OF CENTIPEDES & CENSORS - A Look at The Human Centipede 2 Controversy

Human Centipede 2

This week the internet has been all of flutter, over the recent news that The British Board of Film Classification has refused The Human Centipede 2 (Full Sequence) a certificate. And, of course, nothing inflames film fans more than censorship. However while I am firmly opposed to censorship, and obviously there is a need for film classification, I do think that it’s too easy to have a ‘how dare they tell me what I can watch’ reaction that is every bit as kneejerk as the moral guardian’s cries of ‘ban this sick filth”.

So before pouring scorn on the BBFC, let’s examine this particular case further. Firstly refusing the movie a certificate does not constitute a ban, as the film may still be played in theatres with permission from the local council. Now in this case, while seeming bad news for both director Tom Six and the distributors, it’s worth noting that this film was NOT submitted for a theatrical release – it was to be certified for home video. However in being refused a certificate, that does mean that The Human Centipede 2 (Full Sequence) won’t get a UK release on DVD and furthermore "cannot be legally supplied anywhere in the UK".

However, interestingly the first movie, The Human Centipede (First Sequence), was passed uncut by the BBFC. Now I’ve not seen this particular flick, not out of any objection to the contents, but rather because numerous reviews from both critics and friends convinced me it wasn’t really worth my time. By all accounts, it is not a graphic film – the central concept is revolting but not explicitly depicted – just a rather bad one. Seemingly it was a poor entry in the mad doctor subgenre rather than ‘torture porn’, full of plot holes and stilted dialogue, inept to the point that Ted and Tony of Horror Etc Podcast wondered whether it was meant to be a black comedy.

And this struck me as being highly likely. Director Tom Six and the distributors made sure there was a lot of noise about the movie, making sure every one knew the central concept and that is was alleged ‘medically possible”. And indeed, many flocked to see it to find out how sick it was, but discovered a rather conventional and somewhat pedestrian slice of mad science. So then as the film wasn’t delivering graphic unpleasantness, it seemed like the whole movie was a prank pulled on audiences.

But the sequel it would seem it a different kettle of insects entirely. And judging from the BBFC’s report, you can understand why the second movie ran into trouble –

The Human Centipede II (Full Sequence) is a sequel to the film The Human Centipede (First Sequence), which was classified ‘18’ uncut for cinema and DVD release by the BBFC in 2010. The first film dealt with a mad doctor who sews together three kidnapped people in order to produce the ‘human centipede’ of the title. Although the concept of the film was undoubtedly tasteless and disgusting it was a relatively traditional and conventional horror film and the Board concluded that it was not in breach of our Guidelines at ‘18’. This new work, The Human Centipede II (Full Sequence), tells the story of a man who becomes sexually obsessed with a DVD recording of the first film and who imagines putting the ‘centipede’ idea into practice. Unlike the first film, the sequel presents graphic images of sexual violence, forced defecation, and mutilation, and the viewer is invited to witness events from the perspective of the protagonist. Whereas in the first film the ‘centipede’ idea is presented as a revolting medical experiment, with the focus on whether the victims will be able to escape, this sequel presents the ‘centipede’ idea as the object of the protagonist’s depraved sexual fantasy.

The principal focus of The Human Centipede II (Full Sequence) 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. Examples of this include a scene early in the film in which he masturbates whilst he watches a DVD of the original Human Centipede film, with sandpaper wrapped around his penis, and a sequence later in the film in which he becomes aroused at the sight of the members of the ‘centipede’ being forced to defecate into one another’s mouths, culminating in sight of the man wrapping barbed wire around his penis and raping the woman at the rear of the ‘centipede’. There is little attempt to portray any of the victims in the film as anything other than 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. 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. It is the Board’s conclusion that the explicit presentation of the central character’s obsessive sexually violent fantasies is in breach of its Classification Guidelines and poses a real, as opposed to a fanciful, risk that harm is likely to be caused to potential viewers.

Rather unpleasant, I’ve sure you’ll agree. And not just the description of the acts featured in the film but those closing lines about risks to the viewer...

Empire Magazine emailed director Six for a response. And here’s what they received –

Thank you BBFC for putting spoilers of my movie on your website and thank you for banning my film in this exceptional way. Apparently I made an horrific horror-film, but shouldn't a good horror film be horrific? My dear people it is a f****cking MOVIE. It is all fictional. Not real. It is all make-belief. It is art. Give people their own choice to watch it or not. If people can't handle or like my movies they just don't watch them. If people like my movies they have to be able to see it any time, anywhere also in the UK.

