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‘Human Centipede 2’ sparks debate on censorship

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In 2009, IFC Films released a horror movie called “The Human Centipede (First Sequence).” The film told the story of a mad German scientist with the insane desire to create a human centipede made out of three people.

This grotesque concept subsequently gained a life of its own, getting spoofed on an episode of “South Park,” spurring a musical adaptation and attracting a small cult of morbidly fascinated fans.

The disgusting work may have captured a few loyal followers, but it did not do much at the box office. The movie never finished better than No. 44 on the weekend box office charts, and in the end it barely grossed $250,000 worldwide. The film appeared to be nothing more than an Internet meme, soon to be forgotten by the ever-evolving world of pop culture.

Then they made a sequel.

“The Human Centipede 2 (Full Sequence)” was unleashed upon the world last weekend in 18 theaters, one of which was Milwaukee’s own Oriental Theatre. The movie follows Martin, a disturbingly obsessed fan of the original film, who decides to make his own tribute by creating a 12-person human centipede. The theater is only presenting the film at midnight, and no one under 18 is allowed. The movie will be shown two more times this weekend on Oct. 14 and 15.

The bigger story, however, is not where “The Human Centipede 2” is showing, but perhaps where it almost wasn’t: the United Kingdom.

On June 6, the British Board of Film Classification, a film-rating body similar to the Motion Picture Association of America, rejected the film without a rating, a decision which banned the film from public view in theaters or on DVD in the entire country. A press release explaining the board’s decision stated the film had been banned because “harm is likely to be caused to potential viewers.”

Writer/director Tom Six originally released a statement decrying the verdict, calling his film “art” and complaining about “putting spoilers on (the BBFC’s) website.” Those “spoilers” were two graphic scene descriptions from the movie, released by the board as part of their normal practice of detailing why a work was rejected.

Despite the director’s public dismay, the graphic descriptions and harsh ruling may have worked in the film’s favor.

“From the trailer, it’s clear that they’re (the filmmakers) trying to get attention through shock value,” said Erik Ugland, associate professor in the College of Communication. “The fact that it’s been banned in Great Britain is precisely what they’re after. That’s not a blow to the movie; it’s a victory in part of their strategic plan.”

On Oct. 6, another step in that plan may have been achieved, when the British Board of Film Classification lifted the ban on “The Human Centipede 2 (Full Sequence).” The ruling, however, came only after 32 cuts totaling two minutes and 37 seconds of footage.

Now that the British ban is history, one question still remains: Could such censorship happen in America? “The Human Centipede 2” is set in England, which could have made the disgusting and violent content too close to home for the film board. Tom Six, however, said that his planned third and final installment to the series will take place in America. Could the MPAA react in the same way as the BBFC?

Technically, no. The MPAA ratings board is a voluntary system, meaning a studio can choose not to submit a film for a rating and still send the film to theaters. According to Howard Gantman, the MPAA’s vice president of corporate communications, “The Human Centipede 2” has yet to be submitted for a rating in the U.S.

Though the ratings system may be voluntary, the lack of a rating can severely limit a film’s reach. Many mainstream theater outlets refuse to show films with no MPAA rating or even with an NC-17 rating, confining these controversial films to specialty and art house theaters.

“I don’t think their aim was ever to get into mainstream theaters,” Ugland said. “I imagine that with a film like this, they’re relying on distribution sales through non-traditional means.”

Additionally, the MPAA has a notorious history of favoring violence over sexual content.

“There’s virtually nothing you could do in terms of violence that would get a film banned in the United States,” Ugland said. “The only thing that could trigger those kinds of restrictions would be depictions that are excessive in a sexual way.”

Even in the case of the BBFC, the problems noted in the press release were mainly focused on the sexually perverse nature of the film, not the violent content.

Despite its stomach-churning sequences, however, Ugland believes society at least needs to be given the choice to see the movie.

“Ultimately, we have to make our own choices about what is acceptable for ourselves,” Ugland said. “We can’t allow some third party to serve as our arbiter of taste.”

At the end of its first weekend, it appears most people have chosen to stay away from “The Human Centipede 2 (Full Sequence).” The sequel finished with just under $50,000 in its opening weekend, good enough for 46th place.

Even those who dared to see Six’s gag-inducer seemed to have an iffy response to the film. The scant audience at the Oct. 8 showing at the Oriental acted like a typical midnight crowd, yelling at the screen.

As the film went on and the violence escalated, the playful commentary quieted down. The movie is too ridiculous to be a truly terrifying horror film, but too cruel and disgusting to be over-the-top fun. As a result, the audience seemed more confused than horrified.

Only time will tell if “The Human Centipede 2 (Full Sequence)” has the legs to be more than just a talking point.

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