In the late ’00s, at the height of horror’s lazy regress into found-footage knockoffs, tired torture porn, and teen-slasher remakes, Dutch writer-director-provocateur Tom Six and his co-producer sister Ilona decided that the genre must die so that he might bring it back to, frankly, disgusting life. The murder weapon? 2009's The Human Centipede — a film about a lunatic doctor (and here is where the squeamish or easily offended should stop reading this piece) who conjoins three kidnap victims anus-to-mouth-to-anus-to-mouth.
Audaciously offensive, Human Centipede quickly became the stuff of midnight-movie and sleepover-party legend. The film generated polarizing notice from major critics, including Entertainment Weekly's Owen Gleiberman (who didn't hate it) and Roger Ebert, who refused to assign a star rating, explaining that Six's depraved effort "occupies a world where the stars don't shine."
But it's a world some people were eager to visit. The film sold 55,000 DVD and Blu-ray copies during the first week they went on sale and hatched, in 2011, the even-more-brutal sequel, The Human Centipede 2: Full Sequence, about a copycat anally-orally fixated psychopath. On May 22, Six will unleash The Human Centipede 3: The Final Sequence, which he's hinted is the series' final installment. This one's about a penitentiary warden who has some out-of-the-box ideas about how to create a docile prison population — ideas that involve sewing mouths to butts.
So as Six's monstrous magnum opus — a sort of societal trolling gesture — skitters toward its grotesque conclusion, we give to you a history of one of filmdom's most infamous franchises. Delivered orally, of course.
PART 1: THE LARVAL STAGE
Tom Six (writer, director, co-producer): I saw a child molester on television here in Holland, and I made a joke that they should stitch his mouth to the anus of a fat truck driver. But that idea kept coming in my head, and I thought, That is a great idea for a horror movie, because that is really about punishment, and I’m a big warrior for proper punishment of criminals. Then I started writing and photographed my girlfriend at the time on her hands and knees, and I Photoshopped it like in a chain, and it looked like a centipede. I said, “Well, that’s a human centipede. That’s my title.”
Six's eventual plot concerns a brilliant surgeon, Dr. Heiter, known for separating Siamese twins, who gets his kicks in retirement by seeking to conjoin humans instead. He kidnaps an unlucky trio of tourists, Lindsay, Jenny, and Katsuro, performs the above-mentioned procedure on them and aims to keep the monster as a pet.
Ilona Six (executive producer): I immediately knew what a brilliant and original idea it was. But at the same time, as I handle the business side of things, I thought, How the hell I am going to set this up? It’s not like you are producing a romantic comedy. I have to tell serious businesspeople, “Well, it’s about stitching people together ass-to-mouth as one gastric system.”
Ashley C. Williams (Lindsay): Tom couldn’t really explain how we were actually connected because people might not wanna be a part of something like that. I think that’s how he got the movie financed. People didn’t really know how to ask how they were connected. They probably thought it was shoulder-to-shoulder.
Tom Six: We did the casting in New York and got a lot of young actresses to come, and then I showed them the drawings I made of the human centipede, and they asked, “Do you want me to sit on my hands and knees attached to an ass?” Most of the girls got so angry, they walked out.
Ilona Six: Some of the actresses asked us, “Is this going to be a porn movie?”
Ashlynn Yennie (Jenny): I got a call from my manager and she said, “Hey, would you like to audition for this controversial European film?” I was fresh out of film school, ready to tackle the business. I went in and there was an outline of what the movie was about: “Dr. Heiter is going to sew these three people together.” I was curious to find out who these people were who were going to make this.
Williams: I had a few callbacks with different actresses, and a lot of them had walked out during the audition and were like, “Fuck this.” My mentality was to go balls to the wall.
Akihiro Kitamura (Katsuro): Somebody was already cast, some older Japanese gentleman, but I guess he got injured. I was told he hurt his butt, so I guess they needed to replace this actor really quickly. I read the script, [and] I thought it was actually a comedy. We did a Skype audition, and Tom was like, “Just to let you know, these two beautiful girls’ faces are going to be attached to your ass.” I was like, “You’re a genius!” A week later, they flew me to Amsterdam.
