Bodyhorror is a genre that’s surprisingly nebulous in its definition. There’s a certain amount of medical horror mixed, some gore, but mostly just hideously malformed creatures that tear against the inside of your mind, making you nauseous with their very existence. Today, we salute those freaks, and look at the best bodyhorror movies.
18. Rosemary’s Baby
Comparatively mild when put against the other craziness on this list, Rosemary’s Baby still had plenty of moments designed to invoke visceral horror in watchers, and plenty of the hallmarks of classic body horror. Lets see, we’ve got rape by the devil, eating raw meat, and a malformed baby. While those all might sound pretty tame, keep in mind this was 1968, and not only that, but it won Oscars, Golden Globes, and had a pile of nominations. Even today you’ll be lucky to see a critically acclaimed box office flick with anything even nearly as twisted as this.
The vast majority of Akira doesn’t dwell much in body horror, but once Tetsuo starts physically transforming, we’re into full on crazy territory. The twisted biological growth and mutation that he goes through, eventually incorporating inanimate objects, and forming that hideous, boiling, rolling baby thing is completely disgusting and over the top, and perfectly conveys everything that has gone wrong with him. At that point, where he utterly loses control, and becomes a rolling psychic malformed monstrosity, you can’t help but feel some sort of sympathy for Tetsuo, even while feeling disgusted at how he looks.
The Alien films were created on a base of body horror â€” hell, you don’t hire H.R. Giger to do design work for you, unless you want creepy biological fetish creatures filling your films. So much of the alien biology is utterly creepy and a tiny bit sexual. You start with the eggs, which have deliberately vaginal openings, and then the face hugger bursts out, raping your mouth and implanting an egg in your stomach. In the original film, the face hugger was crafted out of sheep organs, giving it that shiny, biological look. The chest burster was probably the least horrific part of the lifecycle, because then you have the acid spitting alien proper, with its enormous phallic head. You know what they used to make the alien drool? KY jelly. Later films also delved more into the aliens’ habit of keeping humans alive, cemented into the walls of their hives.
It’s odd to think the most successful adaptation of a Lovecraft story is a gore-horror-comedy set in the present, which has become a firm cult classic among schlock fans. It really showed what a devoted crew can do to make bringing the dead back to live as twisted and gorey as possible. Not really zombies, the re-animated are revived by a liquid Herbert West’s creation, and have a tendency to meet incredibly gorey demises. It’s probably not as much of a body horror flick as the others on this list, due to pushing more for laughs than hopeless terror we all experience when we see a medical monstrosity that should not have been even thought of, let alone created. It does have lots of disgusting dead people, which speaks in its favor.
14. The Machine Girl
Oh, Japan. We meet again. This time for a revenge story about a girl whose arm is chopped off by the Yakuza, and she straps a gatling gun in its place, and goes about killing as many people as possible. Just watching the trailer you get an idea for how wonderfully over the top it is. And yes, the drill bra gets used extensively. Explosive blood, horrible torture, and mechanical monstrosities. Sounds like a fun evening in to me.
13. Jacob’s Ladder
Without Jacob’s Ladder, we wouldn’t have Silent Hill. The movie was a major influence on the creation of the notoriously screwed up games, and when I’ve tried to explain the flick to gamers, I usually resort to saying “Silent Hill 2, but worse.” It’s one of those movies which does its best to blur the boundry between reality and hallucination for the main characters, and the medical scenes in it are particularly horrific. You know Guillermo del Toro’s taste for creatures without eyes? Here’s the predecessor, along with plenty of other fucked up mutants.
eXistenZ is the first of many Cronenberg films on this list, and lets face it, the guy defines Body Horror. eXistenZ game out around the same time as the Matrix, and tapped into many of the same questions about life â€” specifically if we could tell the difference between a computer simulation and reality. However, eXistenZ did it in a much creepier way, with a plot that folds in on itself over and over again, confusing what is really happening with experiences in a creepily biological video game. So, where’s the body horror? In order to play the game, you have to have a bioport installed in your lower spine, and slide an umbilical cord into it â€” a port that is unsurprisingly sexual in its use. There’s also the fact that parts of the game force users to act in certain ways, causing people to question their own free will, plus the wonderfully disturbing biological gun, made up of mutant animal parts which fires human teeth.
Before Guillermo del Toro became famous for his wonderful creature weirdness, he produced Cronos, a uniquely twisted look at vampires. It was his directorial debut, and made a name for him. Like much of del Toro’s work, there were plenty of scenes that pushed it gently towards body horror, never with quite the over the top gruesomeness of others, but enough to make the horror of it seem that much worse. The gradual decay of the main character in Cronos, slowly going from old man to vampire to madness, and the accompanying physical transformation is bolstered by del Toro’s background in special effects. And the scene waking up with his mouth sewn shut? Damn, that’s creepy.
10. Braindead/Dead Alive
Before Peter Jackson got all grown up and started gaining international attention with films like The Frighteners and Heavenly Creatures, he was a struggling Kiwi director with an eye for gore. His early zombie film Braindead (called Dead Alive in the USA) is a wonderfully twisted horror comedy, and while it falls more into the splatter genre than bodyhorror, it has its share of fucked up mutation. The transition of humans to zombie renders them hideous and twister, weird malformed creatures of pus and bile. This leads to a huge amount of body humor, including memorable scenes where a zombie’s ear falls in the soup, and the demented zombie baby attacking everything it can get its little teeth into. The final transformation of the main character’s mother is perfectly disgusting, and you cannot not love the whole lawnmower bit.
