Each month the Cinelinx staff will write a handful of articles covering a specified film-related topic. These articles will be notified by the Movielinx banner. Movielinx is an exploration and discussion of our personal connections with film. This month, with Halloween on the horizon, we’re going to be examining the best horror film genres out there. Be sure to join us in the discussion and share your favorite films in each genre we discuss!
Visually, lots of horror films revel in violence, blood, and, gore. Body horror is much more than just splashing everything in red. Body horror is about making the audience cover their eyes, and scream because they don’t want what is happening onscreen to happen to them. The focus is making you uncomfortable in your own skin. It preys off of the simple idea that we are all human. We have experienced what it is like to be alive and healthy, and we mostly want to stay that way. Therefore, when we see a character in a movie experience a grotesque disfigurement, or a horrible sexual act is committed against them, that irks our inner desire for everything to be perfect. When limbs become bent in ways they are not supposed to, we cringe because we can easily imagine what that pain feels like, even if we’ve never experienced it personally. Body horror plays off of our natural reactions to unnatural bodily conditions and violations.
In relation to the horror genre in general, body horror is relatively new. Sure, some films showcased elements from the beginning (Frankenstein (1931), Nosferatu (1922)), but there weren’t films that were completely dedicated to the topic until the B-movies of the 1950’s. The Blob (1958), The Fly (1958), and The Thing from Another World (1951) were way ahead of their time, and are the sources for many remakes in the future. The 1970’s and 1980’s were the birthplace of body horror as Hollywood was shifting towards more gritty, darker perspectives. Audience’s acceptance of more obscene and grotesque material opened up the doors for creative film makers to exploit the trend and push the boundaries of what horror could be.
One such film maker was David Cronenberg, the father of modern body horror, and most frequent contributor of new material. Cronenberg’s feature debut was Shivers (1975), which paved the way for the future. Dr. Emil Hobbs is a main character who experiments with parasites in an attempt to cure humanity’s lost fascination with the flesh. In many ways, this character was a lot like Cronenberg. Instead of experimenting on people as a way to subdue his fascination with the human body like Hobbs, Cronenberg used film. Over the next two decades he would go on to experiment with film by telling stories where abnormal things happen to the human body. Even though all his films don’t revel in manipulating or exploiting the human body, Cronenberg had developed the genre more than anyone else. While very controversial at the time of their release, films like Rabid (1977), The Brood (1979), and Videodrome (1983) would influence important filmmakers in later decades and changed the landscape of horror forever.
My pick for the quintessential Cronenberg body horror film is his 1986 remake of The Fly. No, The Fly isn’t his most outrageous, most grotesque, or most controversial film, but it doesn’t have to be. Instead, The Fly is a great representation of what body horror is. For those who are curious it doesn’t have to go to the extremes that his earlier films do in order to get its point across. But don’t misunderstand, The Fly is not for the squeamish. There’s plenty of disgusting to go around. The premise is simple and easy to follow, which makes it that much more shocking. A man is slowly changing into an insect. The changes to his body are slow, but the fact that he figures out what is happening to him before it is too late makes it that much more horrible. It’s like being in a dark tunnel and seeing the light from a train barreling towards you. Like the main character, the audience is helpless to escape from the idea of the human body painfully mutating into something else. As Jeff Goldblum peels off his own fingernails, the audience clenches their hands into a fist and grinds their teeth in an attempt to make the imagined pain go away.
Not only did Cronenberg’s exploration of mutation, sex, and decay open the door to other body horror films, but it also opened the door to the possibility of other types of films showcasing body horror type elements. David Lynch’s Eraserhead (1977) uses a surreal storyline to set up a number of grotesque body horror moments, including a mutant baby, a deformed radiator lady, and the carving of a chicken as it sprays blood all over the dinner table. The facehuggers and chestbursters in Alien (1979) are some of the most cringe-worthy critters to ever grace the big screen. In Japan, two noteworthy additions to the body horror tradition both, ironically, have the same name. Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1988) tells the story of a deranged self-mutilating man whose dead body unleashes a plague of infectious bio-mechanical havoc. In Akira (1988), it’s the character named Tetsuo who becomes a nearly unstoppable mutative force of destruction.
The mere simple descriptions of these noteworthy scenes/characters are enough to make you understand their connection with the body horror sub-genre, and that’s what makes it so great. Body horror doesn’t rely on complicated build ups, witty writing, or excellent acting. Above all, it uses visuals to get its point across and “infect” the viewer, and those visuals don’t even have to be top-notch to be effective. However, in order to have the best effect on the audience, body horror is typically combined with other types to maximize the impact. In The Thing (1982) there is a psychological element associated with the blood-testing scene. An alien is occupying and portraying a human, and all of the suspicions and doubts come flooding back. In Evil Dead II (1987), Ash has to cut his own hand off because it went evil. The way that the hand is portrayed as having a mind of its own is comical yet still very disgusting and gory.
In the last decade, the body horror genre has gone to new places courtesy of the minds of a new generation of filmmakers. As body horror films are often more controversial, it is understandable that they have benefitted greatly from the growth of digital and internet distribution. Movie ideas that would have made difficult business propositions for big production companies can now be financed and reach their intended audiences through alternative avenues. Movies like Cabin Fever (2006) play homage to past horror movie successes while adding new twists to creep you out (a flesh-eating disease is passed among friends). On the other end of the spectrum, movies like The Human Centipede (2010) and Tusk (2014) push the sub-genre in a more unpredictably grotesque manner.
Body horror is all about surprising the audience, and not with a jump scare or having a character get stabbed by a grotesque monster. Body horror is all about finding something that disgusts you, and then exploiting that gag response. It uses our sense of security against us, playing off of the most universal experiences and fears. Great body horror makes audiences want to close their eyes, yet it is so engaging that they can’t turn away. It tricks you into wanting to watch something that is truly nightmare-inducing.