In anticipation for the Year’s Best Body Horror 2017 Anthology, we at Gehenna & Hinnom want to present a series of articles highlighting the history and impact of the genre of Body Horror.
First, let’s define the genre. According to Wikipedia:
Body horror, biological horror, organic horror or visceral horror is horror fiction in which the horror is principally derived from the graphic destruction or degeneration of the body. Such works may deal with decay, disease, parasitism, mutation, or mutilation. Other types of body horror include unnatural movements, or the anatomically incorrect placement of limbs to create “monsters” from human body parts. David Cronenberg, Frank Henenlotter, Brian Yuzna, Stuart Gordon, Lloyd Kaufman, and Clive Barker are notable directors of this genre. The term body horror was coined with the “Body Horror” theme issue of the University of Glasgow film journal Screen (vol. 27, no. 1, January–February 1986), containing several essays on the subject.
The sub-genre of body horror has been around for over a half-century. Early examples of the genre in film include The Blob (1958) and The Fly (1958). Both of these films were eventually remade in the 1980s, the former in 1988 and the latter 1989. The pair of films would go to set the standard for body horror, practical effects, and the horrors of mutilation becoming the epicenter of the genre.
Body horror experienced a popularity spike ten years later with Roman Polanski’s iconic film Rosemary’s Baby (1968). The film explored the fears mother’s experience while pregnant and postpartum. In one of the more famous scenes, Rosemary is seduced in a dream by what is implied to be none other than Satan himself. The movie went on to become a financial and critical success while also fostering a new passion for body horror in mainstream cinema.
Nearly a decade after the release of Rosemary’s Baby, a young director named David Lynch who would become known as one of the greats of surrealist horror, released the body horror spectacle Eraserhead (1977). Following the trail of protagonist Henry Spencer (played by the late Jack Nance) as he copes with the role of caretaker for his screaming, deformed child in a strange industrial landscape, Eraserhead set the stage for the 1980s. The decade that many fans find to be the heyday of modern body horror.
Two other notable films that are considered science fiction/horror rather than body horror that held precedence in the genre before the 1980s arrived were Philip Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) and Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979).
Invasion of the Body Snatchers explores the very real fear of people close to you not being who they really are. The paranoia incorporated throughout the film accompanied with Donald Sutherland’s classic performance mark this film as not only a classic, but one of the greatest remakes of all time.
Scott’s Alien delves into subliminal sexual fears, considering the eponymous monster’s design and the concept of the face-huggers raping and impregnating their victims. The infamous chest-burster scene was filmed without the cast knowing what was going to happen to the late John Hurt’s character, meaning all of the horrified reactions were one hundred percent authentic. The film explored themes of rape and sexual mutilation, while also launching the science fiction/horror genre into the spotlight.
An honorable mention goes out to The Brood (1979). One of the legendary David Cronenberg’s first body horror films, the movie delved into disturbing scenarios regarding pregnancy and evil children . . . not to mention eating fetuses.
In what many consider to be the defining decade of the body horror genre, the 1980s provided nearly every film that we consider to be “classics” of the genre.
In 1980, a film that very few moviegoers seem to know about was released. Enter Altered States (1980). The film debut of William Hurt and Drew Barrymore, and directed by Ken Russell, Altered States follows a college professor who is trying to use a combination of drugs and a sense deprivation tank, to ascend this plane of existence and reality. The film offers a plot and themes that are entirely original. Though some of the effects might be outdated by today’s standards, the overall effect of the film and the delving into madness stands the test of time.
Sharing Lovecraftian themes with body horror, Sam Raimi’s classic horror feature The Evil Dead (1981) was released on a micro budget and earned not only financial success but a cult following that is lasting still to this day. Spawning two sequels and a gory 2013 remake, The Evil Dead stands the test of time. It also features body horror in the characters of the deadites, as well as an iconic scene with a tree that was expanded upon with its successor Evil Dead 2 and the 2013 remake Evil Dead.
Also released in 1981, a film that cemented David Cronenberg as not only an authority in horror, but THE pioneering director of body horror, Scanners (1981) shocked audiences with its famous “head exploding scene.” The battle at the end of the film between the two “scanners” is an epic showdown in and of itself but also a radical display of practical effects and visual visceral horror.
Director John Carpenter had already been known to deliver horrifying films before 1982 rolled around, giving us classics like Halloween (1978). Yet it wasn’t until 1982 that audiences were brought perhaps the most iconic science fiction/horror and body horror film ever made. The Thing (1982) preyed on the fears of isolation, and similar to Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the fear of those close to you not being who you think they are. The use of practical effects in The Thing started what some consider to be a revolution, marking the beginning of the 1980s as an important and iconic time for horror films. Boasting some of the most memorable scenarios in horror today and carrying an ambiguous, haunting ending, The Thing is just as mortifying today as it was when it first released to cinemas 35 years ago.
