Humorlessness, an almost pathological inability to see the fun in anything, has long been part of the job description of censors. But even so, the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC), which age-rates all films released in the UK, has taken the censoring classes' joylessness and lack of self-awareness to dizzying new heights with its latest ban.
It has refused to classify Dutch director Tom Six's gorefest The Human Centipede II, on the basis that it might "deprave" or "corrupt" those who see it—witlessly unaware of the fact that Six's movie is a blood-spattered critique of the very idea that audiences are easily "depraved" or "corrupted." So the BBFC has banned a film that explicitly mocks the notion that cinema audiences are like nodding dogs who are warped by what they see, in the name of defending from harm the nodding dogs of the British film-viewing public who might be warped by what they see.
The Human Centipede II certainly sounds nasty. It tells the story of a man who gets his kicks by creating a "human centipede." He kidnaps people and stitches them together, mouth to anus, and then watches with glee as his hideous creation writhes around on the floor, its individual members forced to shit into each other's mouths. Nice. At one point, he becomes so excited by the freak he has created that he masturbates himself with sandpaper. Bambi it ain't.
The BBFC refused to classify the film on the basis that its characters are mere "objects to be brutalised, degraded and mutilated." Apparently there's a great risk that the movie could "deprave or corrupt a significant proportion of those likely to see [it]" and therefore it must be squished, chucked into the dustbin of history alongside the 27 other freaky films that the BBFC has refused to classify since the year 2000. After all, we wouldn't want any cinema-going Brits to rush home and try to create their own human centipede, would we?
Yet The Human Centipede II actually sends up the notion that adult audiences are lethally impressionable. It flips the bird at "media effects" theory, the stubbornly un-proven idea that films can have a dangerous effect on the behavior of those who watch them. It parodies the life out of this elitist outlook by actually having its central character become obsessed with Six's first Human Centipede movie, to the extent that he tries to recreate its hideous human monster for himself.
The first film, The Human Centipede, was released in 2009. It tells the story of a creepy German doctor who kidnaps three tourists, drugs them, and stitches them together. The BBFC passed it, even though—inappropriately venturing into movie-criticism territory—it said it found the film "tasteless and disgusting." When Six took that first film around various festivals, he says he was repeatedly asked by brow-furrowing journalists about the danger of "copycatting," where viewers might become so enamoured by his wacky centipede that they would try to make their own. Six says he thought that idea was so demented, so patently a product of fearful journalists' salacious imaginations rather than of any hard evidence that films actually warp people's minds, that he decided to put it in the sequel.
So in the second film, in an ironic, post-Scream mashing together of fiction and reality, the lead character becomes crazily obsessed with The Human Centipede. He decides to go further than the film's German doctor by stitching together 12 people rather than a measly three. He's so brainwashed that he constantly pleasures himself over his bigger, more hellish centipede. Six has denied that there is any message to his movie, but somewhere in all of that, amidst the blood and poo and insanity, there's a devilishly clever assault on the idea that people watch movies and copy them, that our minds are so malleable, like putty, that we can be turned into psychos by psychotic films.
By making "media effects" theory the underlying, unspoken theme of his gory sequel, Six shows just how mad the theory is. If it is ridiculous to claim that Taxi Driver is responsible for attempted political assassinations and that Natural Born Killers unleashed rampant violence, it's even more ridiculous to fret that a film about a German bloke who makes a human centipede might lead to copycat behavior. Yet that concern was raised by straight-faced journalists when the first Human Centipede movie was released. By depicting it, Six demolishes it.
And what does the BBFC do? It bans The Human Centipede II, just in case the movie might tempt audiences towards centipede-obsessed depravity. The BBFC, which was founded in 1912 and was more appropriately known as the British Board of Film Censors until it changed its name in 1984, makes great play of the fact that it doesn't actually have the legal authority to ban films. And it is true that, like the Motion Picture Association of America, age classification is the main role of the BBFC. It decides whether a movie should be classified U (Universal), PG (Parental Guidance), 12A (where those under 12 must be accompanied by an adult), 15 (for 15-year-olds and over), 18 (for 18-year-olds and over), or R18 (for movies that cannot be shown in cinemas but may be sold in one of Britain's 250 licensed sex shops).
Yet it is highly disingenuous for the BBFC to say it doesn't ban. Its refusal to classify a film, to deny it even an R18 rating, effectively means a film is blacklisted in Britain. It makes it extremely unlikely that the film will be shown in any cinema and makes it a criminal offence for anyone to supply it on DVD or video. So if I get hold of a copy of The Human Centipede II and distribute it in Britain, I could be imprisoned. If that isn't censorship, I don't know what is.
The key problem with "media effects" theory is its patronizing view of the public as automatons and attack dogs, who see something and act on it. In arguing that films can invade and mess with our heads, "media effects" theorists call into question the very existence of free will and free choice, depicting our minds as empty vessels waiting to be filled. They overlook the fact that there is something standing in the way of horror films leading to horrific societies—and that is us, reasoned viewers, who know very well the difference between fiction and reality and that kidnapping 12 people and turning them into a human centipede is a pretty rotten thing to do.
Six says he is working on a third Human Centipede film. He hasn't revealed any details yet, but I hope he sticks with the po-mo, meta approach, perhaps by having members of the BBFC become so warped by a film that they jealously keep to themselves that they turn into centipede-creating lunatics. After all, if, as they believe, movies can make ordinary people go crazy, why can't movies have the same effect on the authoritarian suits who preview and classify them on our behalf?
Brendan O'Neill is editor of spiked in London.