There are seven in a half billion people on this planet. Within first world countries the average life span is roughly eighty years or 2,522,880,000 seconds. That’s over two billion seconds spent trapped inside of the same vehicle of flesh, blood and bone that is hurtling towards an inevitable collusion with death. While to some this vehicle is a temple, it is more often than not self destructs with disease and sickness constituently topping cause of death lists. We’re terrified of our bodies – it’s no surprise that we seeked out human oddities to put on display, a means of vicariously exploring that fear. In the modern age we no longer frequent circuses and sideshows but cinemas and television screens so it’s no surprise that we’ve found a way to explore our bodily fears on celluloid. We’ll explore the body-horror subgenre by exploring the three primary ways that filmmakers have assaulted the physicality of human existence: Transformation; Destruction; and Sickness.
SICKNESS: The number one killer of human beings is, surprisingly, not as well represented on screen as transformation or destruction of the body is. That said, it’s important to note that many of the films within body horror flirt with multiple categories; this means that while a film like Cabin Fever (2002) primarily focuses on sickness – in this case a flesh eating bacteria that slowly eats away at the protagonists – it also nominally falls under destruction due to the end result that sickness achieves. For another example, Thinner (1996) could easily fall under transformation but the horror at hand, a man loosing weight no matter what he eats, serves as a representation of illness – in function if not in minutia. Some films fall clearly within this category like the disgusting Contracted (2013) or the wonderfully hypnotic Antiviral (2012, which I implore you to find and watch yourself). Some of the films that manage to fall within the category are rather surprising: Rosemary’s Baby (1968) could be argued to fit and Teeth (2007), while far reaching, could also be nominally placed within sickness.
On one hand, it’s surprising at how few movies fall within the sickness category as their primary locus of body horror. However, when you think about the purpose of film – to be watched, a cinematic art – it starts to make sense. While sickness may be the largest killer of human beings, it is far from the most entertaining. More often than not it confines you to a bed and eats away slowly. It could be argued with some merit that Bergman’s Cries and Whispers (1972) has been the most accurate portrayal of sickness related body horror put to film.
DESTRUCTION: While sickness eats away slowly at the body, the films that focus on the destruction of the body do so in a more overt way. As previously noted, films such as Cabin Fever flirt with the destruction category by virtue of the end result but it is the journey through sickness to that end that the film highlights. In contrast, a film like The Blob (1988) or Street Trash (1987) focus entirely on a bodies that are dissolved into a goo, the body reduced to waste. The Incredible Melting Man (1977) combined sickness, transformation and destruction together but the special effects work highlights the destructive aspect the most. From Beyond (1986) combined transformation and destruction to equal terms with gruesome effects that called ahead to Brian Yuzna – producer of From Beyond – next film: Society (1989); Society, while serving as a metaphor of classism, shifts the boundaries of the human form by combining multiple bodies into a grotesque perversion of flesh in a scene – the “shunting – that would be payed homage to in Slither (2006).
The destruction of the human form is mesmerizing. It plays off the same urges that cause us to slow down when passing by a car crash or that draw our eyes towards amputations. We’re taught not to ask, not to stare but with the destruction body horror film we are invited to give into those urges and to vicariously explore the limitations and perversions that the human body can undergo. Not only that but the style also allows for special effects artists to tackle more extensive and challenging effects – effects which are often only beaten by the next and final category of body horror films.
TRANSFORMATION: The special effects work for destruction more often than not fails in comparison to the transformation body horror and it is the creativity allows the transformation body horror that is responsible. Films like Cronenberg’s The Fly (1986) may have a foot in the destruction door but the highlight of the film is the slow transformation of man into man-fly and, later, man-fly-metal door (it’s….complicated). Cronenberg’s Rabid (1977) is just a dressed up zombie film (not an insult), which in and of itself is a kind of transformation body horror but it’s the bonus addition of the phallic object grafted to Marilyn Chambers that truly pushes it over the precipice of transformation. Zombie films can be classified as sickness or transformation body horror but I would argue that the zombie films serves as horror primarily on metaphysical/spiritual level rather than the physical of the body. The Human Centipede (2009) and The Skin I Live In (2011) ground themselves in transformation through a medical approach. Werewolf movies like The Howling and An American Werewolf in London (both 1981) have moments of explicit body horror included in their transformation sequences by foregrounding the physical aspects of the change in the centre of the screen.
The creativity afforded to special effects artists such as Rick Baker (Videodrome (1983) and An American Werewolf in London), Rob Bottin (The Thing (1982) and The Howling) and Chris Walas (The Fly) allow for a level of visual amazement that surpasses that of the destruction body horror and brings a sense of horrific, visceral wonder to the films of the transformation body horror.