Five Awesome Body Horror Movies
The 1970s and '80s played host to a surge of body horror movies in the USA and Canada. This was partly due to the rising popularity of David Cronenberg, who, with the likes of Shivers, The Brood and Videodrome, had set himself up as the king of the emerging sub-genre.
Now I could have just included practically the whole of Cronenberg's filmography through the '70s and '80s and that would have been an awesome list in and of itself. However, I've made sure to only include each director once to add some extra variety. So here's five awesome body horror movies.
1. The Fly (1986) - David Cronenberg
Let's get the obvious ones out of the way. I could have gone for The Brood or Videodrome but, in many ways, The Fly is a culmination of Cronenberg's work up until this point. Starring Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis, The Fly follows Goldblum's character, Seth Brundle, as he unwittingly fuses his DNA with that of a house fly, resulting in a slow and horrific transformation throughout the course of the film.
As I mentioned, The Fly is partly a mediation on Cronenberg's films prior to this. At one point, Brundle begins talking about the possible benefits of his transformation and the wonders of the "New Flesh", ideas explored in Cronenberg's earlier film, Videodrome. Meanwhile, the film picks up some of the director's previous themes, such as disease, aging, and the role that science plays in modern society.
Of course, it'd be impossible to not mention the fantastic special effects. Goldblum's transformation throughout the film looks genuinely horrific and repulsive. However, it's the performances that make it work, Geena Davis plays the role perfectly, not only do we find the transformation horrific as viewers, but we believe that she does as well. Similarly, Goldblum adds so much nuance to his character, the twitchy, fly-like movements increase as the film progresses. Not only that, even as his mental state begins to deteriorate, we still have sympathy for him, In many ways he manages to be the film's monster and a character that we identify with.
One criticism levelled at some of Cronenberg's work is that he's more interested in the ideas and themes than with the actual story and its characters. Some of his films can feel rather cold and clinical. This is why I think The Fly is perhaps his best movie and certainly his best body horror movie; you feel for the characters first and foremost, which only goes to emphasize the horror of the transformation sequences. It is, essentially, a love story, but one that involves a man mutating into a hideous fly-monster. You can't get much better than that.
2. The Thing (1982) - John Carpenter
Another relatively obvious one for horror film fans, but a movie that had to be included on the list. Unlike The Fly, The Thing was a commercial flop upon its release. Part of the reason might have been the fact that it was an alien movie released very close to Spielberg's E.T. When audiences had a choice between a family-friendly alien and a ravenous monster from outer-space, they seemed to pluck for the friendly option. What's worse is that the film didn't fare well critically either. A lot of the criticisms, funnily enough, were aimed at the alien, which they considered too bizarre and abstract to be as tangible a threat, as say, the alien in Ridley Scott's Alien.
Based on the original short story Who Goes There? by John W. Campbell, in which an American research team discover a shape-shifting alien frozen in ice, John Carpenter's film is actually the second adaptation of Campbell's material, the first being Christian Nyby's The Thing From Another World way back in 1951. Unlike, Nyby's film, Carpenter stays much more faithful to the source material, as the incredibly adaptable alien gradually makes its way through the human crew, capable of imitating them perfectly, until it is discovered, where it transforms into a horrific amalgamation of flesh, blood, mouths and tentacles.
Alongside the terrific special effects by Rob Bottin, is the fantastic touches of characterization that Carpenter gets through with each scene; not a single moment is wasted. The film is brilliantly casted, with each of the characters looking physically unique (important when a big part of your movie is about whether or not someone is an imitation), and to this day fans still speculate about when certain characters were/were not infected.
In many respects, Carpenter's The Thing is a counterblast to the ideas represented in Nyby's adaptation. Whilst The Thing From Another World used its alien menace to comment on America's fear of the Soviet Union and Communism, Carpenter's is almost the exact opposite, criticising the sense of isolation, and mistrust, that many felt during the Reagan era.
