For as long as there have been horror movies, there has been body horror, and the niche isn’t going away anytime soon thanks to David Cronenberg with the recent release of “Crimes of the Future.” There is something endlessly captivating about watching disturbing things happen to the human body, no matter how gross the images might be. And the human body is such a foundational concept to our existence that auteurs will never run out of things to say about it.
The body horror genre has proven to be a versatile medium for some of cinema’s most creative minds, with films ranging from the utterly grotesque to the subtle and cerebral. And sometimes, of course, movies can be both things at once. From Cronenberg and John Carpenter to David Lynch and Julia Ducournau, we’ve rounded up 15 of our favorite additions to one of horror’s grossest subgenres.
Kate Erbland, Anne Thompson, Jude Dry, Chris O’Falt, Tambay Obenson, and Zack Sharf also contributed to this story.
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“Crimes of the Future” (David Cronenberg, 2022)
Surgery is the new sex! David Cronenberg’s long-awaited return to the body horror subgenre was one of the hottest titles at Cannes in 2022, but the film was anything but a greatest hits collection, as Cronenberg proved he still has plenty of interesting things to say about the human body. The film, which follows people who remove and regrow organs as part of a futuristic performance art routine, takes a delightfully gory look at our shared obsession with cosmetic body modification. The surprisingly sweet film contains everything you could want from a late-career Cronenberg film: blood, guts, Viggo Mortensen, and Kristen Stewart in a delightfully weird scene-stealing performance. —CZ
“Titane” (Julia Ducournau, 2021)
“Raw” established Julia Ducournau as a new voice to watch, but she took her brand of thoughtfully grotesque cinema to new heights with “Titane.” The Palme d’Or winner may have been immortalized in film history for its car sex, but at its core, it’s a spectacular work of body horror. Agathe Rousselle stars as a woman who gets her skull reinforced with a plate of titanium after a brutal car accident, and the film quickly becomes a disturbingly imaginative serial killer story that sticks with you long after the credits roll. While lesser body horror films focus on disturbing images (fear not, “Titane” has plenty of those), this film’s real brilliance is the thoughtfulness with which it explores the way physical body modifications can alter a person’s personality. —CZ
“The Autopsy of Jane Doe” (André Øvredal, 2016)
André Øvredal’s “The Autopsy of Jane Doe” exploits the best tropes of the body horror genre by working backward, starting with a dead body and using an autopsy to explore the uniquely gruesome way the girl may have died. The wickedly creepy film is as notable for what it omits as what it shows (the dead girl is never even given a name!), reminding audiences that body horror is versatile enough to be thrilling and provocative without buckets of blood. —CZ
“Tusk” (Kevin Smith, 2014)
Kevin Smith turned a stoned podcast hypothetical about a man being surgically transformed into a walrus into his best film of the 21st century. (Which is admittedly not the highest bar to clear, but a compliment nonetheless.) Justin Long stars as a podcaster who interviews an eccentric man (Michael Parks in a stellar villain performance) in his home, only to find that the walrus-obsessed recluse has much darker intentions for the visit. The film’s unapologetic commitment to taking its batshit crazy premise seriously, combined with some phenomenal creature design, turns what could have been a disaster into an excellent piece of body horror. —CZ
“Possessor” (Brandon Cronenberg, 2020)
The body horror gene runs strong in the Cronenberg family. With “Possessor,” Brandon Cronenberg proved that he is fit to follow in his father’s footsteps while establishing a voice that’s uniquely his own. The science-fiction movie follows an assassin who carries out killings by taking over other people’s bodies. But when she finds a subject who she can’t bend into submission, it sets up a thrilling showdown that also raises some provocative questions about the nature of body autonomy in an increasingly technology-driven world. —CZ
“Eraserhead” (David Lynch, 1978)
David Lynch’s 1977 feature directorial debut “Eraserhead” begins with a giant sperm cell-looking creature emerging from a floating head and ends with a father mutilating his child’s organs and, just like that, the mythic status of David Lynch was born. Lynch’s script, a more experimental approach to the body horror genre as we know it today, is said to have been inspired by his daughter’s own birth deformity and the pain Lynch experienced while being forced to sit through corrective surgeries.
