Person, place or thing. They can all be sensationalized, brutalized and objectified. Dominating the conversation regarding the person can usually be found in the hands of the male gaze: depicting the female body and personality as an object for men to view, own, and conquer.
But we can't dissect how often that particular gaze pervades without touching upon the embryonic ogle of the dehumanizing Side Show Era. As early as the late 15th Century, rarities (to some who traveled outside of their bubble to colonize) and body variations moved out of the medical theater and into the mainstream as an in-person event.
What Dr. John Woolf cited in his book The Wonders: Lifting the Curtain on the Freak Show, Circus and Victorian Age as "deformatory mania", the interest in biological rarities was fervent as a pastime, a night out, a….family outing. And you can give him a show tune and a fictional sobworthy back story, but no one did less for this community than Phineas Taylor Barnum and the profiteers of the "Freak Show" era. Barnum's astonishing levels of exploitation knew no bounds, and his harsh treatment, financial abuse and living conditions for his "troupe" are stories of evil legend, and before my blood boils to the point of throwing something through a plate glass window, I digress.
Our bodies' far-reaching capabilities, nuances, possibilities, idiosyncrasies and anomalies captivate us wholly, and in this perpetual need to view it comfortably from behind the curtain, the back row or the front, the preoccupation with all things humanly pulverizing has a permanent seat at the horror table. And for good reason.
Let's take this, by no means exhaustive, body horror pie and slice it in five different ways, not only to break down the oft gauche tropes that lay heavily within body horror films but to classify them for your future viewing pleasure. And as someone who never likes to yuck someone's yum, there's a little morsel here for everyone.
Those in the mood for Medical Meddling
We're all pretty familiar with this trope sliding into Science Fiction's DMs. But there's nothing cooler and scarier than asking, "What if?" and then getting your ass handed to you.
James Whale's Frankenstein is one of my earliest horror memories, so of course, I'll stick it here. But what I find completely fascinating is the inspiration for the connection of various body parts had to come from the "Freak Show" Era, the pulling together of symbolic pieces that make us all human, purposes and appendages we can't (we can) live without. I don't think we can base the monster fully on Shelley's source material because any way you slice it, she isn't specific – she's basically describing head cheese.
And no knock to Shelley, far from it. No one did more in this era than her for mind-cracking Sci-Fi horror, no matter what the Voltaire stans try to tell you. In Whale's incantation, you've got a foxy Colin Clive as Henry Frankenstein, curmudgeonly muddling through life away from friends and family to develop his greatest creation, a live human from dead pieces.
He's very fussy about the title "reanimation," so we'll give him the benefit of the doubt, and it's all fine until wet-blanket Dr. Waldron explains that the brain he stole from his lab to complete this creature was abnormal, belonging to an insane criminal. We can chalk this film up to "it's what's inside that counts" because it's really going to go one of two ways – let him be a homicidal maniac or treat him with kindness. Spoiler: it's maniac – er sort of.
Those in the mood for Death by Disfigurement
Beauty is flesh deep and bone deep here. It's a currency and without it you're broke, and dangerous, and unwanted.
Finally posted completely uncensored as of 2007, this Lovecraftian ruffian is an incredible slice of "if we took that and this and did this……". Herbert West (Jeffrey Combs) arrives at Miskatonic University's New England campus after an experiment to outwit death goes horribly awry in Switzerland. Eager to continue his search for reanimation of dead tissue, West talks his roommate Dan Cain (Bruce Abbott) and his reluctant fiancée, and incidentally, the Dean's daughter, Megan Halsey (Barbara Crampton), into his folly of experiments.
Catching the wrong side of faculty member Dr. Hill, who West believes stole his theory on brain death from his previous mentor, Dr. Gruber, turns West's thirst into overdrive. Hill is obsessed with Megan, leading us to one of the most censored moments in horror cinema. I won't delve too deep because Google is free, but there are folks in the angry camp that dismayed this particular scene, but I think Barbara handles it well, and it's an incredible pearl-clutching scene, but in addition to a zombie with a bone saw, a super sweet shovel decapitation and several other "ugh ahh" kills, Re-Animator has earned its place in my top ten body horror flicks.
You can't spell body horror without David Cronenberg. I mean, you can, but…. In Rabid, a young patient develops a taste for blood after an experimental plastic surgery, naturally. Those who succumb to her rampage turn into bloodthirsty zombies creating a rampant epidemic. From front to back, this film has it all. Poor Rose (Marilyn Chambers) is a victim of a freak street accident, a collision of her boyfriend Hart's motorcycle with a minivan, pinning her underneath and causing grave injuries. While her boyfriend appears virtually unscathed, Rose remains in a coma until, one day, she awakens screaming.