Now you may well say that Six, errors aside (three asterisks?) has a valid point, however he is ignoring the second, more crucial, part of the report which concludes with a clarifying statement from the BBFC’s Director David Cooke –

It is the Board’s carefully considered view that to issue a certificate to this work, even if confined to adults, would be inconsistent with the Board’s Guidelines, would risk potential harm within the terms of the VRA, and would be unacceptable to the public.

The Board also seeks to avoid classifying material that may be in breach of the Obscene Publications Acts 1959 and 1964 (OPA) or any other relevant legislation. The OPA prohibits the publication of works that have a tendency to deprave or corrupt a significant proportion of those likely to see them. In order to avoid classifying potentially obscene material, the Board engages in regular discussions with the relevant enforcement agencies, including the CPS, the police, and the Ministry of Justice. It is the Board’s view that there is a genuine risk that this video work, The Human Centipede II (Full Sequence), may be considered obscene within the terms of the OPA, for the reasons given above.

The Board considered whether its concerns could be dealt with through cuts. However, given that the unacceptable content runs throughout the work, cuts are not a viable option in this case and the work is therefore refused a classification.

Now the key point here is the reference to the VRA, which is the Video Recordings Act, a piece of legislation spawned by the 1980s video nasty storm. And it should be noted that the problem is not the content itself per se, but the fact that the content risks breaching the Obscene Publications Acts, laws that bind the BBFC as much as the film distributors. And it is in reference to these laws that we get the lines about 'risks to potential viewers' - so it is not evidence of the BBFC being staffed with prudish Victorians, but a reference to the legal phrasing and definitions found in this legislation.

Now the BBFC is very lenient these days, favouring clear classification with indications of what type of material is containing a film (i.e. the kind of language, violence and nudity within, as well as tone of content) rather than snipping away with scissors and imposing bans. However occasionally movies appear that will require cuts, but the Board does carefully consider the context and nature of the material that needs to be trimmed – for example consider this report on the cuts required to make A Serbian Film and the remake of I Spit On Your Grave complaint with its guidelines (and by extension the VRA and OPA)

And it is extremely rare for a film to be refused a certificate outright, the last notable instance was the Japanese gore flick Grotesque which failed to be passed by the BBFC for pretty much the same reasons as The Human Centipede 2 (Full Sequence).

Also we should note that the VRA was not created by the BBFC. It arose from a tabloid media storm over the so called video nasties which resulted in self appointed media watchdogs and moralists, the National Viewers and Listeners Association, finding the ear of Graham Bright, a backbench MP who introduced a private members the bill, which resulted in the Act.

Hence the decision to refuse The Human Centipede 2 (Full Sequence) a certificate is more due to the possible ramifications of what would happen if they had passed it and then the movie was prosecuted under the VRA or the Obscene Publications Act. Given that the first Human Centipede gained a relatively high media profile due to it’s allegedly shocking nature, you can easily see how, if passed, The Human Centipede 2 (Full Sequence) could become a flagship title for the same self-appointed guardians of morals to bring political pressure on the BBFC to 'toughen up' and 'ban this sick filth'.

Now I'm NOT suggesting that the BBFC occasionally refuses certification just to ensure they are seen to be doing their job, deliberately selecting a movie for use in an arcane socio-political voodoo ritual. Rather they are clearly well aware of not just the legalities but possible consequences in passing material that could bring down the legal force of the Obscene Publications Acts and have police pouncing upon distributors and retailers. No one in the cinema industry, even those holding the censor’s scissors, wants to see more government legislation or the kind of police raids that ruined businesses and lives at the height of the video nasties panic. As author and film critic, Kim Newman remarks on the discussion about the BBFC decision on his Facebook page –

Simply put, the complaints of anti-censorship libertarians (like me, like many people I know) when something is banned does not extend to taking people to court (and opening the BBFC up to a loss of its statutory powers) ... the complaints of pro-censorship media and organisations when something is passed do.

So while as unpalatable as the fate of the UK release of The Human Centipede 2 (Full Sequence) is for libertarians, in principle at least, we have to recognise that the problem isn’t the BBFC but the legislation containing in both the Video Recordings and the Obscene Publications Acts. Almost perversely then, in refusing this movie a certificate because of the possible legal difficulties it could spawn, the BBFC are in fact acting in the interests of film makers’ freedoms rather supporting the censorship lobby.

