Category Archives: Philosophy

The Lie in The Human Centipede Trilogy

The Human Centipede 3 PosterI have not seen any of The Human Centipede films. Normally, I would. But I don’t even like fart jokes. Scatological material makes me sick just to think about.

As a result, this rumination is based on reports, not actual viewing. I’m more than open to publishing any positive posts or pages on any of the films or the trilogy as a whole. Just contact me.

I can deal with small bits of scatological material as in Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead. But a series of films, which don’t seem to have much of a sense of humor about themselves, based on the idea of people eating out of the anuses of others? Sorry. I can’t deal with it. Is it psychotronic? Sure. Am I going to watch it? Well, maybe the first film at some time in the future.

But what I want to talk about is writer/director Tom Six’s claim that he always meant for The Human Centipede to be a trilogy. That’s doubtless true. But it’s also certain that he hadn’t thought it through very carefully. That, or he shows a complete lack of creativity.

A Brief Overview of The Human Centipede

The films break down as follows:

The Human Centipede (First Sequence)
Other than the scatological aspect of the film, this is a pretty straightforward mad scientist film that could have starred John Carradine or Vincent Price in the 1950s or 1960s. Or did star Tim Curry in the 1970s. A car breaks down, the stranded victims go to a local house for help, only to be caught in the mad scientist’s evil web.
The Human Centipede 2 (Full Sequence)
The sequel is a meta-film: a fan of the first film either does it for real or imagines that he does. Instead of 3 people, as in the first film, this one has 12. And instead of a surgeon doing the operation, the main character uses a staple gun, which even without seeing it, I know would not work. Anyone who has ever dealt with plumbing knows just how big a problem leaks are — to the point where the entire system rips apart.
The Human Centipede 3 (Final Sequence)
Is a 12-person human centipede not enough for you? Well, this film offers 500! And so much more! It isn’t even all that much the human centipede anymore. But it’s there — eventually. Mostly, the film could be titled, “The Psychopathic Warden.” So that’s the focus of the film. And you can see why. The truth is, a human centipede of that size rather loses its impact (even with amputations), which may be why Six found he had to disgust his audience in so many other ways.

The Problem With the Third Film

This site is not about criticizing. It was never my idea to create a page for the first film or the trilogy simply because of my personal issues. I had thought of hiring a writer to cover it. But I finally decided not to (at least not the trilogy — maybe the first film) because of the fundamental problem with the third film.

The first film is classic horror — only with a really disgusting twist. The second film can at least be seen as postmodern in its meta-nature and unreliable narrator. (That’s charitable, but Psychotronic Review is nothing if not charitable!)

After being briefed on the second film, I was very interested to see where Tom Six was going to go with the third film. How do you go beyond meta? Well, apparently, he wasn’t thinking. I guess each film was just meant to get more disgusting than the last. But if that’s the case, why not do a fourth movie? Just have scene after scene where different people shit onto the lens of the camera?

Two Films Does Not a Trilogy Make!

But I don’t think that was what Tom Six was thinking. I think he had the idea for the second film in mind when he was making the first. And he figured he would come up with something for the third.

One thing seems clear: Tom Six did not have “The Human Centipede 3 (Final Sequence)” in mind as his third film when he was making his first.

And he did! It just didn’t have anything to do with the first two films. The last film, as far as I can tell is simply torture porn.

Now that can be said of the first two films, but there is some wit to them. The last film seems to want to be campy. The trailer for it certainly is. The first two films are not campy. And reviews of the film make it sound as if Tom Six had simply run out of ideas.

And that makes me rethink even including the trilogy in the pantheon of psychotronic films. I know that psychotronic filmmakers very often just want to make a buck. But this seems like Hollywood thinking. Afterall, what’s left after the “full sequence”? The “final sequence”? If it had been a comedy, maybe.

The Pernicious Myth

But in addition to taking itself too seriously, it pushes a pernicious myth: the deterrence theory of crime prevention. It doesn’t work because (1) most violent crimes aren’t planned; and (2) people who plan crimes don’t expect to get caught. It also shows the warden murdering people with impunity. Is that really what the Dutch think the American justice system is like?