Dieter Laser (Dr. Heiter): Tom had seen me in the German movie Führer Ex and wanted to offer me the leading part in The Human Centipede. He told me the whole story very vividly, even with some precise camera angles, and I said, “I love your passion, we have to do this!” But when the script arrived at home, I got shocked. Then I discovered the deeper layers of Tom’s script: to expose anal-retentive Nazi doctors to ridicule. I had found my narrative key for the character.
Williams: The first time we met, [Laser] was at the hotel the day before shooting, and he kept to himself. He wasn’t very open with us, and that actually worked for when we were on set, because he wanted to keep that victim/villain line and not interact with us too much. The whole time we were on set, we were scared of him.
Tom Six: Dieter really is a Method actor, so he just is that character all the time, and the other actors were a little bit afraid of him sometimes. I’d say, “It’s all play and it’s all fake,” but he has such a strong personality and his face is really mean, so I can imagine the actors felt like the situation was real sometimes.
Kitamura: Dieter was an asshole.
Williams: Instead of saying action, [Tom] would say, “rock ’n’ roll.” He was always in the best of spirits. I don’t ever remember him getting upset or nervous or having a difficult time. Even in the darkest scenes where Jenny’s dying on my ass and I’m crying, he’d just put his hands in the air and be, “Okay, rock’n’roll!”
Tom Six: A lot of humor existed on the set, like poo humor and stuff like that. Those girls and Aki are such troopers. It was not very serious on set. Otherwise it would be a gruesome experience.
Laser: I had a mental block with the line, “Feed her! Feed her!” because I suddenly imagined what the audience would see in their mind’s eye. Therefore, the line came out so aggressively, just to overcome my block. Now it’s become a well-known saying.
Tom Six: The villa in the story [where Dr. Heiter does his experiments] is in the woods, but in real life, there are all houses around that garden. So when Dieter was crying, “Feed her! Feed her!” there were people hanging out their windows, looking into the garden. I felt almost like a mad scientist, because I created this monster and people are appalled. But the moment when I stood there and watched Dieter going, “Feed her!” I knew that Human Centipede would be a success.
Williams: When we finally got to the scenes when we had to be connected, you weren’t really thinking about the fact that you were naked. All you wanted to focus on was, “Oh my God, my mouth is stitched to somebody else’s ass, and I can’t move, and I have no idea what’s going on.”
Yennie: At that time, I wasn’t super-comfortable with being shown in that way, so it was a really big challenge to say, “Okay, it’s not a sexual thing. Dr. Heiter was creating this pet, and you feel really sorry for the exposure that they’re under.” We were all three in it together, Aki, Ashley, and I. The set was really professional, and Tom and Ilona made sure you felt comfortable. There was a wardrobe lady who had robes and she’d throw them on us, and if Aki got his robe before I got my robe, he would give it to me so I wouldn’t be standing there naked. Dieter, in the swimming scene, he was not supposed to be naked, and I remember he was like, “No, I’m gonna be naked, too. I would be naked in front of my pet.”
Laser: To say that I was naked as a matter of showing solidarity with the rest of the cast was pure kitsch. Since, for Dr. Heiter, the centipede is a creature between a huge insect and a pet, he is not ashamed to be naked in front of it. Who would blush in front of his cat? [Being naked] was a matter of serious storytelling.
Kitamura: Usually, [we were attached] just two minutes, three minutes at most. There’s a scene where we had to climb up the stairs. It was the most challenging scene for me, because I had to drag both girls’ weight. I don’t recommend it at home.
Yennie: Aki’s dragging two people behind him, Ashley’s in between two people trying to maneuver up the staircase, I have the weight of two people’s asses on my jaw. I had a splitting headache when we were done.
