Roger Ebert has long been one of the fairest and, in his own way, most open-minded of the professional movie critics. Rather than rate films on a single sliding scale, Ebert evaluates by genre. That is to say, he asks the question: “Is a film true to its genre and does it deliver what its audiences presumably expect?” By this method, a dumb action movie might receive a higher rating than an intense drama if the dumb action movie was better at being a dumb action movie than the intense drama was at being an intense drama, even though, as Ebert might acknowledge, intense dramas are a more admirable type of film overall. It’s an intelligent, malleable way of assessing film quality. Well, the system seems to have broken down, because Ebert has refused to rate the upcoming horror film The Human Centipede.
In case you aren’t on top of your revolting horror film news, The Human Centipede concerns a mad German doctor who fiendishly traps several lost tourists in his mansion and then surgically connects them, mouth to anus, to create the titular human centipede. The trailer only hints at just what gruesome “heights” the film apparently reaches.
Ebert found it to be so shocking, so revolting, so off-putting in the earnestness with which it carries out its horrific premise, that he simply could not assess it within the star system. He writes: “I am required to award stars to movies I review. This time, I refuse to do it. The star rating system is unsuited to this film. Is the movie good? Is it bad? Does it matter? It is what it is and occupies a world where the stars don’t shine.”
Some might take issue with Ebert’s refusal to rate the film. After all, it is the movie critic’s duty to experience, assess, evaluate, and eventually rate films, no matter how personally horrified he or she may be with either the goals of any particular film or the finished product. Sure, written analysis is the meat of film criticism, but the basic service the critic provides, for much of his or her public, is the rating itself. What a sham—what a dodge!—to refuse to provide a rating.
Or is it? Though Ebert has been vocal about his desire to retain equanimity when rating movies, he has also often appealed to the reality that a critic is, at the end of the day, despite all efforts, still a man or a woman who has biases, predispositions, and prejudices, and that, to be truly honest, the critic must cop to his or her own lack of objectivity. As legendary critic Robert Warshow once commented: “A man goes to the movies. The critic must be honest enough to admit that he is that man.”
Perhaps all you need to know about The Human Centipede is that one of America’s most honest critics refused to rate it. In the meantime, check out our Parent’s Guide to watching said revolting film here.