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. Watching these films puts you under vicious — perhaps vivisectionist — attack.
Frankenstein is one of the first scary movie monsters to use the concept. He is multifarious, 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 that deal with such, shall we say, “modifications”, like John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982) or David Lynch’s Eraserhead (1977) aren’t really invested in the subgenre proper. No, the ten films we feature on this here are true examples of the concept, concentrated and fully exploited. The best of body horror movies elicit both sickness and shrieks. The uncontrollable response our sense of self-spilling its essence all over the floor. These films make for a fascinating freak show we can all relate to, and as such, we can’t look away, much as we wish we could…
1. The Fly, Dir. David Cronenberg (1986)
2. Hellraiser, Dir. Clive Barker (1987)
Clive Barker’s Hellraiser is an amazing allegory for adultery and how far a spouse will go to cheat on her man. Our cuckold sits silently downstairs while wifey gets it on with a shapeshifting corpse in the attic. This may be a blood-drenched descent into female madness, but it’s the Cenobites — the S&M-inspired demons who’ve discovered the ultimate pleasure in having their bodies mutilated to the point of demonic defilement — that’ll really get to you.
The sex life subtext is part of the story, sure, but like all of Barker’s best work, it’s the blood and guts that really get us in the end. Body horror has rarely been more… meaningful.
3. Slither, Dir. James Gunn (2006)
James Gunn had the most popular film of 2014 with his amazing Marvel movie, Guardians of the Galaxy. Those who have followed him from his Troma days, however, know about the amazing modern classic, Slither. It’s a fright film comedy that’s built out of the same satiric stuff that made Groot, Rocket, and the rest of the group really resonate with audiences.
Here, we have a small town taken over by an extraterrestrial parasite that turns one man into a monster and a woman into a huge balloon-like “breeder”. While not a success at the box office, Gunn’s goofy, gory overkill created a cult classic among fright fans.
4. The Human Centipede, Dir. Tom Six (2009)
It all began with a simple question: could someone surgically attach one human being to another, ass to mouth, and create one continuous “creature”? Dutch director Tom Six decided to explore such a proposition, forging one of the most notorious and nauseating films in the entire body horror subgenre.
The story is simple in its set-up. A couple of young American women get lost in the German countryside and run into the wrong helpful stranger. The crazed doctor behind this experiment is determined to regain his reputation as a wizard of the conjoined, yet something clearly got lost in his designs. The Human Centipede is as disturbing as it is disgusting.
5. Videodrome, Dir. David Cronenberg (1983)
David Cronenberg will make at least two appearances on this list, since he is more or less considered the King of Body Horror. We’ve chosen this particular piece of prescient speculation, Videodrome, because its theme — how various mediums modify and change us, in this case, literally — is so contemporary. We are living in the age proposed by Brian O’Blivion (played by Jack Creley) and his primary follower, cable TV executive Max Renn (James Woods).
Sex and violence are all over the various entertainment outlets and we are slowly evolving into something scary as a result. Long Live the New Flesh — and the News Flash — indeed.
6. Tetsuo: The Iron Man, Dir.Shin’ya Tsukamoto (1989)
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 with Tetsuo: The Iron Man, 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.
7. From Beyond, Dir. Stuart Gordon (1986)
In From Beyond, 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.
8. American Mary
American Mary presents 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.
The Soksa Sisters’ American Mary is one of the most unhinged expressions of scream queen female empowerment ever put on film.
9. Taxidermia, Dir. György Pálfi (2006)
Sort of like Srđan Spasojević’s A Serbian Film, except without the 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.
Pálfi’s Taxidermia manages to tie up, almost literally, all the loose ends while highlighting the horror of using one’s body as a means of protest.
10. Tusk, Dir. Kevin Smith (2014)
Kevin Smith’s sensational stoner scarefest, Tusk, 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. Tusk is a cinematic revelation from a man known mostly for his skill behind the laptop, not the lens.
Editor’s note: The late, beloved Bill Gibron had a high tolerance for the “ick” factor in film. He could always make us squirm. If you have an appetite for, in his words, “the unhinged”, “the splatterific”, and “gory overkill” — that is, “thought-provoking horror with heart”, well then, dive in. Just don’t expect to come out clean.
Originally published 16 September 2014, we held our noses (but we cannot unsee) and updated and resurrected his article here for 2019 Halloween disgust. You’ve been warned…