Censoring the Centipede

Piece, first published by Little White Lies, on the BBFC’s decision to refuse certification to Tom Six’s The Human Centipede II (Full Sequence). Note that after the initial ban (and after this piece was written), the BBFC reversed its decision upon appeal, granting the film an 18 certificate on condition of 2 minutes and 37 seconds of cuts.


When, back in 1973, Tobe Hooper was making his ultra-low-budget The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, commercial considerations drove him to consult closely with the MPAA, the idea being to produce a horror film that would meet all the criteria for a profitable PG rating in the US.

The result is a movie where unspeakably unpleasant acts tend to take place out of shot, and are conjured more by atmosphere and suggestion than by any voyeuristic explicitness. To Hooper’s great credit as a filmmaker, the disturbing nature of the horror here was irreducible to any given event on screen, instead residing in the less definable (but all-pervasive) terrains of mood and tone.

James Ferman, the then director of the BBFC, refused to grant The Texas Chain Saw Massacre a certificate at all, and could not be dissuaded from his decision by the removal of any particular scene or scenes – and so, apart from brief screenings within a recalcitrant Greater London Council in the ’70s, the film remained unavailable legally (albeit highly available illegally) in the UK until Ferman’s departure from the BBFC in 1999.

So it was that for a quarter of a century, what is broadly acknowledged to be one of the greatest horror films ever made was kept from the supposedly sensitive eyes and corruptible minds of the British public. Needless to say, in the decade or so since the ban has been lifted and the film has been freely accessible in its full uncut glory, there has been no evidence of resultant harm done either to those individuals who have viewed it, or indeed to society at large.

So now we live in more enlightened times, right? In certain key respects Tom Six’s The Human Centipede (First Sequence) was similar to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Its horrific central premise, enshrined in the title, was so grotesquely, surreally shocking at a conceptual level that Six could get away with showing very little indeed while still leaving his audience feeling queasily discomfited with what in fact they have not seen. Though the film (or at least the icky reputation that preceded it) became something of a cause célèbre in the media, kudos to the reformed BBFC for allowing it to be released uncut with an 18 certificate.

Yesterday, however, the BBFC decided to ban outright Six’s sequel, The Human Centipede II (Full Sequence), meaning that ‘it cannot be legally supplied anywhere in the UK’. Now, it could be argued that Six is by nature a baiter of censors, and has had this coming for a while. Ever aware of the currency that controversy brings to certain kinds of cinema, he promoted the original Human Centipede by repeatedly emphasising (in Q&As and interviews) how easily the evil Dr Heiter’s experiments could be replicated at home by anyone with basic surgical skills.

In other words, from the start Six was presenting his film as a ‘100% medically accurate’ how-to manual of sorts for do-it-yourself depravity – something that has not gone down well in the past with a BBFC tasked to block material that may, in the vague words of the Obscene Publications Act 1964, ‘tend to deprave and corrupt persons.’ Of course, you would already have to be as mad as a Heiter to want to graft a chain of three abductees together mouth-to-anus, and so the only real copycats inspired by the film were a series of hilarious parodies, internet memes and wacky merchandise.

Onstage at the Film4 FrightFest 2009 for the world premiere of The Human Centipede (First Sequence), Six was already promising that it was ‘going to be like Sesame Street‘ compared to the sequel that he was planning – a claim which he has since repeated (with minor variations, often referencing My Little Pony instead), to anyone who will listen (journalists, chiefly).

On the extras accompanying the first film’s DVD release, he drew a contrast between the restraint of the First Sequence (“there’s not much blood in this film – a lot of it is happening in your own head”) and the extreme explicitness to which he was aspiring for the sequel (which allegedly features a ‘centipede’ of 12 human segments). “The challenge for me”, Six has said, “is to make a film that’s really hard to watch.” Now it would seem that Six’s hopes have been realised – if not perhaps in quite the way he intended – by the BBFC’s decision effectively to ban any British citizen from legally seeing the finished sequel.