If the film had been made two years later, I might think it was trying to say something about Donald Trump, who seems to think he should have the same rights that the warden has in the film — that he is above the law. But it was released halfway through Obama’s second term. So what was the point?

What Does the Trilogy Mean?

You can call any three films a trilogy. John Carpenter refers to his “Apocalypse Trilogy”: The Thing (1982), Prince of Darkness (1987), and In the Mouth of Madness (1995). But he directed three other films between each of these and the films are in no way connected in the way that Tom Six’s trilogy is meant to be.

It’s only on the most simplistic level that these films build. The length of the centipede grows with each film. The explicit violence and degradation grow. In the second film, the action is based on the first film. In the third film, the action is based on the first two films. That’s pretty much it.

Does Tom Six Being in the Film Matter?

The one thing that makes The Human Centipede 3 (Final Sequence) at all expansionary is that Tom Six has a major role in the film — as Tom Six. But this hardly makes the film more meta-oriented than the second, because the first film is so important in the second. We don’t need to meet the director to know that one exists.

Six’s appearance has been said to indicate that he’s being serious. I see it the opposite way. His appearance means to push back against the first two films: they were fantasy but this one is real. And that completes no arc. It doesn’t even make sense. It is fantasy, whether the director is in it or not. So how do these three films tell a single story?

I can’t say. I’m open to other opinions. But one thing seems clear: Tom Six did not have The Human Centipede 3 (Final Sequence) in mind as his third film when he was making his first. He might have had the idea of setting it in a prison. But he must have thought he’d come up with something new that would pull it all together. He didn’t. A meta-meta-film is not basing a film on people watching two films instead of one.

And I’m left thinking ultimately all he has on his mind is new ways to disgust. And that’s fine. But no Tobe Hooper he.

Money, Vision, and Psychotronic Film

Money, Vision, and Psychotronic Film

There is an interesting distinction between exploitation filmmakers. There are those who are just in it for the money — people like Herschell Gordon Lewis. And then there are visionaries (who were often con men) who would do whatever they could do to get their ideas on film — people like Ed Wood.

It doesn’t much matter to the final result. Lewis would never write anything as breathtakingly personal as Glen or Glenda. Yet in many ways the two men were quite similar. Wood certainly wanted his unique vision to be profitable. And Lewis was quite willing to tackle the social issues of his day in his later films.

Realism in Filmmaking

The issue, I think, is the realism of the filmmaker. Lewis famously said that he felt sorry for filmmakers who were trying to make art. Now, like so many things Lewis said, I think it was more for effect than anything else. But there is no doubt that Lewis was, as the Mothers put it, “only in it for the money.”

Wood, on the other hand, would have made his films if he knew that there was no money in it.

If Lewis Had Made Glen or Glenda

I focus on Glen or Glenda because it is Wood’s most pure vision — from his id on to celluloid. And this is why I consider it one of the greatest films ever made and the greatest idiosyncratic film ever made. (Oh, if he were only alive to see me write that! And sorry, George Barry: you still made a great film.)

But Lewis would have had no problem making Glen or Glenda himself — so long as he thought it would have made money. But I doubt it would have been as good — at least to viewers like me.

Wood was down on his knees begging society to understand him and those like him. Lewis would have been down on his knees looking for dropped dollars at the drive-in entrence.

Different Ways to Make a Great Film

Anyone who’s read more than a couple of sentences by me knows that I fall into the Ed Wood camp. Art? Professionalism? These are fine things in their right place. But they aren’t very important in psychotronic film. What I most love about psychotronic film is that it surprises me. When I first saw Glen or Glenda, I felt like I had entered Ed Wood’s brain — a wondrous place to spend an hour.

With Lewis’ films, I don’t get that experience. He never let’s me inside because his motivation is money, even if what he produced was often great.

An Aside: Ed Wood Was a Good Director

The idea that Ed Wood was a bad (much less the worst) director is nonsense. Most people who have seen any of his films have only seen Plan 9 From Outer Space — and only after being told it is a bad movie. And the rest just take it as a fact, having never seen it. (This is similar to Gary Larson’s “Hell’s Video Store,” which only had Ishtar for rent — a cartoon he created — and later apologized for — having never seen that great comedy.)

Plan 9 is not a bad film! Although hardly a great film, it is interesting throughout. What’s more, it’s subversive!

