“We’ve all got the disease – the disease of being finite. Death is the basis of all horror.” – David Cronenberg
No genre can be categorised and ordered quite like horror, with several sub-genres each tailored to every individuals’ particular fears and existential terrors. Though the sub-genre of body horror may seem like the most fantastical of all, depicting horrifying tales of twisted tentacles and contorted bodies, there is an inherent truth to this gooey form of storytelling that is inextricably tied to the psychological fears of everyday life.
Pioneered and mastered by the Canadian filmmaker David Cronenberg through the 1970s and ‘80s, body horror existed long before the horror boom of the late 20th century, with stories of physical human manipulation going back to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Although Cronenberg would later popularise the sub-genre with the likes of The Fly, Videodrome, The Brood, Rabid and Shivers, body horror has long existed in the insecurities of every human in existence.
A reminder of one’s own mortality and physical fallibility, body horror demonstrates the faults of the fleshy human body and highlights just how susceptible we are to psychological and physical manipulation. As an unfortunate victim begins to lose their physical identity and psychological sanity the true emotional and visceral terror of body horror comes to life. From Cronenberg to Roman Polanski to Katsuhiro Otomo, let’s look into six definitive films of the body horror sub-genre.
Body horror’s six definitive films:
Rosemary’s Baby (Roman Polanski, 1968)
As we’ve previously established, body horror had existed long before the likes of David Cronenberg popularised the sub-genre in the 1980s, coming into the mainstream film market in the 1950s with the release of The Blob and The Fly directed by Kurt Neumann.
Just over a decade later, it was the release of Roman Polanski’s horror classic Rosemary’s Baby that would renew interest in the gruesome sub-genre, with the subtle psychological terror playing on the fears of motherhood and one’s ownership over their own body. Tapping into the innate fear of physical transition, Polanski positions the audience in a space of true fear beside Mia Farrow’s Rosemary as he brings early body horror to the mainstream.
Re-Animator (Stuart Gordon, 1985)
Subtle in its delivery, Rosemary’s Baby was a gentle exploration of body horror that focused more on psychological torment than of physical, gruesome change, with slasher tendencies of ‘80s horror encouraging an entirely new perspective on body horror.
Even before the slasher revolution horror had been leading to such fleshy gruesome truths, with David Lynch’s surreal psychological horror Eraserhead being infused with gunky imagery and characters of bizarre appearance upon its release in 1977. John Carpenter also had his hand in the evolution of the sub-genre with his horror remake of The Thing in1982 utilising themes of identity and human fallibility in his cosmic terror.
It was Re-Animator that truly embraced the whole concept of body horror, however, committing to its eccentric, gory and playful nature, telling the story of a medical student who becomes obsessed with bringing dead flesh back to life. Bringing the sub-genre back to the origins of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Stuart Gordon’s film satirically toyed with the concept of a scientist playing God who uses the human body as a playground.
The Fly (David Cronenberg, 1986)
Undoubtedly it was David Cronenberg who had the most significant effect on body horror during the 1980s, having honed his craft with several releases before 1986s The Fly including Shivers in 1973 and the enigmatic Videodrome in 1983.
By the mid-1980s, the Canadian director’s taste for fleshy, mind-bending body horror was well established, with his remake of The Fly being his most definitive of the history of the sub-genre, well exploring the emotional and physical torment that goes hand-in-hand with the identity of the movement. Starring Jeff Goldblum, the film follows the experiments of a scientist trying to push the limits of human discovery only to become the victim of his own endeavours.
Once again exploring the nature of science and human exploration, Cronenberg differs from Gordon’s Re-Animator with a more serious take on the subject matter that positions the protagonist as a self-destructive figure with a god complex.
Society (Brian Yuzna, 1989)
By the end of the horror boom of the 1980s, body horror was now commonplace, with Cronenberg pioneering the movement as a method of telling psychologically intricate tales of complicated individuals, whilst Stuart Gordon had led it down a more cosmic Lovecraftian path.
Inspired by both these paths, Gordon’s production partner Brian Yuzna went on to make Society, a film with roots in both these paths of the sub-genre. Gooey, dark, satirical and yet genuinely quite disturbing, Yuzna’s film follows a teenage boy living in American suburbia who discovers his family is part of a gruesome cult for the social elite.
Overshadowed by its spectacular, jaw-dropping final sequence, at its heart Society is a coming-of-age tale about the adolescent transition, illustrating, albeit extremely graphically, the alienation one feels from their community during their teenage years.
Tetsuo: The Iron Man (Shin’ya Tsukamoto, 1989)
At the turn of the decade, body horror made its way overseas as the influence of Western horror truly became truly felt, slowly becoming a universal way of telling stories of psychological and physical transition.
Sadomasochistic and visceral disturbing, Hellraiser from British director Clive Barker was pioneering in such efforts, whilst Japan was also flirting with the sub-genre, evident in the influential 1988 anime Akira as well as the cult horror Tetsuo: The Iron Man. A favourite of director Quentin Tarantino, Shin’ya Tsukamoto’s film follows a businessman who becomes a grotesque hybrid of flesh and metal after killing The Metal Fetishist.
Inextricably tied with the influx of technological systems that were beginning to invade culture at the end of the 20th century, Tsukamoto’s film had a prophetic, if surreal, impression of the future, playing on the fears of being infused with cold, hard, austere steel.
Teeth (Mitchell Lichtenstein, 2007)
Body horror reached over to Australia in the 1990s, with Peter Jackson taking to the genre with style with the release of Braindead in 1992 whilst Body Melt also lent its gruesome hand to body horror in 1993.
The turn of the new century brought pastiche, as Eli Roth combined slasher tropes and body horror with Cabin Fever, James Gunn reacted to the likes of Shivers with a similar horror film of his own in Slither and Tom Six disturbed audiences with his own take on torture porn with The Human Centipede. It was the release of Teeth in 2007 that would introduce the most interesting deviation from the formula, however, reskinning the sub-genre in new coming-of-age clothes.
Sure, Society had touched on similar themes decades earlier, though Teeth was far more sincere in its delivery, telling the story of a high-school student who is still coming to terms with changes in her own body. Becoming the subject of male violence, Teeth becomes a surprising comment on female empowerment as the film’s protagonist takes control of her unique physical attributes and walks confidently toward adulthood.
This has become heightened in recent years with the release of Raw from Cannes-winner Julia Ducournau as well as Blue My Mind from Lisa Brühlmann, with both films focusing on female puberty and physical transformation. Though on the surface, body horror may seem like an excuse to play with movie prosthetics, deep down it is a deeply visceral form of storytelling that pierces the very anxieties and fears of physical and emotional change.