Evidently the BBFC agrees broadly with Six’s envisaged contrast between the two Centipede films, stating as part of the reason for its ban:

“Unlike the first film, the sequel presents graphic images of sexual violence, forced defecation, and mutilation, and the viewer is invited to witness events from the perspective of the protagonist. Whereas in the first film the ‘centipede’ idea is presented as a revolting medical experiment, with the focus on whether the victims will be able to escape, this sequel presents the ‘centipede’ idea as the object of the protagonist’s depraved sexual fantasy.”

The judgment concludes:

“the explicit presentation of the central character’s obsessive sexually violent fantasies is in breach of [the] Classification Guidelines and poses a real, as opposed to a fanciful, risk that harm is likely to be caused to potential viewers.”

The wording of this final sentence raises all sorts of questions. First of all, note the insidious interweaving of assertive and tentative terms – ‘real, as opposed to fanciful’ might sound like a decisive expression, but its force is somewhat weakened when applied merely to a ‘risk’ for ‘potential viewers.’ And who exactly are these potential viewers likely to be harmed by the film? Surely not all viewers, or else we should be worried about the four signatories to the BBFC judgment (David Cooke, Sir Quentin Thomas, Alison Hastings and Gerard Lemos), all of whom have based their decision on close and possibly repeated viewings. And surely not you or me, either, for as informed, educated and largely integrated members of society, we pose little risk. No, it is always someone else, some mysterious ‘other’ whose potential danger is constructed, typically in elitist terms, on the basis of social or class marginality. Not that this stops such people (whoever they are) from being able to drink, to drive, to join the armed forces, or to engage in numerous other activities far more (potentially) dangerous to themselves and everyone else – just so long as they do not watch a fictive entertainment.

The irony is, though, that the protagonist of this sequel is himself a repeat viewer of the first film, which is in part what guides him on his course of degradation, torture and murder. There is an early scene that the BBFC singles out for particular concern,

‘in which [the protagonist] masturbates whilst he watches a DVD of the original Human Centipede film, with sandpaper wrapped around his penis.’

Inspired to restage for his own perverted kicks ideas from the film with which he is so obsessed, the man later

‘becomes aroused at the sight of the members of the ‘centipede’ being forced to defecate into one another’s mouths, culminating in the sight of the man wrapping barbed wire around his penis and raping the woman at the rear of the ‘centipede’.’

Of course, if the first film could really inspire this kind of conduct in its no doubt cock-chafed viewers, then surely it too should have been banned. But if it could not (and the fact is that it has not), then there is an obvious distinction to be drawn between the fictive viewer in, and the actual viewers of, Six’s film.

It is that distinction, precisely, which Six would appear to be ironising with all these postmodern references to his earlier film. His voyeuristic protagonist might reflect aspects of Six’s viewers, but in rather more obvious respects he is nothing like them. I would prefer to say ‘like us’, except that Six’s ironies are inevitably lost on anyone forbidden to see the film – lost along with certain basic freedoms.

Now the scenes described (and condemned) by the BBFC might sound unseemly, tasteless, repellent or horrifying – but such qualities are the very lifeblood of horror, and are also often (indeed more often than many like to admit) found in the most mainstream of comedies, romances and action films. So The Human Centipede II (Full Sequence) may not be everyone’s cup of tea. (What film is?) Yet banning this film outright for its supposed capacity to corrupt and deprave represents a slippery conflation, as though somehow a personal sense of distaste and the whole thorny notion of ‘obscenity’ are one and the same thing.

Six has not made his film, shot in black and white, for a mass market – but he has produced a fiction, created by and for consenting adults, that has a niche audience. No doubt, as a result of this ban, many members of that audience will contemplate, perhaps for the first time, breaking the law twice over by illegally downloading it over the Internet – and so see it anyway.

In an appended statement to the BBFC decision, the organisation’s current director David Cooke states:

“The Board considered whether its concerns could be dealt with through cuts. However, given that the unacceptable content runs throughout the work, cuts are not a viable option in this case and the work is therefore refused a classification.”

It is a decision that brings us back full circle to Ferman’s original judgment on The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.

Six has a month and a half in which to appeal, and in the meantime is no doubt unsure whether to welcome or dread all this new attention being drawn to what is a small independent production. He must also be thinking very hard about the prospects for The Human Centipede III (Final Sequence), [now slated for release in 2015].

Anton Bitel