3. Re-Animator (1985) - Stuart Gordon
I could have picked either Re-Animator or From Beyond, but Re-Animator perhaps better represents Stuart Gordon's wonderfully eclectic mix of gross-out horror and surreal dark comedy. A very loose adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft's short story Herbert West - Reanimator, the film stars Jeffrey Combs as Dr Herbert West, an up-and-coming medical doctor with some rather unethical practises.
After moving in with fellow medical student Dan Cain, West continues his bizarre experiments, resulting in him reanimating a dead cat in a disturbing, but equally hilarious, scene. This is what makes Re-Animator so darn good, it knows it's ridiculous and rather than shy away from the fact, it revels in it.
It's hard to talk about a film like this since so much of what makes it so good would result in spoilers. The climax alone is fantastic, simply because no other movie would ever have the audacity to go there. Like the similar From Beyond, it's remained a cult-classic and is a must-watch for horror fans.
4. Society (1989) - Brian Yuzna
Brian Yuzna first worked as the producer on Re-Animator and From Beyond, as well as other movies with Stuart Gordon, before directing his debut film, Society. Whilst it was finished in 1989 the film didn't see release until three years later and, despite being an American movie, garnered much more attention in Europe than it did in the United States.
This is perhaps due to the film's subtext, on top of being a great body horror movie, Society is a social and political satire. In Yuzna's film, the wealthy literally do consume the poor.
Billy Warlock plays Bill Whitney, a school kid who seems to have it all; he's part of the school sports team, his girlfriend is the top cheerleader and, most importantly, his family is absurdly wealthy. However, he feels he doesn't really belong and, as he begins to investigate, finds out that his family aren't what they seem.
As with Gordon's films, Yuzna celebrates the absurdity of body horror, making references to Alice in Wonderland-style wordplay and Salvador Dali paintings, on top of the gross-out horror and biting satire. It also has what is possibly the most disgusting, yet brilliant, climax in any horror film.
It's not necessarily perfect by any means. Its pacing can lag at times and there's a sense by the end that the film could have been expanded upon. A sequel was planned, but was ultimately canned. Still, the effects rival those in both The Thing and The Fly and the film was working on a much smaller budget. The originality was commendable and, in a sub-genre that generally obsesses over science and disease, Yuzna's decision to ignore all of that, and instead stick two fingers up at modern society, was a brilliant move.
5. Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1989) - Shinya Tsukamoto
Some sub-genres are attached to certain cultures. The iconic zombie films are archetypal American movies, while cyberpunk is overwhelmingly associated with Japan. With something as diverse as body horror however, these divisions don't really work all that well. Tetsuo: The Iron Man is a testament to that.
Presented in black and white, and clocking in at only just over an hour (later versions have added a bit more to the runtime) Tetsuo: The Iron Man is a frenetic, and violent, visual overload. The most apt comparison is David Lynch's Eraserhead but even that doesn't do justice to Tsukamoto's surreal vision.
The plot is almost irrelevant to what makes Tsukamoto's film so good. An ordinary salaryman finds his body slowly being melded with technology, after coming into contact with the "Metal Fetishist", a crazed masochist, (played by Tsukamoto himself), who inserts metal objects into his body. It's an exhausting film to watch, the pace is frenetic, and the rapid editing helps hide the fact that the film was made on an incredibly small budget.
It's clearly influenced by the American body horror of the 1980s, the comparisons to Cronenberg are obvious but there's also references to comic book superheroes and Japanese monster movies, i.e. Gojira. Retrospectively, it has been considered a cyberpunk body horror film and there is clear similarities to Katsuhiro Otomo's Akira, which was released a year earlier.
Tsukamoto followed up Tetsuo: The Iron Man with a sequel Tetsuo II: Body Hammer, which is more a spiritual successor than a direct sequel. More recently he released Tetsuo: The Bullet Man, his only English language film to date. While both make for worthwhile viewing, and benefit from a much bigger budget than the original, they lack the uniqueness that Tetsuo: The Iron Man has, which is why it makes the list.
What's more, Tetsuo: The Iron Man and Tetsuo II: Body Hammer were re-released in a new DVD box-set recently, making them much easier to get a hold of, especially in Europe.