9. Naked Lunch
I somehow saw naked lunch when I was just 12, and remained scarred for a very, very long time. Naked Lunch is a metanarrative of sorts, weaving between the writing of the infamous novel of the same title, the contents of the novel, and Cronenberg’s own weirdness. Definitely not for those who dislike bugs, Naked Lunch is filled with giant insects of varying degrees of intelligence, not to mention talking organic typewrites, copious drug use, and somehow Peter Weller remaining utterly stonefaced throughout the ever increasing weirdness that surrounds him.
At this point, calling David Lynch batshit insane is merely stating the obvious. Dude is crazy, we all know that, and spends his time on Twitter talking about furniture he’s crafting. It took Lynch five years to make the gloriously disturbing Eraserhead, which is filled with weirdness and horror beyond description. The worst of it is the baby around which much of the story is centered â€” an barely human monstrosity, with a elongated head and snout and no arms. It whines and screams constantly, sometimes covered with oozing sores and pus. Its internal organs are held in place by the bandages constraining it, and its death at the end of the film is excruciatingly disgusting.
7. Human Centipede
Might as well get this one out of the way, because it’s on the forefront of everyone’s imagination. And yes, there’s a sequel in the works. No, no matter what the director says, there’s no way it’s medically accurate. They stitch three people mouth-to-ass, and the second one is apparently going to involve a twelve person centipede. While certainly shocking, it’s not quite on the same level of creeping horror and disturbing mutations as some of the other contenders on the list, and it derives much of its drive from pure scatological intent. The porn parody, on the other hand, was hilarious!
6. The Fly
I would call The Fly Cronenberg’s most commercially successful work, but it’s no less disturbing because of that. Goldblum’s slow and ever more terrifying transformation into a fly creature is so utterly, utterly creepy that it’s a miracle this got a wide release. There are so many classic body horror touchstones: pulling out fingernails, weird hair protruding from the body, bones poking through skin and horrific strength. Not to mention vomiting digestive enzymes on food, and in one deleted scene, gnawing off an insect limb in order to amputate it. You have to give Goldblum some major credit for acting under such a mammoth amount of makeup and special effects, and to the team that crafted the entire getup.
Usually, when telekinesis and telepathy are dealt with on-screen, it’s a generally sanitary and pretty thing. They concentrate real hard, and read minds or lift some things up, hey, wow, it’s magic! Maybe occasionally you’ll see a nosebleed, or something similar. Cronenberg was having none of that. In Scanners, the people with these crazy abilities often wreak horrible physical effects. The most famous is doubtless the exploding head, but every time their psychic powers are used, it’s a horrible, bloody, and disgusting event, one that makes you dread the possibility of gaining such powers.
4. Tetsuo: The Iron Man
Tetsuo: The Iron Man has reached legendary cult status among a huge body of viewers for being one of those amazing “Japan, WTF?” films that leaves you scarred and fearing for their humanity. Seriously Japan, you never cease to astound with the weirdness that spews forth from your shores. In Tetsuo, it’s about a salaryman who slowly transforms into a horrific cyborg monstrosity, the metal growing and replacing his flesh in ever more twisted ways. Think like the transformation from The Fly, but into an equally hideous and inhuman cyborg â€” including a drill penis. Surreal and twisted, it actually stems from an artistic movement in Japan from the 20’s and 30’s called “ero goru”, erotic grotesque.
3. The Thing
The Thing is legendary for its transformation scenes, pushing the limits of early 80s special effects in order to create the parasitic alien which takes on human form. Ebert called them “among the most elaborate, nauseating, and horrifying sights yet achieved by Hollywood’s new generation of visual magicians,” and he was right. Every scene of the alien was grossly disturbing, as it assimilated animals and humans with terrifying transformations. The infamous detached head scene only served to make things worse, as the sight of a human looking head sprinting away from people is one that scarred itself into your psyche.
To me, the torturous, mutated, otherworldy Cenobites are so much bodyhorror that it’s overwhelming. They are beings who exist only to flay, modify and torture the human body and soul into transcendence. It’s a creed that many body modders could understand â€” achieving enlightenment through pain, and their heavy fetish roots definitely show this off. While the Hellraiser films drop in quality dramatically after the first, they’re so deeply unsettling with their masochistic modifications and telekinetic hooks that they leave you feeling deeply disturbed.
I consider Videodrome to be Cronenberg’s best work, an artful melding of the psychosexual, bodyhorror, torture, and his ongoing obsession with new orifices. Plus, you know, James Woods and Deborah Harry. It’s odd to think it starts with a snuff film, and only gets weirder from there, into reality warping hallucinations, sentient TV sets, a stomach orifice that looks like a vagina but takes videotapes, the military industrial complex, sadomasochism, brain tumors, and everything else weird and wonderful. It’s not exactly a subtle story about the fetishization of TV, but that’s also true of eXistenZ and video games and Crash and amputations. He really likes taking a social construct and making you feel perverted for having even thought about it.