After the gritty and subversive exploitation and occult films of the 70s, filmmakers needed a new way to shock audiences. ‘Body Horror’ centric was born of this need and the quickly advancing special effects. The growing popularity of horror movies opened up new opportunities, for example works of fiction such as Campbell’s ‘Who Goes There’ and Langelaan’s ‘The Fly’ could be produced in a more full and graphic way than previously possible.
Body Horror films use body warping, mutation, and transformation to scare and disgust their viewers. They tend to be graphic, gruesome and perverse, playing on our innate fears and anxieties about our health, appearance and personal vanity.
The antagonist typically strikes from inside the human body, usually as a result of parasitism, infection or disease. It can also be caused by external, supernatural forces but the damage or mutation done to the body is rarely inflicted by other people as that veers the genre more towards torture porn or slasher movies.
Another blurry line is Zombie movies, which often include attributes from Body Horror, but, as a rule, body horror centric movies don’t include the living dead. It’s not uncommon for body horror films to have a venereal or carnal undertone, often with the infected endeavoring to have sex with the uninfected, either due to sexual desire or as a way to transmit the parasite or disease.
One of the first to explore the body horror themes was David Cronenburg, with early movies such as ‘Shivers’ (1975) and ‘Rabid’(1977). David Lynch was another pioneer for the genre, he wrote and directed the surreal, and frankly confusing, ‘Eraserhead’ (1977). Another innovator was Ridley Scott, with the masterpiece, ‘Alien’ (1979).
These were early explorations into the subject, and prior the special effect explosion of the 80s. They laid the groundwork for the films that would define the genre, arguably, the two most significant of these being ‘The Thing’ (1982) and David Cronenburg’s ‘The Fly’ (1986).
At the height of its popularity, in the mid to late 80s, Body Horror style effects started showing up within the majority of horror films as a part of a bigger theme, such as the ‘Hellraiser’ series. By 1990, the overblown and extravagant 80’s style body horror began to fizzle out. The problem was that each film tried to out do the last, and eventually they became so visual they left nothing to the viewers imagination; death by special effects. The films became increasingly reliant on their effects, and frequently the quality of the story was overlooked. These once edgy, transgressive films became standard, even boring, and as a result, Body Horror centric films all but disappeared from mainstream horror through the mid nineties. However, the genre made a modest return after the millennium.
Body horror films by rating in descending order:
15. Tetsuo: The Iron Man
14. Street Trash
9. From Beyond
7. The Brood
2. The Thing
1. The Fly
I’ve tried to order this list by reviewing these films from a body horror standpoint. As overall, the order would be different, however, although some these films listed have considerable body horror content, they also explore many other horror themes which are an equal part of their story and they cross over into several different horror subgenres. Whereas, The Fly is debatably a pure body horror film, checking off subjects such as infection, mutation, and transformation, along with venereal elements. David Cronenburg’s clearly has some issues, but nevertheless is widely considered the father of body horror films, so it seems fitting that The Fly is top of this list.