Now it’s clear from the fact that The Human Centipede 2 (Full Sequence) wasn’t submitted for classification for a theatrical release that all concerned were well aware that the movie’s content was going to be problematic. He claims his film is ‘art’ but I’m not sure we can take this entirely seriously. The fact that he complains that the BBFC report contains ‘spoilers’ would seem to indicate there is little of merit other than shock value to this sequel. And while one should never judge a move before one has seen it, I think it’s a fairly safe bet there isn’t a massive amount of narrative, never mind artistic, justification for its excesses, something that the BBFC report bears out.

Now given the marketing of Six’s first movie, it would seem that he knows all the buttons and levers on the hype machine, so one has to wonder whether submitting the movie to the BBFC was just a ruse to whip up controversy. For I am struggling to believe that either Six or his backers were unaware of the BBFC guidelines before submitting the film, and I rather suspect like Mr Lee Medcalf in this article, that is was an exercise in generating media outrage that translates to free publicity. I’d guess the intention was to submit an extreme cut, watch the column inches grow and then resubmit the ‘real’ less extreme cut and watch the DVD sales roll in. However the scheme seems to backfired, as the BBFC has decided that the problems with The Human Centipede 2 (Full Sequence) can’t be solved with excising scenes or trimming shots.

And I suspect this is the real reason Six is so annoyed, as having been refused a certificate the movie now cannot be purchased in the UK, and reputable online merchants wary of breaking what is perceived as a ban will make sure it does not appear on stock listings for the UK. However it should also be noted that all this nonsense could have been avoided.

For despite the VRA, there's a host of extreme films, for example faux snuff movies like August Underground series, which are not rated by the BBFC but readily available for import through the afore mentioned reputable online retailers like Amazon. Technically, it is against UK law to supply unrated movies, but it would appear that provided that a film hasn’t been submitted and failed to gain a certificate, fallen foul of the Obscene Publications Act, or generated a huge outcry from moral guardians, then you are free to import such extreme titles. Hence he could have released the film unrated in territories that allow film makers to do so like the US, and let interested parties quietly order it.

And if Six were truly more interested in his film’s *ahem* artistic merits, then this would be a perfectly acceptable route to go down. However I suspect this whole palaver is more an exercise in increasing the size of his wallet rather than challenging cinema goers, hence this controversy. And if indeed this was a marketing stunt gone wrong, then really he only has himself to blame.

Now we all love a good promotional gimmick, but at the same time there is a need for care. Looking back at the 1980s Video Nasty controversy*, amid all the criticism of the overreactions of the moral guardians of the day it’s often forgot that the video industry itself was slightly responsible as several films that ended up on the banned list did so not because of their contents but the blurb on their boxes which over-hyped the gore and violence that lay within. Censor baiting may garner free publicity, however if your film IS ‘doing exactly what it says on tin’ then opting to generate outrage is a very dangerous thing indeed. For unlike many of the so called nasties, where exaggerated and hearsay claims of depravity can be easily refuted, if your film DOES contain the unpleasantness promised, then you are risking not only sanctions for your movie but an industry wide backlash from the zealous guardians of our morals. In this light, Six is a bigger enemy to cinematic freedom than the BBFC is.

It’s easy to see the Video Nasty furore as something which happened because people in the past were idiots, but in fact you are idiot if you think it can’t and won’t happen again. There’s already been enough frothing and sputtering over ‘torture porn’ in recent years, and there is a fertile climate in which another clamp-down could occur. Too many Western governments are losing the public’s confidence in a time when they are seen to be pandering to the bankers and making the public pay for the financial world’s economy wrecking mistakes, and therefore politicians will be only too glad to seize upon any issue that will lend them an air of morality to counter the feeling that they are too interested in feathering their own nests rather than acting for the good of the people.

Considering that the BBFC in recent years has been extremely liberal – light years ahead in its attitudes than its former incarnations – I am inclined to take their ruling on The Human Centipede 2 (Full Sequence) on trust as the correct decision. Paradoxical I know for some one who is anti-censorship, but there are larger issues to consider. And rather than as the first step back to heavy censorship, I see the refusal of a certificate for Six’s sequel to be a necessary, if somewhat galling in principle, step to ensure that film makers continue to enjoy the freedoms they do. And let’s be honest, we’re not losing another Citizen Kane here...

As I pointed out earlier, if you are looking for a target to rail against, don’t blame the BBFC – they are just working within government imposed legal limits. Instead complain about the Video Recording Act which lies at the root of this ruling. Of course, alternatively you could blame Tom Six for being a stupidly publicity hungry, cash-grabbing idiot...

* For more on this do check out Jake West's documentary Video Nasties: The Definitive Guide and my discussion of it in this episode of HYPNOBOBS

JIM MOON, 10th June 2011