Body horror is a form of cinema that picks at the base of all human fears: physicality. Every living person shudders at the thought of catching an illness, losing mobility, or feeling body parts shut down. These experiences are more disturbing than a serial killer with a hacksaw because they are inescapable. We can never outrun the decomposition of our own mortal form.
These primal fears have been exacerbated by COVID-19. We have never been as keenly aware of our health and the health of others as we are in 2020, which makes the recent body horror flick, “Possessor,” all the more upsetting. Brandon Cronenberg’s sophomore film coincides with the Halloween season, so we decided to put our hazmat suits on and revisit the body horror titles that have left the biggest impression (and the worst scars).
Here are the 10 best body horror films of all time!
10. “Teeth” (2007)
“Teeth” secured a place in the pop culture conversation on the strength of its extreme premise. Dawn O’Keefe (Jess Weixler) is a high school student who discovers that she has vagina dentata, and proceeds to utilize her attribute to defend herself against the various men who try to assault her.
Writer-director Mitchell Lichtenstein doesn’t shy away from the grotesque nature of Dawn’s encounters, but he deftly balances out the violence with a parable about consent and the repression of female sexuality.
Dawn transforms from an insecure teen to an empowered force by the end of the film, and while her methods may be amoral, the not-so-subtle metaphor of removing her attackers’ “manhood” has gained even more relevance (and bite) in the #MeToo era.
9. “Re-Animator” (1985)
Stuart Gordon is not a subtle filmmaker, but his garish sensibilities and surreal flourishes are perfectly suited to the works of author H.P. Lovecraft. “Re-Animator” was the first official adaptation of a Lovecraft novella, and it follows a deranged medical student (Jeffrey Combs) who invents a serum to reanimate deceased bodies.
It all sounds very morose, but Gordon brings out the latent humor in the author’s work. Lovecraft’s stories often bordered on exploitation and Gordon simply pushes this to the fore with absurdist dialogue (“Who’s going to believe a talking head?”) and a slapstick routine involving a headless, accident-prone body.
Combs is a riot as the Norman Bates-esque medical student, and the special effects, while hokey, can still churn a few stomachs. “Re-Animator” feels like the missing link between “The Evil Dead” (1981) and “Evil Dead II” (1987), and those who love the film should check out Gordon’s other Lovecraft adaptation, “From Beyond” (1986).
8. “Slither” (2006)
James Gunn has a reputation for melding different genres. He married black comedy and superhero tropes with “Super” (2010) and kicked off the MCU’s second phase with the eccentric blockbuster, “Guardians of the Galaxy” (2014). Before these hits, however, Gunn made his mark on the horror genre with the B-movie homage, “Slither.”
“Slither” follows the citizens of a South Carolina town as they get taken over by a sinister alien parasite. The cast is made up of beloved actors like Nathan Fillion, Jenna Fischer, Michael Rooker, and Elizabeth Banks. Gunn proceeds to turn them all into horrific creatures whose bodies become breeding grounds for the parasite. The scene where the parasites rip Brenda (Brenda James) apart from the inside is not something I need to see again in my life.
Gunn has a wicked sense of humor, but he never pushes things too far with “Slither.” The characters are genuinely likable and the subtle nods to classics like “Shivers” (1975) and “The Blob” (1988) showcase Gunn’s passion for the body horror subgenre. It’s a nice reminder of his roots, given that he’s spent the last decade in the blockbuster arena.
7. “Possessor” (2020)
Brandon Cronenberg has made the bold decision to follow in his father’s footsteps. He ventured into the body horror genre with his solid debut, “Antiviral” (2012), but it’s his second film, “Possessor,” where he’s proven himself to be a worthy successor to David Cronenberg.
“Possessor” is about a corporate agent (Andrea Riseborough) who becomes trapped in the mind of a stranger (Christopher Abbott) after using brain-implant technology to hop from person to person. Cronenberg’s visceral command of violence and gore has grown exponentially since his debut, as has his ability to reference classic works of horror while maintaining a singular style.
There’s a lot to take in here, and most of it is pretty damn upsetting. I can’t say I enjoyed some of the things that occurred onscreen, but what I can say is that Cronenberg has the vision and the directorial chops to make his dad proud. “Possessor” is the kind of horror release that every Halloween season deserves.
6. “Possession” (1981)
“Possession” may not have the gore of the other titles on this list, but it makes up for it with a nauseating sense of dread. It details the crumbling marriage between a spy (Sam Neill) and his wife (Isabelle Adjani) who begins to exhibit increasingly disturbing behavior. The spy suspects that she is having an affair, but what he discovers is beyond his worst nightmares.
Those who have seen the film know what I am referring to and those who haven’t are in for one of the most upsetting reveals in all of horror. Andrzej Żuławski directs the entire film with steely intensity, rarely letting up for a moment of release. Neill establishes his bona fides as a reliable horror actor (“In the Mouth of Madness,” “Event Horizon”), but the real power of “Possession” begins and ends with Isabelle Adjani.