David Cronenberg returned to the mantle of body horror master two years after Scanners and released the classic Videodrome (1983), starring James Woods. There are several themes circumventing throughout Videodrome, all of them very interesting and captivating. Sadomasochism. Extreme violence. Sexual taboo. Loss of self-control. Fear of technology. Paranoia of government establishments. Sleeper agents. Assassination attempts. Loss of time. The film has no shortage of disturbing themes or imagery, most notably a scene where protagonist Max Renn (played by Woods) pulls a gun out of his stomach. “Long live the new flesh.”
H.P. Lovecraft could be considered by some to be the creator of body horror. His stories often delved into realms disturbing and carnal. There were several adaptations of his work during the mid-1980s and continuing on into the 1990s. One of the films that always comes to mind when discussing Lovecraft adaptations is The Re-Animator (1985). The film follows Herbert West as he creates a formula to bring back the dead. Based on the classic story by Lovecraft, the film is more black comedy than horror, though it provides some authentically disturbing body horror sequences. Let’s not talk about the decapitated head performing oral sex on a woman. Damn. We just kind of did.
The return of director Stuart Gordon (of Re-Animator fame) saw the filmmaker adapting yet another Lovecraft tale with his film From Beyond (1986). Once again focusing on the cosmic horror themes of Lovecraftian fiction, the film follows Dr. Edward Pretorius (Ted Sorel) and Dr. Crawford Tillinghast (Jeffrey Combs) as they create a piece of technology called “The Resonator” that stimulates the pineal gland and allows them to meld horrific dimensions into our own. The film featured some campy but effective body horror, not as memorable as the early 1980s, but still significant for the genre.
A director who began as a novelist, Clive Barker is a talented individual in many fields. His novels are perhaps the most important body horror in literature and have developed a massive cult following, spawning entire franchises. Between Hellraiser (1987), Nightbreed (1990), and Candyman (1992), Barker is one of the most renown voices in horror cinema, with a continued fascination of body horror in all of his work. Hellraiser is seen by many as a standing achievement in horror cinema. The Cenobites have become a part of horror culture and the character of Pinhead is nothing but iconic. With themes of surrealism, supernatural horror, body horror, self-mutilation, and sadomasochism, the practical effects in Hellraiser effective to this day and the original film still remains one of the crowning works of horror.
Across the sea, a new wave of high-quality filmmaking was reaching a peak with the arrival of Akira (1988) in Japan. Following characters Tetsuo and Kaneda as they traverse Neo Tokyo with their biker gang before Tetsuo becomes part of a government experiment. The experiment in question gives Tetsuo the powers of a god. Imagine someone who has always been last, always been bullied and stepped on. Now imagine that person gaining the ability to do literally anything. Manipulate matter. Invulnerability. Super strength. Telekinesis. You name it. Akira changed everything for the world of anime, popularizing Japanese animation and mainstreaming what many now consider to be a huge inspiration for modern western cinema. Akira also had its own fair share of body horror. Between Tetsuo’s trippy hallucinations where his organs spill from his stomach to the climactic ending that sees Tetsuo’s body morph and expand out of control, the film has no shortage of visceral horror.
Following the financial and critical success of Akira, Japan dove into body horror in live-action cinema with the film Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1989). The movie spurred a cult following for director Shinya Tsukamoto and was compared by critics to David Cronenberg and David Lynch. From the opening scene of a man inserting metal rods into an open wound to the gruesome deaths and electric car chase sequences, Tetsuo is considered one of the greatest Japanese science fiction films of all time, and by far Japan’s most memorable live action body horror movie.
Director Adrian Lyne had already found critical acclaim with his 1987 psychological thriller Fatal Attraction. When the new decade rolled around, many were surprised and caught off guard with Lyne’s now-iconic horror film Jacob’s Ladder (1990). One of the most underrated films in the genre, Jacob’s Ladder is psychologically torturous and frighteningly surreal. Following Vietnam-war veteran and doctor Jacob Singer as he jumps between reality and fantasy, the audience is stuck in a limbo that doesn’t clarify any answers until the disturbing but melancholy end. The film pioneered the “twitching effect” that many horror movies use to this day, and also inspired the Silent Hill franchise. If you are wondering about the body horror aspect of the film, I only have two words for you: hospital scene.
Long before Peter Jackson brought us the beautiful universe of Middle Earth with his Lord of the Rings Saga, fans of horror were treated with what many consider to be the greatest “splatter film” ever made. Zombies and gore galore, including an amazing scene with a lawnmower, Braindead (1992) or Dead Alive as it’s called in North America, brought body horror to a new, gratuitous and excessive level. If you ever want to watch mind-numbing, campy blood and gore, give Braindead a try. Though a financial bomb, the film has come to be a cult classic and an influential piece in the sub-genre of body horror.