A nurse attempts to subdue her and she injures him, paralyzing his right side. The cool thing she notices, though, is an ardent taste for human blood and an awe-inducing phallic spike protruding from her underarm to subdue her victims. There's a lot of vomit, blood and mouth foaming in this film, but it's an incredible payoff for a body horror/epidemic story. Rose does try to do right, and events spin out of control, but the fantastical thing is that Rose is as much an antidote as an antagonist. Brava!
Beyond the Darkness (1979)
Very few films get me recoiling quite like Beyond the Darkness, it's a gore-laden, messy and uncomfortable joyride. Frank (Kieran Canter), a young taxidermist, has recently lost his fiancée Anna (Cinzia Monreale) to a mysterious illness and is comforted by his wet nurse (side eye) and housekeeper Iris (Franca Stoppi). Unable to cope, Frank exhumes his lover and props her up in his villa to keep him company forever but trust me, that's not where the weird kicks in.
Iris is a constant companion to Frank in all his trappings of grief, including taking wet nurse VERY seriously and being an, erm, handy-woman. And she's not too happy about Anna's body hanging around. Frank takes it further by picking up joggers, hitchhikers, and disco patrons and brutally torturing and dismembering them in a quest to find a live replacement for poor Anna. Disemboweling, decapitations, and degradations are strong with this one. Eat light beforehand.
Those in the mood for Womb Horror
There are few things more frightening than pregnancy, childbirth and motherhood. So much can go wrong and fall apart. What's excellent about the following films is that all that terror is replaced by the female protagonist really grasping hold of it and scaring the living daylights out of everyone else.
Onibaba (Demon Hag) (1964)
Nobuko (Nobuko Otowa) and Jitsuko (Jitsuko Yoshimura), wife to Nobuko's son, are on a Thelma and Louise-type jag with a little pillaging and murder thrown in and the two women sell off the belongings of samurai they kill. While one is having an affair with their neighbor, the other woman meets a mysterious samurai wearing a bizarre mask. Now this is really a case of mess around and find out, but I like what's displayed in the jealousy aspect here.
Jitsuko is propositioned by Hachi (Kei Satô), the man known to be responsible for her husband's death, and falls victim to his wiles (sighs in male gaze), and the two take their evenings together. Nobuko's not having it and attempts to seduce Hachi herself but is rebuffed. After finding a wounded soldier in a field, Nobuko tricks the man into falling to his death, stealing his belongings, including his Hannya mask. Nobuko tries it on for size to frighten Jitsuko into staying away from Hachi, as she can't murder and rob alone, but as the rain falls, the mask is impossible to remove.
Nobuko confesses her plan to keep Jitsuko tied to her via the mask play, but as the mask is pulled off, Nobuko is horribly disfigured. The film is rich in metaphors about beauty, honor and ageism, and the practical makeup is pretty killer.
Those in the mood for Malevolent Mutilation
On point and on purpose with this one. Body alteration and mutilation are a lot of our worst nightmares, and these kills base themselves on morality, melancholy and mayhem.
The Toolbox Murders (1978)
This video nasty starts off with a bang and a drill bit. In The Toolbox Murders, a ski-masked maniac kills apartment complex tenants with the contents of a toolbox. Why nobody moves out of this den of death, we'll never know, but the body count is stupendous, and the sexualization and objectification of 99.9% of the victims is on 11. It's filled to the brim with an assorted cast of characters on the brink of discovering the killer at all times, of grief and its trauma, and an extreme lack of agency for its female characters, but if you're in the mood for kill after monstrous kill, this is your one-stop shop.
Cronenberg's demonstration of the fear of being spooked and controlled by the airwaves, Videodrome is also an incredibly punctual account of the pushback and crackdown of the porn industry in the United States around that time. The film finds Max Renn (James Woods), the small-town TV channel President of Civic-83, a channel that specializes in soft-core sex, searching for more extreme sex and violence to quench his dry ratings and becomes quite taken by a new snuff broadcast with no real roots.
His radio personality girlfriend, Nikki Brand (Debbie Harry), finds light mutilation sexually inspiring and enjoys this new broadcast. Finding out the broadcast is local, Renn sets his sights on purchasing it by any means necessary, and the price increases as he encounters each of those involved with the broadcast. Carnal, magically lit, and beastly, Videodrome gives insatiable acts of body horror pleasure: VCR vaginas, suctioning televisions, and belly slits to rival Ming the Merciless.
The Thing (1982)
Hands down, my absolute favorite Sci-Fi body horror. "But there's Alien," you say. Yes. Yes, there is. A research team in an Antarctic outpost is hunted by a shape-shifting alien that assumes the appearance of its victims. Splendid. What's so lovely about this John Carpenter creation is that it's a fishbowl look at disquietude within mass hysteria. No one is safe or trusted, and everyone is a suspect. This small island of misfit toys, in due course, reluctantly led by MacReady (Kurt Russell) and joined by Dr. Blair (Wilford Brimley), Childs (Keith David), Norris (Charles Hallahan) and more, is already on the brink of cracking.
