They say we only truly fear a few specific things: the death of a loved one; our own mortality; speaking in public (?). But buried within these specific phobias lies an equally compelling terror, one that can be summed up in two words: body horror.
For some, it’s losing a limb. For others, it’s an unnatural growth or tumor. Whether it’s chewing on a piece of tin foil or sliding down a banister festooned with razor blades, rotting from the inside out or bouts of gross gangrene, injury to ourselves (or others, to be fair) provides a basic, inherent sense of dread. It’s biology unbound, it’s our own humanity out of control and harmed/harmful.
While almost all fright films trade on this trope to get us shivering, there are some that go gleefully overboard to make sure you are uncomfortable with every element of your physiology under vicious, perhaps vivisectionist, attack.
Frankenstein is one of the first scary movie monsters to use the concept. He’s a homunculus made up of harvested corpse parts, after all. The Werewolf is the very essence of a shapeshifter while Dracula too can go from man to manimal in the blink of a blood-soaked eye. And yet, these aren’t really prime examples of body horror.
Even movies which deal with such modifications, like John Carpenter’s The Thing or David Lynch’s Eraserhead aren’t really invested in the subgenre proper. No, the 10 films we decided to feature on this pre-Halloween list are true examples of the concept concentrated and fully exploited. Be they brand new, or decided old school, the best of body horror elicits both sickness and shrieks. It’s our own sense of self spilling its essence all over the floor. It’s a fascinating freak show, and as such, we can’t look away. Let’s begin with:
Kevin Smith’s sensational stoner scarefest is more thought provoking than spine tingling, but that doesn’t mean it fails when it comes to frightmare scenarios. A smug, smarmy podcaster (Justin Long) runs into a recluse (Michael Parks) who just might be a serial killer. The fiend’s diabolical designs? To turn men into that most noble of creatures, the walrus. Why? Well, that’s part of this film’s fascination purpose. As surreal as it is satiric, this borderline classic takes our current cultural regression and illustrates what can happen if you let clickbait and www-notoriety claim your soul. A cinematic revelation from a man known mostly for his skill behind the laptop, not the lens.
Sort of like A Serbian Film, except with a lot less child rape, this oddball Hungarian offering uses a three act structure to suggest the hardships of living under Communist rule, from WWII until the fall of the Soviet bloc. One story centers on a subservient soldier who escapes into fantasy. Another deals with a competitive eater who loses his edge. The final story, however, sees a humble taxidermist dealing with death the only way he knows how. It manages to tie up, almost literally, all the loose ends while highlighting the horror of using one’s body as a means of protest.
A case where body modification, and its perverse underground element, takes center stage. The Soska Sisters, indie icons, take the story of a sad medical student (Katherine Isabelle) unable to pay her high tuition costs, and creates a subversive scenario in which our heroine offers her expert surgical skills to those who get off on undergoing actual physical change. While most of her work is voluntary, a sexual assault leads to an act of repellent revenge that has to be seen to be believed. It’s one of the most unhinged expressions of scream queen female empowerment ever put on film.
A scientist learns that, by stimulating one’s pineal gland via a certain tone and frequency, we are capable of seeing creatures who live in the ephemera that surrounds us. After taking his experiments too far, it’s up to his protégé to recreate his questionable results and clear his name. Sadly, our subject is now an alien shapeshifter while our hero has an adverse reaction to the trials and ends up a brain eating geek. While somewhat based on the work of H. P. Lovecraft, Re-Animator‘s Stuart Gordon shows, once again, why no one is as good as him at utilizing splatterific gore to make a meaningful point.
One of the first certified cyberpunk classics, this otherworldly sci-fi experiment may have been filmed in black and white, but the results are brazen in their bloody spectacle. Our lead is a man seemingly obsessed with grafting his flesh to various machine and mechanical elements. Soon, the metal takes over, turning him into a walking, talking pile of sinister scrap. He eventually battles a fellow fetishist which allows director Shinya Tsukamoto to go all out, using both the metropolitan backdrop and our main character’s tiny hovel of an apartment as extensions of his man vs. technology tirade. It’s a haunting and often harrowing cinematic experience.