Ilona Six: With Part I, I had distributors walk away at screenings thinking I was crazy, but I knew that the horror audience would love it. Then, at the festivals, we started winning awards and the audience went wild every time. Then those same distributors came back to me saying they were interested after all.
Jonathan Sehring (president, IFC Films): The movie screened at Fantastic Fest. I read a little blurb saying Human Centipede had won the Audience Award. I contacted our acquisitions person down there, and I said, “This sounds great. Why wasn’t this one of the titles recommended coming in?” His response was, “This is not for us. It is just appalling.” I said, “Even better.”
Yennie: The trailer came out, and that’s when this onslaught of crazy people were emailing and Facebooking and Twitter messaging Ashley, Aki, and I. Crazy stuff. Not threatening stuff, just, “How could you be in this film? What were you thinking?” I was like, “Well, obviously, IFC made a great trailer if it’s affecting people this much.”
Tom Six: We had all sorts of reactions. I had a girl that passed out [at a screening] and had to be taken out by an ambulance. I get a lot of death threats still.
Frank Scheck (Hollywood Reporter film critic): My primary sense was that I’m not getting paid enough to watch this. [I was] disgusted, but I did have a grudging admiration for the sheer audacity.
Karina Longworth (film critic): The reaction I had of wanting to throw up is a visceral thing, and the movie showed a certain kind of skill in getting that reaction out of me. For what it was, The Human Centipede was perfect.
PART 2: THE SPAWN
Eager to one-up himself, Six concocted a metanarrative sequel, The Human Centipede 2: Full Sequence, in which Martin, played by Laurence R. Harvey, seeks to imitate the first film’s titular procedure, but with more bodies. Ninety minutes of savage beatings, matricide, and highly unsterilized surgery ensue, all captured in grim black and white. Also, just FYI, things only get grosser from here.
Tom Six: When I was writing the first one, I came up with the idea to make three films because I wanted to make a film version of a human centipede — something with three parts. But I didn’t know exactly what direction I would go. And then I was going to festivals and people were saying, “What if some maniac copies your idea?” I said, “Oh, that would be brilliant marketing.” I liked that idea so much. I thought, I’m gonna take a character that’s gonna copy the idea of the film, and what’s even scarier is that guy’s not a medical doctor but a medically unstable person.
Laurence R. Harvey (Martin): My agent had been in touch saying some people from Amsterdam wanted me to be in a porn film. [Laughs.] At the time, the front page of the website [for Six's production company] was "Adult Entertainment, Amsterdam."
Tom Six: Dr. Heiter is a lean, tall, almost handsome guy. This time I wanted a fat, small, chubby guy.
Harvey: Tom and I got on like a house of fire.
Tom Six: During casting, I wanted to see how [far] he was willing to go, so I asked him, “Are you willing to rape a chair? Can you rape the centipede?” Then Laurence grabbed the chair and made love to the chair and I thought, This is my guy.
Yennie (HC2's Miss Yennie): I’d moved to Los Angeles and I get this email from Tom, and when he told me the concept, I was like, “Oh, yeah, this is cool.”
Tom Six: All the actors I cast are so funny. One of them told me that before she did a scene where she was assaulted, she asked her boyfriend the night before to be violent with her to see how she could play it. Of course, the guy refused.
Yennie: The actress who’s attached to me in Part II, Maddi Black, she’s hard-core vegan. She made the fake poo that everybody had in their mouth, and it was made out of like coconut milk and cacao, and it was super good. I don’t know who it was on set, but someone said, “You guys, stop eating the shit.” But we were like, “It’s so good, though!"
Tom Six: People were so shocked by [Part I], but a lot of things happen in your own mind. It’s not very gory or bloody. Some people were appalled, but others were like, “You don’t see hardly a thing. We want more.” I had the idea, “Okay, you wanna see the real stuff, I’m gonna give you the real stuff,” and that’s why Part II is so intense.
Bill Hutchens (Dr. Sebring): The scene with Laurence at the warehouse with barbed wire around his ... that was the bit over-the-top.
