It’s like nothing you’ve ever seen. That’s what they will tell you. And the most frightening thing about the entire situation is that they are right. They being the people who market unique horror films — and by proxy, critics. For many of us, the most disgusting and depraved films are reserved for those who invest great time and effort in the study of the genre; those who know it like no one else, drawing from a gruesome back-catalog of late Saturday nights at dive rental joints, sifting through blood-soaked shelves of VHS tapes and an endless supply of murder and mayhem. But every once in a while, something clicks and accelerates into the eye of the mainstream. Such is the case with Tom Six’s The Human Centipede, a movie that is breaking through in a big way. Not necessarily because it’s a good film, but because it’s a unique film.
In 2004, an independent horror film that premiered at Sundance shook free of genre shackles. Touted as one of the more intense and creative horror movies in years, Saw went on to earn more than $100 million worldwide, eventually spawning (to date) five sequels, with one on the way. It was made for $1.2 million dollars. But it wasn’t the money, it was the gimmick. Saw was a new brand of torture — which would later be lovingly labeled as “torture porn” — a movie so shocking, it demanded an audience. And it was marketed as such, drawing an audience well beyond the die-hards of the midnight arena.
Last year saw another occurrence of this phenomenon in Paranormal Activity. When Bloody Disgusting called it “one of the scariest movies of all-time,” they probably had no idea that such a quote would become the crux of a marketing campaign that would propel the movie to almost $200 million at the worldwide box office. Recognizing the power of secrecy and the allure of the unknown, Paramount Pictures launched a marketing campaign intended to build Paranormal into a big, mysterious sensation. What was this film that was terrifying festival audiences? It was yet another brilliant exploitation of a gimmick — the found footage thriller.
It’s the same thing that Paramount did with the J.J. Abrams-produced disaster thriller Cloverfield a year and a half earlier. They used the gimmick to drive curiosity, and the curiosity to put asses in the seats. On a marketing level, its the same principle for all three films mentioned. You take an interesting gimmick and you bury it in quotes and testimonials from those who know — this movie is the most ______ of all-time. How could anyone resist the opportunity to witness that kind of history?
Here in 2010, we find ourselves at the onset of the next wave of gimmick madness. Earlier this week, treasured critic Roger Ebert refused to give a star rating to The Human Centipede, saying that the film “occupies a world where the stars don’t shine.” It is, as just about every review will tell you, “one of the most disgusting movies ever made.” And that’s what makes it so interesting. It will have the power draw an audience not because it’s good, but because it is special. It’s showing up on Fox News and getting heavy mainstream media attention because it is something you have to see to believe.
I’m not arguing that this is a bad thing. It’s just a thing. The point here is that it takes two things for a genre film to break through like the films I’ve listed above. It takes a unique approach. In the case of Human Centipede, it is the utterly batshit crazy nature of the film’s main narrative device — three people connected by their gastrointestinal tracts to form, quite literally, a human centipede. That is something that we’ve really never seen before — and even if that sort of concept has existed before, it’s never been done in a way that is remotely commercially viable.
And then it takes marketing. This is where credit is due to IFC Films. When The Human Centipede played at Fantastic Fest last fall, it played well to an audience full of genre fans. It was sick, twisted and they ate it up, for lack of better phrasing. But success at a genre festival such as Fantastic Fest doesn’t grant instant translation to mainstream success. It takes smart marketing — a series of college screenings, a barrage of articles from the media (mainstream and otherwise) and testimonials from fans about how uniquely depraved the experience is. It’s that combination, having something unique and recognizing it enough to exploit it, that makes for a successful breakthrough.
Will The Human Centipede be the next big gimmick thriller to break out? We don’t know just yet. What I can tell you is that it appears to be following a tested and true formula for horror. And that makes it dangerous. It is also a uniquely twisted movie, which makes it interesting. That sort of thing — as we’ve seen — makes people of all dispositions curious. Curiosity leads to asses in the seats. And based on what happens in the movie, I’d say that’s the best place for those asses. Then again, I guess it’s just something you’re just going to have to see for yourself.
For additional context, you may want to watch the trailer for The Human Centipede, which I’ve embedded below. Then again, you may not.