The French actress gives a startlingly raw performance as a woman succumbing to the dark forces around her. The scene where she has a nervous breakdown in a subway station is one of the most unnerving displays of acting I’ve ever witnessed. It will stay with you long after the credits have rolled.
5. “The Skin I Live In” (2011)
Pedro Almodóvar is one of the rare filmmakers who can imprint their style upon every genre they attempt. “The Skin I Live In” is Almodóvar’s most overt attempt at a horror movie, and the results are both superb and strange. It chronicles the efforts of a grieving plastic surgeon (Antonio Banderas) as he forces his experiments upon a young woman named Alma (Elena Anaya).
There are plenty of visceral moments that place the film in the body horror subgenre, but like “Possession,” “The Skin I Live In” is more concerned with the psychological effect that bodily trauma has on a given person. Alma is subjected to painful remedies against her will, but the surgeon, played with chilling precision by Banderas, is just as damaged by the inability to save his dead wife.
Almodóvar’s film is not for the faint of heart, but those willing to sit through the physical and sexual horrors of the plot may just discover the director’s most daring effort to date.
4. “Tetsuo: The Iron Man” (1989)
You will love or hate “Tetsuo: The Iron” based on the opening scene. A man walks into an empty room, cuts his thigh open, and thrusts a metal rod through the wound. Later, he unwraps the wound to discover it rotting and covered with maggots. He runs down the street screaming and is eventually hit by oncoming traffic. Phew.
“Tetsuo” dolls out one horrifically graphic scene after the next, as though daring the viewer to keep watching. It has a loose plot, but the real intent of the film is to explore the various methods in which metal can destroy and be fused with the human body. Director Shinya Tsukamoto pulls zero punches in his depiction of violence, and his no-budget aesthetic makes the whole thing even creepier, as though the viewer has stumbled upon a real-life torture video.
Tsukamoto returned to the “Tetsuo” franchise with “Tetsuo II: Body Hammer” (1991) and “Tetsuo: The Bullet Man” (2009), but none of them matched the absurdist end of the original in which two men fuse together and vow to destroy the world as a metallic monstrosity. Tony Stark this is not.
3. “Videodrome” (1983)
“Videodrome” is “Network” (1976) for the MTV generation. James Woods gives a career-best performance as a network CEO who discovers a signal broadcasting torture and violence and decides to broadcast it as a means of boosting ratings. The longer he broadcasts, however, the further he gets from reality.
“Videodrome” director David Cronenberg predicts a future in which sex, violence, and technology have intersected and are being doled out in massive quantities to a dulled, unsuspecting audience. The combination of these vices results in a rotting physical mutation that ranks among Cronenberg’s (and artist Rick Baker’s) most memorable creature designs.
Cronenberg’s satirical take has gained even more traction in the internet age, where the line between fantasy and reality is becoming increasingly blurred. It may not be his best body horror release (more on that later), but it’s definitely his most insightful. Long live the flesh.
2. “The Thing” (1982)
John Carpenter is my favorite horror director. His ability to combine Hawksian dialogue with Hitchcockian suspense is legendary, and few titles exemplify this better than “The Thing.” It’s an absolute masterpiece, juggling tense set pieces and elaborate special effects with an ensemble cast that grounds an otherwise fantastical premise. It’s expertly paced and contains one of Carpenter’s simplest (and best) endings.
The director worked in close proximity with special effects artist Rob Bottin and their collaboration yielded some of the most dazzling transformation scenes ever caught on film. The dog cage sequence is so horrifically creative that it borders on beauty, while the precise timing of the defibrillator scene still causes me to hold my breath in anticipation.
Carpenter’s horror films ranged from slasher flicks (“Halloween”) and ghost stories (“The Fog”) to Lovecraftian fables (“In the Mouth of Madness”), so it’s a testament to his filmmaking talents that his lone venture into body horror is one of the subgenre’s best titles.
1. “The Fly” (1986)
David Cronenberg is perhaps the most famous body horror filmmaker of all time. He spent two decades of his career refining the subgenre, but the film that will forever be his calling card is the masterpiece, “The Fly.” The film chronicles the harrowing existence of Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum), a scientist who accidentally mixes his DNA with a housefly and begins to transform into a grotesque amalgamation of man and insect.
Cronenberg’s instincts as a storyteller have never been sharper. He takes the cheesy premise of the original “Fly” and infuses it with the existentialism of the Kafka novel “The Metamorphosis,” resulting in a film that’s as tragic as it is gruesome. Seth is forced to take stock of his own dwindling humanity as he devolves, and the final scene, where a fully transformed Seth urges his girlfriend (Geena Davis) to kill him, is one of the most upsetting moments in all of cinema.
It’s this humanist streak, this willingness to look past the grotesque window dressing, that makes Cronenberg’s “The Fly” the finest body horror film ever released.
What are some of your favorite body horror movies? Let us know your thoughts in the comments section below or on our Twitter account.
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