control over the monstrosity that they would be turned into, and once they were turned into the centipede, they obviously couldn’t return to normal life. Even though the writing was poor and their characters were paper-thin, they still were able to convey their emotions and represented the worst that a monster could take from their retaliation. They had been disfigured and tortured.
Josef Heiter is Dr. Frankenstein on a bad acid trip in the film. Similar to the good doctor Frankenstein, Heiter wants to create life and let it blossom from his wildest imaginations, but the extremes he’d go to are not something that Frankenstein himself could stomach. Instead of condemning his creation after his godly high like Frankenstein, Heiter loved his creation like a strict father with a god complex. Which begs the question, which one is the monster?
In 1931, Doctor Frankenstein ended his ordeal by being accepted back into society and marrying a beautiful woman with a promising future in a family. In 2010, Heiter isn’t redeemed but condemned for his awful deeds. There are no love interests in The Human Centipede, just tragedy as the formula plays out in a twisted and ominous haunting way that is filled with death and deceit.
After the crazed doctor meets their victim, and the victim transforms in a way that leaves them shunned by society, the villagers start to find out, or in this case, police officers. A cat-and-mouse game is then played out between these parties as the centipede struggles to escape. The two opposing parties, one representing the status quo of society (police) and one representing the change in society (Heiter), are then killed leaving the dying centipede to fend for itself and accept its grizzly fate.
What The Human Centipede has is the structure of a classic horror monster movie, but it is grotesquely twisted in a way that holds a mirror up to the genre. In the modern world, society doesn’t care. It isn’t as important to be a community as it was in 1931. We have many small communities that are not bound by physical space and these communities harmoniously live and mingle with other communities. There is no such thing as invader or persecutor when it comes to societal norms since normality is an ever-changing structure. However, when an older doctor with inhuman ambitions reminiscent of WWII enters, he is both the persecuted and invader of society.
With society as free form as water in the modern day, Heiter was able to be a part of the world while also terrorizing it without the knowledge of anyone. His actions brought fear into the world, the society at large, and what came out of them was a melting pot of classic tropes being sucked down the drainpipe. And to finish off the fever dream of this reality, the centipede is left at the end of the film in a predicament, like Frankenstein’s monster, where it could live or die but the audience would never know.
Though the director, Tom Six, has stated that his inspiration came from David Cronenberg and Japanese horror films, the structure and messages still resemble the greatest and most iconic of horror films, Frankenstein. In an attempt to not be believable, Tom Six had created a mirror to the classic film. A mirror that explored similar themes and followed certain plot points, but was able to evolve and grow into a modern world–a modern society.