A Loose Definition of Body Horror
First things first, let’s talk about what we mean by body horror. Some folks might be unaware that this is a specific micro-genre of movies that largely had its heyday back in the mid- to late-1980s.
What set them apart was their visuals, and how those visuals were able to scare and disturb audiences. Often, these visuals relied on practical effects depicting the ugliest deformations of humans and animals imaginable.
Not so surprisingly, these movies didn’t stick around for all that long, at least not in the mainstream. So we thought it would be interesting to take a closer look at some of the biggest body horror movies of all time and what they might have been saying about American society at the time of their release.
Ready to get weirded out? Us too.
Masters at Work
One of the simplest ways to put together a cursory summary of 1980s body horror is to introduce the filmmakers behind the best movies of the genre.
The undisputed king of body horror is a Mr. David Cronenberg. If you’re any kind of movie geek you’ve probably heard of him by now.
He’s the guy behind the Jeff Goldblum adaptation of the classic horror flick ‘The Fly.’ His version featured a slowly degrading Goldblum whose fingernails pulled away from his flesh like warm, stringy pizza cheese.
Cronenberg’s other big hits include ‘Scanners’ (which includes the best head explosion in cinematic history), ‘Naked Lunch’ (an off-the-wall adaptation of the William Burroughs novel, complete with cockroach typewriters), and ‘Videodrome.’
Runners-up include Stuart Gordon, the gentleman behind ‘Re-Animator,’ a hilarious cult classic that you should watch immediately, as well as Brian Yuzna whose film ‘Society’ was perhaps the last hurrah for the golden age of body horror.
So what do all these guys share? Is there something specific that they were trying to communicate to the world, or were they just a bunch of weirdos who happened to love gross-out horror?
One quality these filmmakers had in common was a special affection for subversion.
Horror in the 1970s was marked by somewhat slow-moving plots and in-depth characters who slowly grasp the profound fear and panic inherent to their situation. The villains in these movies were either murderous humans who looked just like everyone else or inhuman monsters that didn’t look human in the least.
As a result, the most subversive move that 80s horror could make was to have the likable, relatable main characters undergo terrifying transformations. And since the audience had already sympathized with these characters, these horrors became very personal as a result.
They highlighted how disgusting the human body could become, albeit in fantastical and supernatural ways.
In other words, body horror may have just been a new frontier for horror that forward-thinking directors and writers were drawn to for the sake of innovation. But there’s another possible explanation, one even more worrying.
A Medical Explanation
One of the most compelling explanations for the rise of body horror comes to us from comedian Kumail Nanjiani.
In an interview with Amoeba in Los Angeles, Nanjiani and his wife Emily Gordon discussed their theory that body horror was the result of national panic surrounding the discovery of AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases.
The public’s initial reaction to these diseases was an uninformed fixation on certain surface-level effects, including the awful things that happened to the bodies of the people who contracted them.
And in fact, sex education programs ever since have dedicated a significant amount of time to showing graphic depictions of STDs.
An Uneasy Return
Despite the reasons for its origins, body horror is far from dead.
Every once in a while, it comes back around to remind us of the fragility and general weirdness of the human body.
One of the greatest body horror flicks of the 2000s happens to be ‘Slither’ by James Gunn, otherwise known for his much more broad appeal movies like the ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ series. Well, that and ‘The Belko Experiment.’
Anyway, ‘Slither’ is a great example of how modern technology can help make a body horror movie even more disgusting and just plain disturbing. Nathan Fillion guides us through a small-town story that probably made for lifelong nightmares for any of the surviving characters.
And some of the old masters are still at work, too, sort of. Specifically, Stuart Gordon put out a movie called ‘Dagon’ back in 2001 that takes its time to get going but then becomes one of the most difficult movies I’ve ever had to watch.
Most modern movies would turn the camera away from a shot of skinning a guy’s face while he’s still alive. Not ‘Dagon,’ not in the least. And that’s just the teaser, so you can let your imagination run wild from there.
Making Peace With Our Weaknesses
Body horror doesn’t have to be your newfound favorite horror genre. In fact, you don’t have to like it at all. It’s definitely the ugly duckling of 20th-century genre films, especially since it willfully defies you to like it.
But there are some of us folks who want to be challenged in that way, confronted with the ugliest parts, not just of the human body, but the ugliest parts of human nature itself.
These movies will stay with you, whether you want them to or not. And that says something in and of itself. I can’t tell you how many of the movies I’ve seen this year that I’ve already forgotten.
Solo? I think there was a space train, for some reason.
A Quiet Place? Jim from ‘The Office’ had some Christmas lights I guess.
But I can tell you exactly what Jeff Goldblum’s face looks like after his full-on fly transformation: like Meatwad from ‘Aqua Teen Hunger Force,’ just with more grease.