There may be a handful of horror movie tropes that make me a cranky horror fan (child or animal abuse, rape... clowns), but there is really only one genre of horror that can actively make me scream, squirm, or even turn away from the screen: body horror. Body horror, also know as biological or venereal horror, has been around since horror film first graced the silver screen. You can actually trace the origin of the body horror film back to The Hands of Orlac (1924), starring the magnificent Conrad Veidt as a concert pianist who receives a hand transplant from a serial killer. It's an amazing silent movie, and memorable to be sure, but this isn't the kind of body horror that sends me running for the nearest popcorn/puke bucket.
Maybe it's because I've had more than my fair share of surgeries for a young person, but any horror film that involves cutting, slicing, tearing, ripping, or any other means of human anatomy altering, and I turn into a giant, shrieking girl. So I have collected my favorite (I use that term loosely) body horror films to share with you. These are the films that have truly scared me more deeply than even the most frightening Jason or Freddy flick. Some may not seem like traditional horror, but trust me, they will still make you twitch. Enjoy! And as always, if you have any films to share, shoot a tweet my way!
*Note: No, I have not seen The Human Centipede. And no, I never will. Because, ew.
Also known as They Came From Within, this classic from David Cronenberg wasn't just his first film, it was also an amazing allegory for STD epidemics and the dangers inherent in the "free love" era that was ending in the 70s.
The Brood (1979):
Also from Cronenberg, who was already establishing himself as the master of body horror, The Brood chronicled one woman's struggle with her inner demons... that just happened to manifest themselves outwardly as angry mutant little rage babies. Track suits would never look the same.
Is there really anyone like Cronenberg when it comes to exploding viscera? In a world where psychic power equals exploding heads, no one is really safe from the probability of ending up with a little brain on their favorite Sunday coat.
The Thing (1982):
John Carpenter's The Thing wasn't just a triumph of horror film special effects, but it was also a remarkable example of terrifying and grotesque body horror. It says something about the FX team's work that even in an age of CGI, almost nothing has topped has terror of The Thing.
More Cronenberg! The king of body horror really went for the gold (and crimson) with this biting satire of media culture swallowing humanity alive. Of all the visuals on this list, Videodrome easily features some of the most iconic.
If nothing on this list has made you squirm yet (are you made of stone??), then Stuart Gordon's Re-Animator is sure to change that. Starring genre favorite Jeffrey Combs as a medical student obsessed with reanimating dead tissue, this throwback to classic "mad scientist" horror pictures features easily one of the best disembodied head sex scenes in horror history. Yeah. You heard me.
The Fly (1986):
Jeff Goldblum + David Cronenberg = a match made in body horror heaven. Cronenberg's remake of the Vincent Price 50s classic is a visual feast for anyone who ever wondered what it would look like to see a human/fly hybrid puke acid on his food before eating it. Don't lie. We've ALL wondered that.
Tetsuo, The Iron Man (1989):
This is where our films start becoming a little more experimental in nature. A body horror classic from Japan, the visuals in this film about a man with a compulsion for sticking scrap metal into his body and a lust for revenge are easily some of the most haunting on the list. If you haven't seen Tetsuo, do it. Now.
Trouble Every Day (2001):
Fact. I hated this movie. HATED IT. With the fire of a thousand suns. I can't stand Vincent Gallo and think every single movie he is in is pretentious crap. However, this body horror about a subset of people who can only get sexually aroused when there is blood involved is a really effective body horror. As long as no one is talking. And unfortunately, navel-gazing and mumbling is 90% of the movie. But rent it and just fast forward to the horror. It's worth it.
In My Skin (2002):
In the ways Trouble Every Day failed, In My Skin totally succeeded. This French movie from Marina de Van is utterly horrifying and squirm-inducing. The movie follows a woman who becomes fixated with her body after she suffers a cut on her leg, and her increasingly obsessive behavior is paralyzingly awful. I watched the bulk of In My Skin through my fingers while yelling, "NO! OH MY... NO! STOP!," and that's saying a lot.
This delightfully sick bit of body horror is also a great twist on the "isolation" genre of horror, which makes it twice as terrifying! A young couple and an escaped convict are trapped in a gas station with a splinter parasite that takes over its host's body in an increasingly horrifying manner. For an indie horror film, the effects are spectacular, and you will never get these images out of your head.
Screw the Saw franchise. Vile is a film about horrible choices that truly gets under your skin. A group of people find themselves trapped in a house filled with everyday objects, and the only key to their escape is to hurt themselves as much as possible, reaching their absolute limit of pain. Not only does Vile test your gag reflex, but it leaves you questioning just how much you would be willing to suffer in order to survive.
The Skin I Live In (2011):
When you watch a film by Pedro Almodóvar, you never really know what you're getting, and that is never more true than with The Skin I Live In. This film isn't just a shocking bit of experimental body horror, but it also features one of the best twist endings I've ever seen in my life. If you are a fellow watching this film and not crossing your legs by then end, you might want to have your pulse your checked.
American Mary (2012):
American Mary, directed and written by the Soska twins, is a twist on the body horror genre in that it is actually about body modification. In and of itself, body mod isn't scary, but when a skilled medical student is using her abilities to exact (deserved) revenge, it's disturbing and awesome. If you haven't seen American Mary, get on it. You will fall in love.