Open Thread: How Far Is Too Far in Film?

Fantastic Fest, the genre film festival held annually in Austin, Texas (primarily at a Flavorwire favorite, the Alamo Drafthouse), kicked off last Thursday night, with one of this year’s most notorious entries running right off the bat: The Human Centipede 2 (Full Sequence), the clamored-for-by-no-one follow-up to the 2010 geek show (and South Park target) The Human Centipede. That film portrayed, in graphic detail, the “100% medically accurate!” (uh huh) story of a mad scientist obsessed with, um, unorthodox surgery. (I’ll just accept my “understatement of the year” award now, thanks.) The sequel is the tale of a loathsome mental case obsessed with the first film (meta!), though, by all reports, its “story” is primarily a clothesline upon which to hang writer/director/sociopath Tom Six’s depravity.

Reviews, even among the open-minded Fantastic Fest crowd, were not kind. FEARnet’s Scott Weinberg called it “one of the most overtly, oppressively, and depressingly puerile experiences you’ll ever have with a movie,” and wrote that the film “is more than content to be the indie horror flick version of a low-rent carnival sideshow: at first you want to see how much ugliness you can take, but eventually it all becomes too base, too grueling, and too miserable.” (For his part, Movies.com’s Eric D. Snider ingeniously penned “A Proper Gentleman from 19th Century England Reacts to Seeing Human Centipede 2 — ya know, “I fear’d lest the gentlewomen in attendance should faint dead away from the shock of it!”). Weinberg raises an interesting point, and — truth be told — about the only credible explanation for the first film’s success (or at least, success enough to warrant a sequel): the presence of that “carnival sideshow” element in modern genre cinema, pushing moviegoers to ask themselves how much they’re willing to watch.

I won’t be seeing Human Centipede II; as I mentioned when we posted the sequel’s trailer a couple of weeks back, I had the misfortune of sitting through the first film, which is perhaps the most vile and sickening thing I’ve ever watched. You can’t un-see it; I’ve tried. And there was a moment, about halfway through, when (in mid-recoil) I asked myself, Where does it go from here? And I answered my own question: Nowhere good! I spent the next fifteen minutes or so just staring at the screen, with something akin to shame, and then I started to gather up my things; I’ve never walked out of a media screening before, but I was ready to. But I stopped myself. It would be dishonest to review a film without watching it to the end; to not review (and warn people about) the film would be letting it off the hook. So I saw it through, though I’m not sure my subsequent pan did anything to keep people away — if anything, it probably hit the target audience square in the forehead (“If it’s that fucked up, I gotta see it”). By reporting my nauseous and repulsed response, I became the film’s carnival barker.

But that’s the problem with extreme cinema: when you hear about something that pushes boundaries and breaks taboos and throws good taste out the window, there is that dark little corner of some moviegoers’ psyches that wants to see what the fuss is about. That’s the only way I can explain why I picked up an import Blu-ray copy of A Serbian Film last spring; the film’s reputation of depravity preceded it by months, but word was that it was also a genuinely intelligent and disturbing examination of the very buttons it was pushing. That might be the case — I can’t tell you for certain. With no obligation to review, I switched the picture off around the hour mark. (To answer the next question of anyone who’s seen it: at the beginning of the childbirth scene.) My stomach was wobbly, my eyes were away from the screen, and nothing that I wanted to see was going to happen. I’ve seldom felt such relief at the pushing of a “stop” button.

The only regret in that movement was that, repulsive subject matter aside, there is genuine craftsmanship in A Serbian Film; hell, even The Human Centipede knows from atmosphere and gets the job done in its early (pre-reveal) scenes, slamming the “young women in jeopardy” set-up into a worst-case scenario, coldly and efficiently.

And there’s the rub: even if a film is well done, there are certain lines that each individual viewer will not cross. These two films have some of the more graphic examples, but everyone has their own boundaries: animal cruelty, rape, excessive gore, “torture porn,” what have you. At risk of inviting too much detail (let’s be sensitive here, folks — some people read their Flavorwire on lunch break), what films have pushed you past that brink? When have you walked out or switched off, and why? For you, how far is too far?