Saturday, November 27, 2010


Over the past few weeks I've finally caught up with a couple of films that, from what I'd heard, each attempted to stake a claim to the cinematic void left in Cronenberg's wake as he's moved on to more mainstream fare.  Both films were released in 2009 and both do decent jobs at what they set out to accomplish.  Critical reaction has been split with mostly positive reviews of Vincenzo Natali's Splice, and mostly negative reviews of Tom Six's The Human Centipede (First Sequence).

Of course, as usual, I had pretty much the opposite reactions.

I know both of these films have already been out for more than a year, and everyone I know has already seen them, but still, for those who are as far behind as I was, Spoilers Ahead!

Splice stars Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley as romantically involved genetic researchers working to blend the DNAs of various animals to create a new species that can be, essentially, milked of its various proteins and bio-chemicals for use in medicines.  Not interested in spending the next 5-10 years working on that project, Clive and Elsa decide to use human DNA for their next experiment, which predictably comes to term as an intelligent, if dangerous, monster with more than a little sex appeal.

Everything goes downhill from there, with Clive having sex with the monster, which, of course, causes friction in his and Elsa's relationship, but then the monster changes sex, rapes Elsa and is then killed.  Clive dies in the process, leaving us with the closing image of Elsa, pregnant with a monster baby, being paid a great deal of money by her employer to stay quiet and carry the experiment to its "next level".

And that's pretty much it.

I can see where people were getting the Cronenberg connections, but to be quite honest, I don't think it's remotely as disturbing or inventive as the weakest of Cronenberg's horror canon.  It comes close a couple of times, but only when we're dealing with Clive and Elsa's first creations, which are large, slug-like things, one male, one female, who, at the most inopportune time, murder each other in a bloody, violent scene in front of a room full of shareholders (or something).  Seems, Clive and Elsa were so distracted with their new monster, whom they've named Dren (Delphine ChanĂ©ac) - Nerd spelled backwards - that no one noticed that the female slug had somehow changed sex.  So when they were put into the same cage, instead of making sweet love, they went crazy and murdered each other.

It's a nice moment, but makes explicit one of my biggest criticisms of the film.  Brody and Polley are entirely unbelievable as scientists.  Their "research" seems to mostly involve occasionally speaking some notes into a digital recorder.  The rest of the time, they're just a couple of actors in lab coats.  That really becomes a flaw with the script and direction more than the performances.  Most of the film's action is predicated on no one noticing the noises or resources coming from and going to the side room where Dren is created.

Plus, everything was just too neat and clean.  Even the old barn where they move Dren looks more like a movie set than a real barn.  Everything is just too tidy, in both the story and the look of the film.  And that's not even mentioning the annoying fact that nearly every bit of character and plot development hinges on gender cliches and stereotypes.

Maybe even worse that all of that is the fact that what should be the most disturbing moment in the film, where Clive is seduced by and has sex with Dren, isn't disturbing at all.  I'm sorry, but Dren was sexy.  If this were a Cronenberg film, Dren would be hideous and hard to look at, but Clive would fuck it anyway.  That would be disturbing, being unable to not be attracted to a monstrous thing.  But the Dren of this film is anything but unattractive.  Sure she's got weird feet, a tail, and her eyes are a little far apart, but that underwater seduction scene was meant to titillate, not disturb.

It was all a bit too shiny and Hollywood for my tastes.  Not very Cronenbergian at all.

And yes, I know it was a Canadian production.

The Human Centipede (First Sequence), on the other hand, is one of the most vivid creative descendants of Cronenberg's early films that I've ever seen.

The story, in a nutshell, goes like this: Crazy doctor kidnaps three people in order to perform a scientific experiment where he sews them together, mouth to asshole, forming a "human centipede" with one digestive tract.  Police arrive, everyone is shot and killed, or dies one way or another, except for the poor girl in the middle of the centipede.

Don't get me wrong.  This is not an objectively good film, and Splice is years beyond it acting, production values, and special effects.  But I'll be damned if it wasn't exponentially more entertaining and disturbing, as well as being a direct descendant of films like Rabid and Shivers.  It also draws its influences from the current crop of torture-horror films coming out of Europe and Japan (like Martyrs and The Audition).

The Human Centipede isn't nearly as good as any of those films (although Rabid is filled with weak acting and had a ridiculously low budget), but the audaciousness of its core concept earns it my good will.  Well, that and having Dieter Laser play the disturbed Dr. Heiter, a world-renowned expert on the separation of conjoined twins.  Laser is perfect for the role (and would be even if wasn't the main villain in the second season of the Sci-Fi series Lexx) in the same way Angus Scrimm was perfect for the role of The Tall Man in the Phantasm films.

The film also scores points for using suggestion rather than shocking gore to really unnerve the viewer.  I went into this film expecting to be disgusted, or to at least see some lips being sewn to some assholes, but to no avail.  In this respect, the film is more of a psychological thriller than your typical torture-horror film.  We're not exposed to the actual surgery but spend time with the victims as Dr. Heiter tries to train them to behave like a pet.  That's the really disturbing part.

When a writer/director has to hide the actual content of his film from his investors, for fear of losing their money, that impresses me.  I don't care if Tom Six says it's all medically accurate and it's really all bullshit.  Nobody really needed life insurance policies before watching William Castle films either.  That's showmanship and is part of the reason, along with the sheer audaciousness of the content, why this weird little film about a doctor sewing three people together mouth-to-asshole has not only reached a much wider audience than I'm sure anyone imagined it would, but is, for me, the real winner between the two latest films to claim the title of Cronenbergian.


  1. Have you seen Isolation, the Irish genetically modified killer cow movie? It has a similar plot to Splice, and more or less the same ending.

  2. No, I haven't, but after a quick Internet search, I think I may have to.

  3. Don't worry about the spoiler in my comment either. It's telegraphed quite clearly.