According to the Collins English Dictionary body horror is ‘a horror film genre in which the main feature is the graphically depicted destruction or degeneration of a human body or bodies’, which although generally speaking is a fair enough assessment, lacks the demented variety that body horror offers and seems to unfairly focus on the negatives of destruction and degeneration.
Many of these films are about the advancement of the body in form and thought, often by individuals who express themselves in fervently scientific or philosophical ways that border on religious. More than destroying the human body, it is about rebuilding and reshaping it. But since Mary Shelley had Dr Frankenstein sew corpses together in crude human form, this endeavour has rarely ended well, but I suppose that’s where the horror bit comes in. And although there is large amount of common ground in these 11 films, a love of surrealism and the phantasmagorical, a sly nod to Lovecraft, a doff of the hat to the fetishisation of modification, an almost vaudeville sense of absurdity in the lavishings of gore and sex, plenty of sex; there is enough diversity to impede the homogeneity that crippled the slasher film (and to a less of extent torture porn… but that was pretty homogenous to begin with).
Because it is often the case that with a reformation of the body comes an alteration of the mind. So body horror often exposes the psychological effect on the protagonists and while it’s at it also a huge dollop of Huxley-esque perception altering… often to supremely trippy levels. Add to this a much simpler fact; if you take away all the blending bodies, mad scientists, zealots, parallel dimensions, infestations and impregnations, what you’ve got is sci-fi, hi camp, weighty literary adaptations, remakes, cyber-punk, classicism, comedy, conspiracy, paranoia and class politics… put that in your dictionary pipe and smoke it.
(Brian Yunza, 1989)
This film, I like to think, is a rites of passage for the young and naïve cineaste, taking their first uneducated steps into the underground weird-world of exploitation and B-movie, where the amateur and the innovator go hand in hand and the best hunting grounds are those increasingly rare VHS dumps where the extra-large 80’s cases are prevalent. Society is one of a number of films, like It’s Alive, Q The Winged Serpent, Street Trash and The Hidden, where just below the cheap and nasty surface lay some powerful ideas, it’s also, and this is a complex term in film theory, fucking mental. See that’s how I like a film to work, make me think and blow my eyes out of their sockets simultaneously. Challenge and excite.
Society premise builds gradually and effectively, as Billy ‘Slow-mo runner’ Warlock’s rich kid gradually feels out of place in his privileged world. It starts with strange tape recordings and odd therapy sessions and then develops with unnerving glimpses of things which make both us and Billy double take and then…well…. Take all of ‘those’ endings in film history, y’know the ones M.Night.Shyamalan would give his left nut to make and lay them in a line of increasing whatthehellery, and past Requiem for a Dream, past Synecdoche, New York, past Performance, past even Audition you’ll find Society. Trust me you can take all your disaster-porn and sweeping epics and toss ‘em, this one has got to be seen to be believed.
(Ken Russell 1980)
While many of his contemporaries in British cinema were tackling realism, character and politics, Ken Russell was going all Fellini on us in Tommy, the Devils and Lisztomania. Expressionist films of colour, sound and eroticism, with healthy doses of religion and surrealism, courting controversy, contempt and admiration in equal measures. Many of these themes and styles collided gleefully in 1980 with Altered States. It was Fellini bordering on Jordowsky by way of Cronenberg….and that concoction should either be the worst thing you could possibly imagine a film to be or sweet music to your ears.
William Hurt in one of those everyman performances he did so well in the 80’s plays a scientist who experiments on himself with various hallucinogens and a sensory deprivation tank that together cause him to genetically regress. The body horror in Altered States is as much psychological as it is physical, in fact one often manifests the other in increasingly insane ways, to the point where the multi-eyed crucified goat Jesus seems pretty ordinary. Shame about the easy ending mind….
(Ridley Scott 1979)
It’s Giger isn’t it. Don’t get me wrong it’s one of the finest horror films ever made, full of disorientating tension, taught, nervous performances and a wonderfully realised dank, technical world, but it’s Giger isn’t it? The reason it’s here is his design….well that and the horrible incubation idea present in the film, preying primarily on male fears of penetration, as well as more universal parasitical nightmares. But I’m kinda sure much of the detail for this sprang out of Giger’s darkly pornographic images, where when you look long enough everything becomes a penis…or a vagina….or a penis in a vagina.
(John Carpenter, 1982)
We’ve already gone into more detail about Carpenter’s masterpiece here, but just to reiterate with our body horror glasses on….in a strange way The Thing is a combination of Alien above and Tetsuo below but with more beards. It is by far and away the most ‘body transformative’ of the films here, a step beyond even Tetsuo in this sense, but combines it with Aliens hidden horror, the monster inside, watching, waiting. In fact why’ll we’re at it let’s throw From Beyond and Society into the mix as Rob Bottin scored an early victory for The Thing in his still gobsmacking effects. Like those films the transformations transcend simple gore and become an art form, making chests bursting open and heads growing legs things of surreal beauty.
Tetsuo: Iron Man
There are plenty of films I have turned off because they’re rubbish, there’s a point where you watch so many films that you have no longer have the time or the patience to watch crap ones. On the other hand there is only one film I have turned off just because I couldn’t hack it and that’s Tetsuo: Iron Man. I went back to it of course, but the first time I watched it, some misty Christmas years back, I really wasn’t prepared for that kind of visceral assault and had to switch it off to regroup.
