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Leaving the Lynch Mob, Or a Defence of the Human Centipede and ‘Bad Films’

In the beginning there was controversy. Well-calculated and admittedly cynical, it still had a legitimate established history, as the showmanship present even in critical darlings like Hitchcock attests. The second Human Centipede as we all know pushed things further, attaining that coveted horror badge of honour – the BBFC ban. Now however, with the third film, the tide has turned, the wave has broken and the majority of critics instinctively have completely turned on the already divisive films.

It’s a common response in horror, sure, where the first instalment or two is met with significant interest and acclaim, or at the very least is seen as a significant cinematic touchstone, and then, through the relentless nature of ‘The Sequel’, critics almost seem obliged to dismiss the later films out of hand instead of considering them on their own merit. Recently both Saw and Paranormal Activity underwent this critical trajectory, and it appears the latest victim of the trend is Tom Six’s controversially iconic series.

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Normally this trend isn’t so discernible, clouded by the fact the films often become very by-the-numbers (as was the case with the Saw franchise). But here with the ‘pede series, it’s abundantly clear. Critics do not see the films as an opportunity to be critics; to explore aspects of culture and society, be it the archetypes of the horror film meeting the novelty of exploitation, representations of media violence, the depiction of crime and punishment in America or simply metatextuality. Instead it’s an excuse to get out the hatchets and go to town on something into which people have invested their time, energy, imagination, passion. It’s an excuse to wheel out colourful metaphors and rhetorical devices – after all nobody’s expecting anyone to take these films seriously, are they?

The fact is, there’s something of value, or significance, or interest, in every film. The critic should have the desire to articulate these things, and be equipped with a knowledge of film history and canons to support their claims. Not to pile on with their knowing indifference and snooty elitism. The end goal should be deeper understanding. Instead it seems to be to flatly ward people away from viewing. That’s consumer guidance, not criticism, and there’s little more condescending to the readership ostensibly being guided than saying “I’ve decided for you this isn’t worth your time, and because I’ve seen more films my opinion is more valid”.

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Of course not everyone is going to appreciate everything, I’m not suggesting that. But to send in a critic, or to voluntarily go as one yourself, when that voice is already negatively biased towards the film in question benefits no one. Likewise, if the individual you sent to review the first two films in a horror series is still employed by you, maybe don’t choose another critic who seems averse to genre cinema to miss the point entirely. In this case, I’m looking at you Little White Lies, but it’s a tactic all too often employed in criticism. Let the writers grow with the series; it’s an approach that will reward readers.

The fact is, there’s something of value, or significance, or interest, in every film.

Of the responses from major critics, only two have approached Centipede 3 with open minds (if not open arms): Kim Newman – an established genre critic – and The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw. In a video review published on July 10th, it is clear Bradshaw doesn’t worship the film, but the sense he feels it should be given a fairer shake than it has been is palpable, and that it deserves more fairness than the glib remarks Henry Barnes is affording it is evidently a perspective Bradshaw and I share. Individual men though aren’t enough. We have to all collectively want better for criticism and the films they’re responding to. We can’t condemn The Hollywood Machine™ while our own house is in such laughable disorder.

Ultimately, there’s something of an inverted Tolstoy to this phenomenon. All the negative reviews are alike; they talk of the film’s excesses but not what they mean, how they work or their effect. They are simply used as a tool to bludgeon the film’s legacy with. The responses which don’t brush the film off all find something different to discuss, using the film as a springboard for musings and arguments. Which I ask you, in the end, is more conducive to the wider cinematic discussion? It may well be fun making up riffs and variations on shit and anuses, bonding in the lynch mob, but where’s it all leading?

Tom Watchorn

Click here for Tom’s review of The Human Centipede 3

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