Focusing on Stupid Things

Yet people focus on things like the tombstones falling over. Why? Because they’ve been told to! I’m a movie fanatic. Now I mostly watch them alone, but I’ve watched hundreds with audiences, and they don’t notice things like this.

I think it wasn’t until my own fifth watching of Plan 9 that I noticed the tombstones. Why? Because I was concentrating on the story — like most viewers.

Who Does Professionalism Impress?

The exceptional amount of professionalism put into Hollywood films is put their for the filmmakers themselves. And this is why we end up with films like the first Star Wars looking so bad after a couple of years that Lucas was driven to replace all his special effects because two years later they were embarrassing. (I think doing that is an artistic sin; art exists in its own context; but I guess it isn’t a sin for Lucas because he is no artist.)

But most filmmakers don’t have that kind of money or power. So we have countless films that turn from live-action to cartoons and back. I personally find it distracting. Tombstones falling over on a tiny part of the screen is much easier to overlook than the fact that half of the third act of The Matrix Revolutions is a cartoon — and one that looks worse ever year.

Watch Jail Bait (which Ed Wood made between Glen or Glenda and Bride of the Monster). You will see a perfectly competent writer and director. Indeed, in terms of professionalism, he was easily as good as Herschell Gordon Lewis. But Wood had a personal vision that Lewis did not. And maybe Lewis is right: we should pity Wood.

But had Wood been an art painter, it is exactly this vision that would have made him a star. But since film is commodity to most people, Lewis is the success and Wood the failure.

Luck and the Movies

Still, we can’t lose sight of the fact that Lewis was just lucky. It’s not like gore wasn’t in the air. As I pointed out in my discussion of Blood Feast, Akira Kurosawa was already playing with gore in Yojimbo (1961) and in a spectacular way in Sanjuro (1962).

Had it not been for Blood Feast, Lewis would be remembered fondly by people like me for films like Scum of the Earth! and The Gruesome Twosome, but he would not be the icon he became.

The same is true of Wood, of course, but in a horrible way.

Some people decided to focus on Plan 9 From Outer Space and decide that it was the worst film ever. I don’t know where they got that idea — maybe just because Michael Bay hadn’t started making films yet. Most likely, they just didn’t understand what Wood was doing. And they probably hadn’t seen that many films anyway.

But it caught on. Ed Wood was “the worst director of all time” based upon seeing only one of his films and not understanding it. Sorry, but this is great writing and directing:

The Psychotronic Filmmakers Curse and Blessing

One thing you hear again and again in director commentaries on psychotronic films is disappointment. The directors wish they could have done this or that. Or they made a bad decision here. Or they really wish they had been able to go back and re-shoot this scene or shoot a missing transition. But they couldn’t. You never hear this from Hollywood directors because they aren’t constrained in that way. They’re constrained in a much worse way: in what the kind of film they can make to begin with.

Whether for money or vision, the psychotronic filmmaker is artistically free to make the kind of films they think people want to watch — whether they are right (as Lewis was) or wrong (as Wood was). In the end, we get films that delight us if we are open to them. All the “art” and professionalism in the world will not stop me from passing out before the first reel is finished.

Toward a Definition of Psychotronic Film 2: Content

The Dead Next Door - Head Biting Fingers - Toward a Definition of Psychotronic Film 2: Content

In my last article on this subject, Toward a Definition of Psychotronic Film, I discussed what I considered the three different kinds of psychotronic films: true, independent, and Hollywood. In this article, I want to discuss the importance of content in psychotronic film, because more and more, I think that’s probably the most important aspect of what makes a film psychotronic.

Psychotronic Film Is Not Static

A good example of this is Charlie Kaufman’s amazing film Synecdoche, New York. Most people would call it an art film. And in a sense it is. But it is also a horror film of the most unique variety. And it is a psychotronic film. It’s just that it is so much a psychotronic film — so far ahead of its time — that most people miss it. Most people don’t understand that it is a series of horrors one after the other — everything that terrified Kaufman. And that didn’t include zombies, because let’s face it: zombies really aren’t frightening anymore; they’re funny.

