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Wednesday, June 08, 2011 

The censoring of a centipede.


It's most likely a indication of my slow, all but unnoticeable declining interest in "extreme" cinema that I haven't seen the original Human Centipede. Like a good few films in recent years, the hype surrounding it was that it could well be the sickest ever made. Unlike those other, mostly flaccid entries in what became known derisively as the "torture porn" genre, it wasn't an unoriginal retread, remake or homage to either a 70s exploitation piece or an 80s slasher flick. No, here was something resembling an idea, even if it was being pulled off in the confines of a traditional mad scientist/maniac plot: you can after all only be brutalised or killed in so many ways. What's more frightening than being slowly hacked to pieces by an unknown assailant? It's surely not just being deprived of the ability of any means of escape on your own, but also being forced to share the experience with others, and when I say forced I mean literally. However ridiculous and scientifically ludicrous the idea is of three people being able to survive surgically joined together at, to put it in the nicest possible way, bottom to mouth, it's a concept so horrible to the average person that it just about works. For anyone else, well, there's got to be comedy lurking in there somewhere.

Opinions differ as to just how well director Tom Six pulled off his undeniably affecting conceit, with Peter Bradshaw in the Graun, notoriously difficult to please, giving it three stars, while Roger Ebert decided it was beyond his own star system of ranking. Kim Newman, the veteran horror journalist, declared it was odd and unforgettable but never quite as outrageous as it threatened to be. Indeed, discounting the gross-out inevitability of the lead person in the centipede failing to control his bowels, there was relatively little graphic footage in the film of the necessary surgery to construct the human insect, nor much once it had been created. Everything else was left to the over-active imagination. The BBFC, that august body tasked with the always onerous duty of deciding just what we can and can't see was similarly unmoved and passed it 18 uncut. There is however a clue to just how seriously they took the nastiness Six had put to celluloid, contained in their extended classification information:

The Board has taken legal advice which indicates that THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE is not in breach of the Obscene Publications Act 1959 or any other relevant legislation. In terms of harm, the scenario is so far fetched and bizarre that there is no plausible risk of emulation.

This is in contrast to the two most recent new submissions which the board has cut, the remake of I Spit on Your Grave and A Serbian Film, neither of which it seems they sought legal advice over before issuing a certificate.

The reason for rejecting The Human Centipede II (Now it's personal, err, sorry, I mean Full Sequence) then is not that anyone is likely to emulate what's portrayed, even though that's exactly what the entire plot is based around, for Six's concept this time is that someone has been so taken with his original that they put it into actual practice. This breaking of the fourth wall, or attempt at post-modernism ala Scream, call it what you will, is what it seems has really upset the BBFC. Sure, they've dressed it up as they always do in terms of sexual violence, about the only thing they still do cut non-sex works for containing, on always questionable subjective grounds, and make much of how the Full Sequence "presents graphic images of sexual violence, forced defecation, and mutilation", unlike the original, yet you can't help but feel that it's because Six has specifically shown someone doing just that which they said was so "far fetched and bizarre".

David Cox has pretty much hit the nail on the head in his piece for the Graun. The BBFC complains that since the principal focus of the film "is the sexual arousal of the central character at both the idea and the spectacle of the total degradation, humiliation, mutilation, torture, and murder of his naked victims" that cutting any one section will still fail to make the whole acceptable. This is rather odd, as it passes hundreds of works each year that while not necessarily arousing the characters in the film are clearly aimed at stimulating the sections of certain individuals that other parts can't reach. What is it about this fictional character that makes what he inflicts unclassifiable, when numerous serial killer films on the market are just as unflinching in depicting their crimes, like Henry or Man Bites Dog? Key it seems is this passage:

There is a strong focus throughout on the link between sexual arousal and sexual violence and a clear association between pain, perversity and sexual pleasure.

A link between sexual arousal and sexual violence? You don't say? Is it really so awful that this be shown, even in what is an exploitation film? As for a clear association between pain, perversity and sexual pleasure, it seems that this is still too transgressive, too beyond the pale for the BBFC to even contemplate that it exists. It's certainly not clear from the BBFC's justification just how truly graphic the lead character's sexual arousal is shown as: we're told that he masturbates with sandpaper wrapped around his penis, although not whether this is implied or actively shown. The same is the case with the scene in which he apparently rapes the woman at the back of the "centipede", this time with barbed wire around his member, excited at seeing his walking, living shit eating machine in "action" as it were. If any of this sounds just slightly silly, going beyond even what some of the good people over at Bmezine have done to themselves then congratulations, you are just a little more mature and well-balanced it seems than the BBFC.

The problem the BBFC have is that so much of what they object to presented in this context they've passed in highly similar or distantly related genre pictures. Many horror films present the victims of their protagonists as "objects to be brutalised, degraded and mutilated for the amusement and arousal of the central character, as well as for the pleasure of the audience"; what are the Friday the 13th pictures and many other knock-off slashers than exercises in showing how creative the writers can be at killing their teenage fodder off? Those characters exist solely as one-dimensional beings, so unappealing and impossible to empathise with that the audience actively looks forward to seeing them getting chopped up. Sit someone down in front of Salo who knows nothing about the film whatsoever, and would they understand at the end that it's meant to be a vicious allegory of life under fascism replete with Pasolini's despair at modern society, or would they just remember the naked children being served up a meal of their own faecal matter as the degradation they're subjected to intensifies? As for rape, is there a scene more visceral, more agonising and extended than the ordeal which Alex undergoes for nine long minutes in Irreversible?

And so, inevitably, the board is left with relying on the Obscene Publications Act, that outdated and increasingly laughable piece of legislation. The United States has the Miller test, where three separate distinct clauses have to be satisfied before any work can be defined as obscene; we rely on a jury deciding simply if a film is liable to "deprave or corrupt". During the 1980s in the aftermath of the video nasties panic perfectly respectable men and women were brought before the beak for owning, distributing or selling copies of such films as Evil Dead, Last House on the Left and Zombie Creeping Flesh, with juries deciding that such tapes could indeed do just that. Almost all of those banned at the time have now either been passed completely uncut or with piecemeal edits: the most heavily truncated while still given a certificate is House on the Edge of the Park, shorn of an astonishing 11 minutes 43 seconds for its 18. Clearly when motivated enough the BBFC can slash a film into something they deem acceptable. Notably, one of the most notorious nasties, Cannibal Holocaust, has recently been passed with only 15 seconds of cuts, with just the on screen killing of a muskrat removed as required under animal welfare legislation.

Bounty Films and Eureka!, the distributors of Full Sequence plan to appeal the BBFC's decision, taking the film before the Video Appeals Committee, another collection of the great and good. They could well have a chance: Rockstar Games successfully appealed the decision of the BBFC to reject Manhunt 2. If not though, the BBFC instead of merely deciding that the film could be successfully prosecuted as obscene ought to put their case before an actual court: let a jury decide whether it really is likely to "deprave and corrupt", harm, or even slightly desensitise a significant majority of those that encounter it. What could they possible have to lose?

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