“Eraserhead” stars Jack Nance as man who suddenly becomes a father to a worm-like infant creature. The child, with its bulbous head and lack of skin, is one of the definitive critters of the body horror genre (right up there with Cronenberg’s Fly). What makes “Eraserhead” powerful is how it uses body horror to deconstruct the psyche of its main character. This is not a body horror film where the protagonist is inflicted with great pain. Instead, Nance’s Henry Spencer is forced to witness the body horror if his own child, and to say it has nightmarish results would be an understatement. —ZS
“Tetsuo: The Iron Man” (Shinya Tsukamoto, 1989)
Any movie that begins with a man cutting open his thigh in order to shove a metal rod inside it is bound to be one of the most disgusting body horror films ever made, and such is the case with “Tetsuo: The Iron Man.” And that says nothing of the next moment, in which the wound becomes infected by maggots.
Written, directed, and produced by Shinya Tsukamoto, the Japanese horror movie “Tetsuo: The Iron Man” is as graphically nightmarish as body horror gets. Tomorowo Taguchi stars as a businessman who accidentally kills a medal fetishist, only for the dead spirit to get revenge by turning the man into a grotesque hybrid of human flesh and metal. Tsukamoto’s terrifying body horror imagery is matched by his manic pacing, which creates a hysterical viewing experience that is so gross and relentless that it’s impossible not to become addicted. —ZS
“Teeth” (Mitchell Lichtenstein, 2007)
Mitchell Lichtenstein’s 2007 horror movie “Teeth” became an instant cult favorite when it debuted at the Sundance Film Festival, where breakthrough actress Jess Weixler was honored with the Grand Jury Prize for Acting. Weixler stars as Dawn O’Keefe, a teenager whose life as a virginal Christian abstinence group member is thrown into disarray when she discovers her vagina has teeth (officially referred to as vagina dentata).
The horror genre often uses the female virgin as its final girl, so part of the brilliance of writer-director Lichtenstein’s script is how it subverts that horror trope with the help of the movie’s body horror-defining element. Dawn’s vagina dentata inflict pain on others but become empowering to her own sense of self and maturity, protecting her from abusers and allowing her to experience the joys of sex when she is consenting. Over a decade later, “Teeth” remains one of the most refreshing body horror entries of the century. —ZS
“Videodrome” (David Cronenberg, 1983)
David Cronenberg’s mastery of the body horror genre continued in 1983 with “Videodrome,” a cult classic that embraces body horror thrills as much as it studies them. Cronenberg cast James Woods as Max Renn, the president of a Toronto, Canada television station who becomes convinced that a new show called “Videodrome” can revitalize the company. The show is a body horror program within Cronenberg’s body horror movie, centered around the brutal torture and murder of random victims inside a red room.
Max becomes obsessed with tracking down the makers of the show, but his quest leads to his own psychological breakdown and terrifying body horrors. Cronenberg’s surreal plotting makes his gore feel more unhinged than usual. As a result, “Videodrome” is Cronenberg’s most bonkers body horror to date. —ZS
“Slither” (James Gunn, 2008)
James Gunn started making a name for himself as the screenwriter of Zack Snyder’s “Dawn of the Dead” and the live-action “Scooby-Doo” movies, but it’s with his 2006 directorial debut “Slither” that he emerged as one of the freshest new voices in Hollywood. “Slither” combines the alien invasion genre with body horror to tell the story of a small town in South Carolina that gets invaded by parasitic aliens.