By saying that zombies aren’t frightening anymore is not to put down zombie pictures. They too are usually psychotronic films — and some of the most fun films around — Night of the Living Dead (1990) is one of my all time favorite films. (I would not classify The Walking Dead as psychotronic; it’s slickly produced melodrama; not that melodrama can’t be psychotronic; see, for example, Ed Wood’s quite good Jail Bait.)

There is a shocking experience that every serious psychotronic film fan goes through. You’ve finally got to the point of paying the unwarrented price for The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film. At last, it is in your hot little hands — the Bible! And you leaf through it to find this:

The Shaggy Dog

That’s right, according to the psychotronic film bible, the family-friendly, barely science fiction Disney comedy The Shaggy Dog (1959) was a psychotronic film.

Really?!

I’m not putting down The Shaggy Dog. I love all those old formulaic Disney films like The Love Bug, Now You See Him, Now You Don’t, and Return from Witch Mountain. I’ve seriously considered calling The Cat From Outer Space a psychotronic film. These are all wonderful films that everyone should force their children to watch.

But psychotronic? Not if the term is to mean anything at all.

As I discussed in the previous article, films that most people would consider psychotronic — Dracula (1931), for example — do not fit with Michael Weldon’s own definition in his grand opus.

But if Dracula and Bride of Frankenstein are not a psychotronic films, the genre doesn’t mean much.

What Psychotronic Fans Like

The kind of people who have seen Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! a dozen times will also enjoy The Hired Hand.

Yes, they are very different films. Yet there is something that binds them together. What that is I can’t yet say. But I do know that it says something about psychotronic fans. Things in films that other people hate, they love.

Personally, I find most conventional films boring. There’s nothing new — no surprises. What they offer me is professionalism, and in some cases, that’s great. But usually, it’s just movie-making by the numbers. A typical Hollywood film is professional, consistent, reassuring.

What I take away from Pablo Casals’ idea of focusing on the good in art is that the thrilling moments vastly outweigh the supposed bad parts. In other words, consistency is not all that important — certainly not when that consistency is mediocrity.

A good example of brilliant inconsistency (although there are so many) is The Dead Next Door (1989). I love JR Bookwalter — I love his cinematic sensibility. But I see that almost everything he’s done is uneven. Still, in The Dead Next Door, I was thrilled that zombies don’t die when you cut off their heads (Why would they?!) and that a character is killed by a zombie shortly after he cut its head off.

This is one of those moments that I would sit through multiple Michael (The Worst Director of All Time™) Bay films for. And there is much more to love than that scene in The Dead Next Door.

Content Really Matters

But regardless of my more theoretical considerations, I’ve begun to think that what really defines a psychotronic film is the content of the films. And that was always a big part how people defined the genre: films about bikers or monsters or women running around naked or The Man getting his just desserts and so on.

Freaking the Squares

There is a feeling in psychotronic film of empowerment of the outsider and of giving the mainstream middle-class world the finger. Psychotronic film is, perhaps above all, dangerous.

To put it in the vernacular of the 1960s, psychotronic films are ones that freak out (Night of the Living Dead (1968)) and confuse (Scanners (1981)) the squares.

I’m not suggesting idiosyncratic or niche content makes a film psychotronic. I still haven’t seen The Room (2003), but even though it seems like it falls under the idiosyncratic category, it looks like it was intended to be a standard film, simply one written, produced, directed, and starring a clinically narcissistic man.

A psychotronic film wants to be a psychotronic film. And that usually begins with the very idea for the film.

Psychotronic Film: Step-by-Step, Inch-by-Inch

But we are still left with psychotronic films being defined largely as obscenity, “I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it!”

Still, the effort goes on. And I believe we will come to a definition. But it will never be so clear that there won’t be fights about whether this or that film qualifies. But I think even today with no suitable definition, psychotronic fans would agree 95 percent of the time.

And I don’t believe anyone really thinks that The Shaggy Dog is a psychotronic film.

So Bad It’s Good? So Good It’s Great!

So Bad It's Good? So Good It's Great!

I think that the psychotronic film community can roughly be divided into two: the “serious” camp and the “so bad it’s good” camp. By “serious,” I mean that these people take the films seriously. They certainly will laugh at things from time to time, but they understand when watching a low-budget film that if something is wrong, it was almost never the result of incompetence but of lack of resources. The “so bad it’s good” camp is made up of people who mostly don’t know how films are made.

