Horrific visions: "The Room" and "The Human Centipede"

I recently wrote in The Tangential that "there are some things that can’t be adequately described in words: they have to be experienced. There’s sex, there’s skydiving, there’s the House on the Rock, and there’s Doggy Poo." As of Sunday night, I have a couple of items to add to that list: The Room and The Human Centipede.

Our Lit Lyfe blogger Courtney and her husband Bob were kind—if that's the word—enough to have me over along with some other friends for a double feature of two of the most infamous movies of the 21st century, neither of which I'd previously seen. Fortified by sherry (Courtney: "Doesn't this taste like you thought wine would taste when you were a kid—like boozy juice?"), I made it through both films without closing my eyes, though there were moments when I had to grasp the couch for support.

The Room (2003) is the hottest cult film since The Rocky Horror Picture Show, famously dubbed by St. Cloud State film professor Ross Morin "the Citizen Kane of bad movies." At the center of the film is director/writer/star Tommy Wiseau, whose character Johnny is betrayed by his fiancée (Juliette Danielle). What makes Wiseau's performance so compellingly terrible is that though this is his pet project—self-financed to the tune of $6 million, which he says he raised in part by importing leather jackets from Korea—on screen he's nearly affectless, laughing mirthlessly and raging blandly as he stands at the center of the strange world he created. To my eye, Wiseau's greatest influence isn't Orson Welles: it's Andy Warhol.

The Human Centipede (2010) is by conventional standards a much better movie, although neither Centipede nor Room are really appropriate to judge by conventional standards; Centipede is the only film that I've seen critic Roger Ebert deem impossible to rate on a four-star scale. "Is it good? Is it bad? Does it matter? It is what it is and occupies a world where the stars don't shine."

If you don't know the film's grisly premise, I won't be the one to, er, spoil the surprise that writer/director Tom Six has waiting for the three luckless victims of a sadistic German physician. Beyond the you-think-you've-seen-it-all-but-oh-no-you-haven't premise, what most distinguishes Centipede is Six's straight-faced take on the material. No gags, no giggles, just straight-up horror. Reportedly Six's favorite actor is Klaus Kinski, and The Human Centipede combines Kinski-style mad obsession with the expressionist terror of F.W. Murnau's Nosferatu. Of course the doctor is German.

When all was roomed and centipeded, the question naturally arose: why? Why would anyone—for example, us, and millions of others—want to see such horrible/horrific films? Courtney speculated that movies like The Human Centipede are our chance to experience emotions that, God willing, we'll never experience in real life. That's definitely part of the interest, but I also think there's a fascination in seeing what people who are bizarre and twisted but absolutely driven can accomplish. Tom Six didn't make an actual human centipede and Tommy Wiseau didn't actually have rose-petal-crushing sex with Juliette Danielle (his thrusting hips float as far above hers, under that sheet, as Sigourney Weaver floats above the bed in Ghostbusters)—but The Room and The Human Centipede exist. And if the movies exist, then why not...

Better stop there, because down that road lie the real-life human experiments conducted by the Nazis in concentration camps, experiments Six had in mind when he made his movie. I think the reason films that are horrific, or even just horrible at a Wiseau level, are so weirdly compelling is that we recognize how thin the line between imagination and reality can be.

"Whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her," we read in Matthew, "has committed adultery with her already in his heart." What for those of us who looketh upon a human centipede—and keepeth to look, even keepeth to eat chips and salsa whilst we look? How shall we hereafter think of ourselves?