Borrowing many thematic elements from Alien (1979), Paul W.S. Anderson’s classic science fiction/horror film Event Horizon (1997) bolstered some of the most effective body horror seen in a science fiction movie. Panned by critics and a financial flop, Event Horizon has gone on to become a cult classic and an important chapter in the evolution of both science fiction/horror and body horror. Following the crew of Lewis & Clark with Dr. Weir, the group are on a mission to board the Event Horizon: a ship that could travel through black holes and disappeared during its first voyage, only to return suddenly out of the blue with no information of where it had been all those years. The film went on to inspire many artists in different fields, from the video game franchise Dead Space to the 2009 scifi/horror Pandorum. The “hell scene” by itself is enough to make casual filmgoers look for a bag to vomit in.
Japan’s fascination with horror has always been a staple of cinema. In 1999, audiences were treated with, yet again, another body horror film that has since become a classic of the genre. Audition (1999), is still as disturbing today as it was when it first premiered. Incorporating elements of body horror that would become mainstream later on in films like James Wan’s Saw (2004), Audition explores themes of torture, captivity, and seduction.
It can be said that horror master Eli Roth wasn’t considered such a powerhouse in the genre until his disgusting film Cabin Fever (2002) was released. Following a group of teens in a vacation cabin who get infected with a flesh-eating virus, the film hones in on real-world fears of infection, viruses, and medical disasters. Famously, when the infamous shaving scene was filmed, Roth was the only person who could bear to stay in the studio while the scenario was shot.
Director James Wan has become perhaps the single, most respected modern horror filmmaker today, his common collaborator Leigh Whannell one of the most influential writers. With outings like Dead Silence (2007), Insidious (2011), The Conjuring (2013), Insidious: Chapter Two (2013), and The Conjuring 2 (2016), it’s often hard to remember that the Malaysian-born Australian director and his best friend first broke onto the scene with Saw (2004). Saw revolutionized the horror genre, spurring a massive franchise and a new trend in body horror within mainstream cinema. Though the films degrade in quality after the departure of Wan and Whannell, the first Saw will always be iconic and one of the most important films of the 21st century.
James Gunn is now known for his hilarious, action-packed Marvel epic, Guardians of the Galaxy (2014). Almost a decade earlier, the director offered an interesting outing in body horror with his film Slither (2006). An alien species infects a small town, morphing and deforming the bodies it enters and/or takes over. Though definitely a comedic horror, the body horror in the film is very reminiscent of From Beyond, as you can see from the picture below.
We are about to tread water in a place most horror fans are not proud of. Regardless of the quality of this film, it has to be mentioned because though it is regretful and embarrassing for most horror connoisseurs, this film is still influential and impacting in many ways. The Human Centipede (First Sequence) (2009) saw a blasphemous and disgusting concept that we will not go into detail about, though most already know of its nature. The film started a trilogy of movies and has developed a cult following of horror fans.
Art house films often catch the eyes of the more philosophical and surrealist moviegoers. Having little restraints due to production budget and a lack of distribution rights initially, indie films dare to go places most other movies don’t. Under the Skin (2013) was perhaps one of the most surprising films of 2013. Following Scarlett Johansson’s alien character as she picks up men from the streets and . . . does things to them, the film surprises as a science fiction/horror and body horror epic coupled with philosophical inspection and social examinations.
2017 and On
What do we have to look forward to this year? What has the impact of the genre been thus far?
The genre of body horror has leaped into mainstream media. From video game franchises like Dead Space and Resident Evil, to franchises like Saw and Hellraiser, to literature written by Clive Barker and H.P. Lovecraft, the sub-genre has nestled its way into the hearts and minds of horror fans across the world. Shows such as Rick and Morty have made references to Cronenberg, while many other shows have parodied the grotesque and visceral nature of body horror cinema.
As far as “near on the horizon” goes, 2017 holds an exciting release that many of us horror nuts are excited about. The Void (2016) is releasing to cinemas this year and promises to be a huge shout out to the original practical effects of the genre. Drawing inspirations from films like John Carpenter’s The Thing and Stuart Gordon’s From Beyond, critics are already praising the film for its visceral and horrifying effects. Watch the trailer here.
We hope that this journey through history has been exciting for you and we can’t wait to publish more on the sub-genre of body horror as we prepare for our Year’s Best Body Horror 2017 Anthology. We encourage you to share this article if you enjoyed it and we hope that you will submit your morose and macabre stories to our anthology.
Thank you so much for reading. And as always, follow us on social media and don’t forget to embrace the unknown.