Longworth: [The sequel] took the good faith someone like me had in the first one and tried really hard to create the opposite reaction, to make sure I would be as uncomfortable as, say, Roger Ebert was with the first one.
Sehring: There were one or two scenes where we said to Tom, “We can’t show this, otherwise we’re gonna be relegated to an area where no one’s gonna watch the movie.” He wasn't happy about it, but he understood.
Harvey: In the first draft, there was one thing I didn’t want to do, and Tom got rid of it. I’ll let what exactly that was remain a mystery — but Human Centipede II could have been a lot worse.
PART 3: THE END OF THE LINE
Bigger in scope and brighter in color than either of the first two installments, the farcical The Human Centipede 3: Final Sequence involves a monstrous psychotic prison warden, Bill Boss (played by Laser; Harvey also returned for the film) who seeks to tame his rowdy inmates by combining them into one massive megapede.
Tom Six: In Part III, I wanted to go back to my original idea about punishment. It’s very American, extra large, so the acting is over the top, the story is over the top, the centipede has 500 people. It’s all big. It’s the most darkly comical of all three films, and very politically incorrect.
Yennie: As far as being in another one of the movies, after I filmed Part II, I was like, “I think I’m good."
Harvey (Dwight Butler): I was excited [about] working with Dieter. I’d met him at the opening of Part II in the U.K., and he’s exactly like Dr. Heiter, except a warm version. I didn’t have any of the problems with him that any of the actors in the first one [had]. Dieter was a lot more relaxed.
Ilona Six: With Part III, Dieter first felt that his character was too controversial and wanted to change things, and we didn’t agree.
Laser: I was blindfolded, only saw the extreme horror, didn’t realize the comedy, took everything too seriously. It escalated into my refusal to play a part in the third film. Thank God Tom did not give in. He didn’t change the script, but he managed in a four-hour meeting to open my eyes [to] the comedy in it.
Harvey: Each Centipede film is in a different genre, so it was interesting to see that this one [had] almost a grindhouse feel about it, but it’s also more of a satire.
Bill Hutchens (Inmate 488): I’m not in the extreme parts, except one, when I’m witnessing something that is a bit extreme: the kidney sex. I remember them saying, “Come over for this scene,” and I thought, “Oh, yes, I see what’s going on here.”
Robert LaSardo (Inmate 297): In terms of mechanics, we just positioned ourselves for [the kidney sex], and then it was a matter of comfort level.
Bree Olson (Daisy): I was determined to make [Laser] smile and laugh on set. I’m like, “Okay, there is this child inside of him,” and sure enough, within the first week, I had him smiling. I’m going around giving everyone hugs and I’m like, “I’m not gonna exclude you just cause everyone else is afraid of you. I’m not afraid of you.”
Laser: Bree Olson couldn’t manage to make me break character, but it’s true that I now and then decided to switch it off in order to chat.
Olson: Let me tell you about Laurence Harvey: The first day on set, I went around the corner and saw Laurence, and I jumped and screamed because of [Part II]. I had to apologize to him. Even when I was apologizing, I was still scared. I’m like, “This guy’s gonna kill me!” But then he was so sweet.
LaSardo: I appreciated Laurence’s ability to transform. I was fortunate enough to spend time with him. He’s an extremely articulate, very intelligent man, and very sweet and humble, which to me is proof of this tremendous ability he has to do the work effectively. I felt I was in good company with Dieter, Laurence, and Tom, because they were all able to go there completely.
Ilona Six: I think we’ve set a new standard in the horror genre.
Laser: I’m proud of being forever associated with the series. In the long run, the Human Centipede films will last on the shelves of any supermarket and any university library all over the world for decades.
Scheck: I’m hopeful the series is over.
Tom Six: This was my idea, to make a trilogy, because otherwise you start copying yourself. I have so many more ideas for original films. Maybe in 20 years or something, when I get an idea for another Centipede, I'll do one — maybe. Never say never, but for me, for now, The Human Centipede has ended.