Dive into humanity's fear of the flesh with the best stomach-churning cult movies
In the lead-up to Halloween, Dazed Digital is running a Dark Arts season inspired by our November Dark Arts issue. Among other things, we've walked the path of darkness via the Hollywood Walk of Death and talked to Don Mancini, the creator of Chucky. Check back on our Dark Arts section for a journey to hell and back.
“As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.” If you ever needed a definition of body horror, the opening line of Kafka’s Metamorphosis is pretty much it: the body transformed into something grotesque and absurd, complete with creepy Freudian undertones of a primal subconscious gone awry.
British anthropologist Mary Douglas once wrote that dirt is matter out of place: as in, dirt offends and transgresses the human urge to keep the body pure, clean and therefore sacred. You could say the same about gore in horror films. When filmmakers play with body horror, they’re playing with the boundaries of flesh and blood, upturning our norms about the body and transforming the skin we live in into alien objects of terror.
To kick off the first day of our Dark Arts season, Dazed dives into the stomach-churning world of body horror with the best underground, cult and criminally overlooked horror films in the genre. Long live the new flesh!
The Brood (1979)
Cronenberg is the undisputed master of body horror; alongside John Carpenter's The Thing, Cronenberg's The Fly is pretty much a genre-defining film. Unlike the sci-fi roots of The Fly, The Brood has much more prosaic, ordinary origins – which makes it even creepier. Cronenberg once laughingly called it his horror take on Kramer vs. Kramer.
Frank (Art Hindle) wrestles to gain custody of his young daughter from his unstable ex-wife, Nola (Samantha Eggar), who is undergoing a form of psychotherapy that causes her internal rage to manifest as skin blisters. Mysteriously, anybody who crosses Nola soon comes to a very sticky end, thanks to a bunch of malevolent kids in snowsuits. You see where this is going, right?
Everything about Excision screams horror camp – Traci Lords as a repressed housewife, John Waters as a Catholic priest, and 90210’s AnnaLynne McCord playing a teenage outcast with a fetish for blood – but this 2012 film is a far weirder beast. Imagine if the protagonist out of a Todd Solondz coming-of-age film fantasised about dissecting her high school tormentors; now add acid-laced MTV dream sequences and a sprinkling of Mean Girls-esque one liners (“Do you purposely leave your house looking like a raging lesbian?”). Body horror fun for the TRL generation – with a surprisingly touching emotional core.
Polish director Andrzej Żuławski was setting the standard for arthouse horror way before Charlotte Gainsbourg got busy mutilating Willem Dafoe’s genitals in Antichrist. Filmed in squalid, grey West Germany, the first half of Possession depicts the disintegrating marriage between Sam Neill and Isabelle Adjani in soul-destroyingly depressing detail (not entirely unlike Antichrist, in fact). Then the second half descends into body horror at its skin-crawling best – we won’t spoil it except to say that those with an aversion to tentacle sex should stay well clear. Adjani picked up a Best Actress award at Cannes for her powerhouse performance as the increasingly deranged Isabelle. The scene above, where Adjani goes full method in the Berlin subway, pretty much explains why.
From Beyond (1986)
Stuart Gordon is the man behind Re-Animator, another body horror classic, but his unsung 80s sci-fi is a perfect illustration of Gordon's characteristic marriage of camp and gore. A mix of Lovecraftian horror, splatter horror and some truly, deliriously gross physical comedy. Based on an H.P. Lovecraft story, it follows the misadventures of two scientists who discover a way to stimulate the pineal gland and expand human consciousness – and, in doing so, open up a door to a parallel universe, populated by malevolent beings with a fondness for torture.
The idea of a killer piecing together a "real friend" from body parts is nothing new, but self-described feminist filmmaker Lucky McKee subverts your expectations by making the killer a lovable girl. Kooky, bug-eyed and brunette, May could be the proto-Zooey Deschanel, except she turns from being an endearing weirdo into something much, much darker. Like, Re-Animator darker. As others have pointed out, May works as biting satire, too: in the era of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, May argues that feminine kookiness isn't something to be fetishised and prettied up. In fact, it might just get you killed.
Based on a popular manga, this Japanese film (its title translates as Spiral) is a hyper-stylised work of dream-like horror. Centreing on a single idea – spirals, in all forms, are terrorising a town – Uzumaki drills deep into its potential for terror, resulting in surreal, dread-inducing theatrics. High school students throw themselves down spiral staircases; the protagonist's dad becomes obsessed with filming snails; people slowly turn into snails, complete with spiralled shells. Obviously, this all sounds completely ridiculous, and it's true there aren't many jump-out-of-your-seat moments with Uzumaki – but if you're a fan of creepy Lynch-inspired surrealism, this is one of the best Japanese films out there.
Altered States (1980)
British filmmaker Ken Russell is better known for award-winning films like Women In Love, but Altered States was a radical departure from his earlier work: a drug-addled sci-fi opus, based on scientist John C. Lilly's sensory deprivation research conducted in isolation tanks while under the influence of ketamine and LSD. William Hurt plays a psychologist who begins to experiment with ayahuasca, only to find himself regressing to a more primitive form of life, at one point struggling to come back from the brink of devolving completely into a horrifying, amorphous mass of protoplasm. Part cosmic hallucination, part psychedelic fever dream – and filmed beautifully by cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth, who worked on Blade Runner.
Pascal Laugier's masterpiece is probably one of the best-known films on the list, but it's impossible not to include when talking about contemporary body horror. With unflinching shots of gore, Martyrs is sometimes unfairly dismissed as torture porn in the same vein as Saw or Hostel, but Laugier aspires to greater intellectual depths – like Michael Haneke’s Funny Games, the graphic violence serves to interrogate the audience’s presumptions and challenge the conventions of the genre itself. Martyrs pulls this off to transcendent effect in its final act, which also contains its most graphic images of torture (including a stomach-churning fifteen minute sequence that had patrons vomiting in cinemas). If you can stand the violence, you’re in for a treat.
Imagine if all the glamorous Californian socialites in Bret Easton Ellis’ Less Than Zero were disgusting alien creatures that fed off the bodily fluids of humans. That’s pretty much the premise for this gross-out satire on 80s greed – the rich will eat the poor, literally. Brian Yuzna’s feature is classic body horror in action, where the familiar is turned absurd and downright perverse. Its climactic scene, where L.A. elites dissolve into a gloopy, incestuous, self-cannabalising mess is either horrifying or hilarious – depends who you ask.
Dans Ma Peau (2002)
Esther (Marina de Van) is a young, upwardly mobile everywoman who suddenly develops a taste for blood – namely, her own (think Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher with a horror twist). Dans Ma Peau subverts the standard horror trope of insatiable bloodlust by turning this into a film about a normal woman’s descent into self-mutilation and self-cannabalism: Esther’s flesh becomes both the vehicle and canvas for her own visceral, inexplicable hunger. If Martyrs is about transcending the flesh, Dans Ma Peau revels in its bloody delights, as Esther evolves from a rational, middle-class professional into someone engaged in a primal love affair with her own viscera.