Long days with no real entertainment other than each other can grow stale. So when the crew from a Norwegian research base comes buzzing in after a dog, guns blazing, the American crew of Outpost 31 are puzzled and accidentally shoot one of the men in self-defense. Needing to know what all the fuss is about, the crew explores the Norwegian aircraft to find a twisted and frozen body of a being inside, and never to leave well enough alone, they bring it back to base to dissect with Fido in tow. And that's when things start to get weird.
As the new doggo gets bunked in with the crew's resident dogs, they can sense that boy ain't from around here, and they angrily recede. The new dog begins to morph into a tentacled crustacean type deal and attacks the other dogs setting off a chain of events so anxiety-inducing, the pace and the pangs of fear are almost too much. Rob Bottin's practical effects sell the hell out of this creating nightmares so vivid I'm terrified of Alaskan Malamutes to this day.
The Brood (1979)
Another Cronenberg coming in hot, not the last, but I'm sure you expected that. In this ode to the disillusion of marriage and the melancholic state of reasoning with love gone wrong, The Brood takes on patriarchal punishments, the hysterical woman trope and the body horror of birth in all its forms. Frank Carveth (Art Hinkle) tries to uncover the odd and unnerving techniques being used on his institutionalized wife Nola (Nancy Eggar) by Dr. Hal Raglan (Oliver Reed) amidst a series of brutal murders.
The technique, which Raglan reveals, is called Psychoplasmics, where the body will manifest rage through marks and welts in the skin. After a visit with Nola, these welts appear on the Carveth's daughter Candy, sending Frank into a rage against Raglan's treatments as well as Nola, but Raglan persuades Frank to continue the treatments.
The treatment manifestations create havoc, and very small beings that set off on a murderous rampage via Nola's rage and the intense anxiety of the film is sheer magic. The final fourth of the film reveals the source of the killings, and Nola is more than happy to present her Brood to Frank. 10/10. No notes.
Those in the mood for Gorn
It's a lush joyride of crazy kills, shock and awe, squeamish shouting at the screen and some good ol' sex thrown in.
The first and only Horror/Comedy (at least to me) on the list is James Gunn's fun little take on small-town naiveté. Middle-Class Fancy frontman Grant Grant (Michael Rooker) is taken over by an alien plague, and his quest to breed turns the residents of Wheely, South Carolina into zombies and all forms of mutant monsters. His wife Starla (Elizabeth Banks) bubble-headedly thinks that something's gotten into Grant as he slowly mutates into a hideous monster.
Grant chooses random Wheely resident, Brenda, to breed his many larvae, which she reluctantly obliges in heft. As her ample belly explodes, all the Wheely citizens become infected save for Starla, Mayor MacReady, no relation to above (Gregg Henry), Police Chief Bill Pardy (Nathan Fillion) and teenager Kylie Strutemyer (Tania Saulnier). It's four against the town. Terrible odds, especially since Grant is still in love with Starla even in his grotesque state and will do anything to be reunited with her…which puts a strain on things. This is quite a bit of fun if you need a little brevity with your gut-busting.
Whether it be unsettling, engrossing, or just gross, Body Horror rules as a subgenre, and its heartbeat travels through all the rest of the subgenres in one way or another. You can't have a Creepy Kid film without the child doing something terrible to someone, like slicing an ankle or mouth with a scalpel à la Gage in Pet Semetary, or the removal of an appendage for an escape like Lawrence Gordon's foot in a Psychological Isolation Horror like Saw or the permeation of evil scarring the face with sores and the violent abuse on the body in a Possession Horror like The Exorcist. It's squirm and scream-inducing, we've established that, but to me, it's never enough.
Julia Ducournau's incredible follow-up film to 2016's RAW, Titane is graphic, sexual, and leaves you wanting more. After a car accident leaves young Alexia severely scarred with a titanium plate fitted into her head, her passion for vehicles grows exponentially as does her thirst for bloodshed. Now an adult, Alexia (Agathe Rousselle) works as a dancer at a motor show.
Accosted and forcibly kissed by a patron after her performance, Alexia makes quick work of him and realizes the car she performed on earlier has, ahem, turned on by itself. Alexia has her way with the car resulting in, you guessed it, pregnancy. What follows is all-out carnage complete with parental asphyxiation via fire, house party bust-ups, nose-breaking, and taking full advantage of a grieving man. Rouselle is phenomenal as exhausted yet driven Alexia, and she goes so full-bore into scenes that it's hard not to cheer for her.
Those in the mood for Alien Parasite Dynamite
Something so small can wreak so much havoc.