There should be no question which camp I’m in. I take these films extremely seriously. That doesn’t mean they are all good by any means. But they always have something typical Hollywood films normally lack: originality, unusual themes, or simple enthusiasm. Above all, they usually do not do things the “right” way, which means that they hold my attention better.

Plan Nine Is a Good Film

But there’s something else: I don’t think one person in a hundred would notice the tombstones fall over in Plan Nine From Outer Space if it hadn’t been pointed out so much. The first time I saw the film, I certainly didn’t notice, because my focus was on the characters and the stories. What’s much more amusing in the film is the tendencies for the cops to scratch their faces with their guns. But ultimately, it is a classic film because it is subversive. The happy ending is that the aliens win, because as it is, within a few years, humans will develop the Solanite bomb and destroy the universe.

That’s not very funny. But it is bizarre. Ed Wood made a monster movie with a theme that could have come straight from the Kremlin.

Shocker: Ed Wood Was a Competent Director

So it’s not like Ed Wood was an idiot. And he made a perfectly respectable B-movie in Jail Bait — right after making what I consider his masterpiece, but others consider a monstrosity, Glen or Glenda. When things went wrong, he didn’t particularly care. It wasn’t like it is now where people can watch the film dozens of times. They might see it once at a movie theater. Eventually, they might catch it on television.

But much of Plan Nine is amusing. But it’s also interesting, if bizarre, throughout.

The Beginnings of “So Bad It’s Good”

The truth is, I think the whole “so bad it’s good” philosophy was originally just a cover: something someone came up with to justify enjoying enjoyable, but weird films. But then it became a thing. And instead of laughing with the filmmakers, ignorant people thought they were laughing at them.

The Real “Worst Director”

It also got Ed Wood labeled the “Worst Director of All Time.” That’s just not true, as anyone who has watched all of his films can attest. In fact, he’s so far from the worst filmmaker that it is more bizarre than anything he ever put in any of his films.

If I had to pick the worst filmmaker of all time off the top of my head, it would be Michael Bay — a man who is given hundred million dollar budgets, the best artists and technicians in Hollywood, and still can’t make a film that isn’t predictable, repetitive, and boring. But his films look good, so no one questions him. I’d like to see what he could do with a $100,000 budget and no professional friends to work for free. It would probably be awful, but it might be the best thing he ever did.

These Films Aren’t Bad

Much of the purpose of this site is to convince people in the “so bad it’s good” camp that it’s okay to take these films seriously — it’s okay to enjoy them because they are enjoyable. They are sometimes profound. Above all, they are generally just weird. And that’s great!

Attack of the 50 Foot Woman is a far more enjoyable film than Iron Man 3 (see my articles on its politics, physics, and use of Ben Kingsley).

This isn’t affectation. After seeing Attack of the 50 Foot Woman the first time, I knew the plot. I’ve written three articles about Iron Man 3 and at least one article on the first two. All I can remember is that in the first one he’s captured by some “bad guys” and has to have some special thing for his heart. Otherwise, nothing: just a rich guy playing around in his lab except when he has to put on his suit and fly around. Attack tells a compelling story. Iron Man is just eye candy.

By the way, I can say the same thing about all the super hero films I’ve seen. Their plots are as ridiculous as their characters. All they have to offer is professionalism, which I don’t find that compelling unless it is combined with creativity. That’s rare, but wonderful. I love Chocolat and Dean Spanley — of course, both of those are British productions. But they are both made by the highest caliber of professionals. I’m sure if Michael Bay had shown up on either set, the universe would have collapsed on itself.

Psychotronic Films Are Usually Just Weird

No film is so bad it’s good. Many psychotronic films are so good they are great, like Videodrome. Others are good solid films, like Don’t Look in the Basement. Many are riddled with problems but have so many touches of brilliance that they must be seen, like Death Bed: The Bed That Eats. But they are all enjoyable, unless what you think what is enjoyable is seeing the same thing you’ve seen hundreds of times before.

