I’ll be the first to say that body horror, or horror that relies on the graphic destruction or modification of the body, isn’t my favourite subgenre. I prefer to think of it as a natural preference for more cerebral fare, but most likely I’m just squeamish. Fans of gore and guts and other gross things have, however, over the years been well catered to, and here are a few titles that take up the body horror mantle with creativity and skill.
David Lynch, 1977
The Story: Henry Spencer lives in a bleak urban landscape, and we meet him as he is returning home with some groceries. That night, he goes to his girlfriend Mary X’s house to have dinner with her and her parents. He is informed that Mary has had their child, and that he must now care for the two of them. The child, a swaddled being with a skinless, inhuman face, cries incessantly and, when Mary abandons them, it’s up to Spencer to care for the creature that becomes more and more of a burden as time goes on.
Why you should watch it: Though it bears little resemblance to Lynch’s more famous work, Eraserhead, his first feature film, gives rise to the surrealism and densely woven layers of meaning the director is known for. The film is visually stunning (because of, and in addition to, the mystery surrounding how the child’s effects were created) and delves into the themes of sex and fatherhood in fascinating ways.
Horrors of Malformed Men
Teruo Ishii, 1969
The Story: Hirosuke Hitomi is a young amnesiac doctor imprisoned in an insane asylum. He escapes and meets a mysterious girl who sings a lullaby that reminds him of his past. Hirosuke heads to the coast where the song originated and finds that he bears a striking resemblance to a recently deceased man. Assuming his identity, he goes in search of the man’s father, who lives on a secluded island where gruesome experiments on kidnapped victims are performed.
Why you should watch it: It’s difficult to describe this film, as plot takes a decided backseat to aesthetics and exploitation-levels of sex and violence. Mashing together several Edogawa Ranpo mystery stories with The Island of Dr. Moreau and a post-Hiroshima fixation on deformity, Horrors of Malformed Men is a heady, psychedelic plunge into the grotesque. It’s a go-to if you’re looking for something pinky violent (60s and 70s Japanese action films with eroticized bad girls) or ero-guro (an artistic movement that focuses on erotic corruption and decadence). The film also stars Hijikata Tatsumi, one of the founders of butoh—a dance and performance form engaged with the bizarre and the taboo. It’s his particular movement style that makes the film truly unique.
Dead Alive (Braindead in New Zealand)
Peter Jackson, 1993
The Story: A dangerous Sumatran rat-monkey is captured by a team of explorers and shipped off to the Wellington Zoo, but not before the “natives” (yikes) demand its return, afraid of the creature’s power. Years later, shopgirl Paquita falls in love with Lionel Cosgrove, who’s domineering mother Vera attempts to sabotage the match while the happy couple is out at the zoo. She is bitten by the rat-monkey and promptly becomes a zombie, which triggers an unfortunate series of events culminating in a gore-filled final bloodbath.
Why you should watch it: It’s beyond me how anyone watched this and thought “yep, this dude should definitely direct a multi-million dollar Lord of the Rings franchise.” This movie is everything LOTR is not. It’s campy, unserious, low-budget, and non-sensical. It’s also funny, entertaining, and very, very gross. If you’re in the mood for a film where the gallons of fake blood outnumber the cast 100:1, this is your best bet. Just don’t expect to be hungry afterward.
David Cronenberg, 1991
The Story: William Lee is an exterminator whose wife Joan is stealing his insecticide to use as a drug. When he is arrested, he begins to hallucinate from exposure to the bug powder and believes himself to be a secret agent. His two “handlers” are an insectoid typewriter and an alien “mugwump” who tell him he must assassinate Joan. He accidentally kills her before fleeing to the Interzone, where he writes up reports to his handlers. The reports become the basis for a novel, and things only get stranger and more mind-bending from there.
Why you should watch it: It takes some serious chops to adapt a William S. Burroughs novel, and somehow Naked Lunch manages to take the surrealist, meandering source material and make it work just as well on the screen. The end product is the (highly fictionalized) story of how Burroughs came to write the novel, and though it’s maybe not as graphic as the other films on this list, Naked Lunch is no slouch when it comes to the eerie mugwumps and a uncomfortably squirming sex creature.
Mitchell Lichtenstein, 2008
The Story: Dawn O’Keefe is a teenaged spokesperson for a Christian abstinence group when she is introduced to Tobey, a boy who shares her values. The two quickly develop a mutual attraction and meet at a local swimming hole. There they begin to kiss, but when Dawn grows uncomfortable and wishes to stop, Tobey becomes violent, causing her to hit her head and lose consciousness. Tobey takes the opportunity to rape her, but soon realizes that something is very wrong: Dawn’s vagina has teeth, and doesn’t take kindly to intruders. Dawn slowly begins to investigate what is happening to her, and may be able to use her condition to her advantage.
Why you should watch it: If severed penises aren’t enough body horror for you I think you’re on a whole other level than I am. The rape revenge fantasy is a well-trodden theme in horror films, and by playing on vagina dentata folktales, Teeth manages to do it in a new way that avoids getting too dark. The film does deal with sexual assault (and, heads up, shows it happening), but never fails to be centred on Dawn’s experience, her trauma, and her growing control over her power. There are also comedic moments, if you can believe it.