Tetsuo is cinematic version of a hardcore fanzine, ugly black and white, hobbled together, schizo editing, a camera operator in desperate need of some Ritalin and an approach to sex that can only be rated on Skynet’s Kinsey test…but most of all it is constant, it is an unrelenting attack on our senses.
Its plot, for what it’s worth, involves a man with a fetish for inserting metal objects into wounds in his body, taking his revenge on the couple who ran him over and left him for dead by infecting the man with living, invasive metal to the point…well to the point where his penis becomes a drill.
As much as this is a film about extreme body modification and mans increasingly ambiguous relationship with technology, it is also the cinematic equivalent of a dare; Shinya Tsukamoto directs like he might never direct again, it’s like someone dared him to push everything, try everything, challenge everything….
(Mitchell Lichtenstein, 2007)
Body horror is often quite gender specific in its aim of transformation or destruction. Think Dead Ringers or the Fly’s gynaecological horrors, Tetsuo’s sexual mutilation or Aliens male genophobia, but nowhere is this more evident than in Teeth. Here the female revenge sub-genre (think MS.45 or Coffy) is taken to a whole new level, playing on male fears of emasculation and on female revenge fantasies at their most base and mythical.
If anything, for a film about a woman who has teeth in her vagina, Teeth is quite subtle, restrained almost, the gore is infrequent and more effective for it. Instead it relies on the transformation of the lead from victim through to empowerment by way of confusion and disgust, and not a little sly humour, all bundled up in a superb performance by Jess Weixler
The body horror in Teeth is left entirely unseen (it would be a pretty hard thing to show), but this is all for the better, it’s like the shark in the first half of Jaws, there, hidden, waiting to strike. I suppose a better term for it would be an evolutionary horror….well that’s if you’re a man….ladies, I hope you enjoy watching this evolutionary comedy.
(James Gunn, 2006)
Even though there are elements of humour in some of the films listed, Slither is the only one that is an out and out comedy. It’s proof that there are not many things funnier than the human body, especially when it’s swollen to the size of a hot air balloon, or dissolved into a tentacle armed patriarch, or filled full of horny space worms.
But Slither could of quite easily of been another ‘gorey alien parasite infects a small town and turns the residents into mutant/zombies/cannibals’ flick (tick as appropriate) if it wasn’t so sharply written and acted. The sly, nodding script brings out great turns from Elizabeth Banks, Nathan Fillion and the omni-awesome Michael Rooker, and the film whips along in a streamlined 90 minutes….whips along, get it, whips…..ah watch the damn film.
(Stuart Gordon 1986)
Just as Cronenberg is the quintessential body horror filmmaker and Giger is the quintessential body horror artist, then it was inevitable Lovecraft would have to appear sooner or later on the list. The unutterable horrors of his literature have often drawn film-makers to test the boundaries of horror, even though his whole lumbering, blasphemous, many-eyed monsters are often described in words that deem them indescribable, but I suppose that’s part of the challenge.
From Beyond, based on the short story of the same name, shares Altered States perception changing ideas, but realised in a far more overblown way, as scientist Ted Sorel’s creation, a machine which allows people to see beyond the natural realms of perception, is abused by his assistant Jeffery Combs, opening up the Lovecraftian world that lies just below. It shares the same ‘just-on-the-right-side-of-farcical’ transformations as producers Brian Yuzna’s later film Society, but with added pineal gland.
(William Friedkin 2006)
The most grounded of all the films here and therefore maybe the creepiest. Friedkin brings his grubby, unflinching style and locks it in a hotel room with Michael Shannon, who is convinced there are government sent bugs in the walls and under his skin. His mania soon infects troubled house wife, Ashley Judd, and before long the room is covered in foil and they’re pulling their teeth out. This is a film that intensely demonstrates the transformative nature of psychosis, how the psychological can become the physical if you believe it enough. It also neatly brings up topical issues, like…y’know….the guy sat in some windowless room somewhere in Washington, watching you reading about a film about people, who think they’re being watched, probably by people sat in a windowless room in Washington.
Eyes Without a Face
(Georges Franju, Claude Sautet, 1960)
Georges Franju’s film stands alone in this list as much for its lyricism as it does lingering and oddly timeless air of mystery, but it is as much a horror and indeed a monster movie as any other film here. The monster in question is surgeon, Dr. Génessier who has dedicated his life to the heart-breaking task of repairing his daughter’s face, which was horrifically scared in car accident. He does this however by kidnapping young women and removing their faces in an attempt to graft them onto his daughter. This is body horror at its simplest and most human, and possibly for these reasons, it’s most terrifying. Génessier’s plight is both monstrous and at a basic level, an understandable thing for a father to do for his child.
Cronenberg 1975 – 1996
So we come to the inevitable. This is Cronenbergs world and we’re just visiting. But to simply pick just one of his films would be a) a disservice to this list and b) really really hard. So as way of a cop-out we’ve gone from his body of work stretching from Shivers to Crash (Fast Company aside) If you want a fast track education in body horror…hell in modern horror, then this is the place to be. We’ve got demented sex worms, armpit-zombie vampires, rage manifested killer children, tyrannical psychics, a transformative teleportation love story, gynaecological breakdowns, a pair of literary adaptations of radical difference, Daily Mail knicker twisting techno-sex and what-ever-the-hell Videodrome is. Should keep you happy for a while