Toward a Definition of Psychotronic Film

Videodrome - Toward a Definition of Psychotronic Film

When Michael Weldon wanted to start his zine about unusual films, he stole a word made-up for a film he hadn’t even seen, The Psychotronic Man. The resulting zine was called “Psychotronic TV.” Later, it turned into an actual magazine called Psychotronic Video. It all ended in the publication of his classic book The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film.

Michael Weldon’s Definition of Psychotronic Film

But it is clear that Weldon was never clear on what exactly a psychotronic film was. In the introduction to his book, he provides something of a definition:

The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film celebrates over 3,000 movies often treated with indifference or contempt by other movie guides. Most of them are considered exploitation films. Some of them where made with such impossibly low budgets that they have never been released through regular channels of distribution. Many are now considered classics or cult films despite unfavorable critical response or initial box office failure. Critics searching for art condemn most of these features for the very reasons that millions continue to enjoy them: violence, sex, noise, and often mindless escapism.

That’s not a bad starting point for a definition.

Weldon Contradicts His Own Definition

But it’s hard to take seriously when you consider that a large chunk of the films in the book don’t qualify at all. For example, Dracula (1931 — English Language) was a huge hit with both audiences and critics. It was also a big budget film for its time and made by a major studio (Universal Pictures).

And Dracula is hardly alone. The same is the case for pretty much all of those early horror films. But it wasn’t just the early films. William Castle generally got good reviews and so did Roger Corman. What’s more, the book includes Disney movies like The Shaggy Dog (1959). It includes the Stanley Kubrick classics Dr Strangelove (1964), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), A Clockwork Orange (1972), and The Shining (1980).

It includes the Samuel Fuller classics Shock Corridor (1963) and The Naked Kiss (1964), both of which were extremely well reviewed and popularly successful. And the list could go on. So what the hell does Michael Weldon really think a psychotronic film is?

It Can’t Be Just the Films We Personally Like

It’s hard to escape the conclusion that for him, a psychotronic film is any film he likes. Or if you want to look at it more cynically, any film he had movie paraphenelia from that he could put in his magazine. Regardless, his idea of a psychotronic film is fuzzy at best, random at worst.

I’ve seriously toyed with the idea of taking the lead from Weldom and saying that a psychotronic film is any film that I don’t think other people appreciate enough. But I gave up on that idea because that would include pretty much every film I like. And as much as I love Dean Spanley (2008), it is not a psychotronic film.

But maybe it’s like obscenity: we can’t define it, but we know it when we see it.

I don’t think so. That’s too easy.

The Three Kinds of Psychotronic Films

The more I’ve thought about this question, the more I’ve come to see that there are really three kinds of psychotronic films:

  1. True Psychotronics: films with low budgets and crazy ideas about filmmaking. Examples: Glen or Glenda (1953) and The Evil Dead (1981).
  2. Independent Psychotronics: films with classic psychotronic themes (eg, horror, bikers) or other odd content generally made by established independent filmmakers. Examples: Shock Corridor (1963) and Videodrome (1983).
  3. Hollywood Psychotronics: films financed by large studios or distribution companies designed to co-opt true psychotronics. Examples: Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and The Grifters (1990).

On this site, I’d like to focus on the True Psychotronics. But the truth is, the Independent Psychotronics are usually better. And the Hollywood Psychotronics are often excellent. (I’d much rather Hollywood co-opt True Psychotronics rather than yet another comic book or graphic novel.) Note that Hollywood rarely steals from the Independent Psychotronics because they really can’t do any better. For one thing, no studio is going to risk much more than the Independents use on an unknown property.

I like all of the films I mentioned above as examples. (Well, Close Encounters hasn’t aged well, but it’s gotten to the point of being campy, so it’s quite watchable.) This isn’t about liking or not liking a film. It’s about process and purity of vision.

No Conclusion

I intentionally titled this article “Toward a Definition of Psychotronic Film.” That’s because I haven’t finished this process. I may never. But I am getting closer.

There are a couple of things that are clear, however. The first is that Michael Weldon is useless in this quest. The second is that trite definitions like Google’s won’t do at all: “denoting or relating to a genre of movies, typically with a science fiction, horror, or fantasy theme, that were made on a low budget or poorly received by critics.” By this definition, Videodrome isn’t a psychotronic film. And if Videodrome is not a psychotronic film, no film is.

This discussion is not over.