Gunn has a field day with the movie’s body horror elements, using the parasites to transform his human characters into grotesque monsters. Body horror can be used to disgusting extremes (see “Tetsuo” below), but Gunn’s trademark comedic quips enliven the usual body horror flare. There’s something inherently funny about the extremeness of the body horror genre, and Gunn’s “Slither” succeeds in creating body horror that makes you cover your eyes and laugh your butt off. —ZS
“The Fly” (David Cronenberg, 1986)
The perfect marriage of body horror and monster movie, David Cronenberg’s seminal 1986 freakout stars Jeff Goldblum as a man who becomes his own monster, care of an ill-fated dalliance with teleportation (pro tip: always check your telepod for winged interlopers). While any body horror feature inevitably moves into the monstrous taking root in people, “The Fly” ably pushes Goldblum’s once-intrepid Seth Brundle into a space where he’s so unrecognizable as a human being — Brundlefly! — that it can count as both subgenres. That the monster is entirely of his own creation, not a beast from another dimension or a classic freak from a storybook, makes it all the more unique (and chilling). —KE
“Raw” (Julia Ducournau, 2016)
Female sexuality carries the same taboo as a ravenous flesh-eating teenager in this provocative feature debut from French filmmaker Julia Ducournau. “Raw” may start out like any other coming-of-age tale, but as soon as Justine (Garance Marillier) gets her first taste of meat, she’s transformed from good girl to social outcast, rejected by society for her carnal desires. In the process, Ducournau tears down the walls of a genre so often identified with male filmmakers. (Like the father of body horror, David Cronenberg.) Shrewdly using the art-horror format to upend the traditional teen Bildungsroman, “Raw” makes it impossible to look away — as much as you might want to. —JD
“Re-Animator” (Stuart Gordon, 1985)
Based on H.P. Lovecraft’s 1922 short story “Herbert West–Reanimator,” Stuart Gordon’s enduring campy gore-fest classic is one of the beloved horror movies ever for a good reason: Imagine Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead” directed by the staff of Mad Magazine. When medical student Dan Cain advertises for a roommate, he finds one in the form of Herbert West. Initially a little eccentric, it soon becomes clear that West entertains some seriously outlandish theories, specifically about re-animating the dead. It’s not long before Dan finds himself under West’s influence, and embroiled in a series of ghoulish experiments that threaten to get out of hand.
Things get grisly when bone-saws are marshaled to quell the violent, re-animated cadavers, but “Re-Animator” isn’t just disturbing, it manages to make its grisly premise feel exciting and fun. Featuring a standout performance from Jeffrey Combs as the deranged West, the inventive and darkly witty movie remains the definitive example of ’80s splatter pandemonium and one of the genre’s finest two hours.
Not for the squeamish, the film redefined screen horror then, and remains unmatched today. It spawned two inferior sequels and countless imitators. —TO
“The Thing” (John Carpenter, 1982)
John Carpenter creates paranoia, fear, and isolation in “The Thing” with an intensity few filmmakers have ever matched. When Antarctic researchers cross paths with an alien lifeform with the ability to imitate other lifeforms (like, oh, humans), mistrust and terror is built shot by shot until it explodes. The practical effects and creature design are some of the best in film history. A film that grabs you by the throat and doesn’t let go. —CO
“The Brood” (David Cronenberg, 1979)
The big reveal in the Canadian auteur’s breakout movie “The Brood” is Samantha Eggar lifting her white drape to show Art Hindle the multiple “babies” growing from her torso, opening the biggest sac to lick the blood off her newborn. Following “Rabid” and “Shivers,” “The Brood” signaled the arrival of a cerebral filmmaker with icky ideas about the hazards of science, from armpits with sex organs and veined penis-shaped parasites with ears and mouths crawling in and out of body cavities, to psycho-plasmic hives that become humans, born out of anger and forming an army.
Made for about $1 million with a tiny crew of seven, “The Brood” used a mix of analog prosthetics and clever manipulation of light and dark in a pre-CGI world to create believable, naturalistic menace. When Roger Corman picked up the movie stateside, horror mavens Joe Dante and John Carpenter helped to cut the trailer. Cronenberg’s “Videodrome,” “Scanners,” and “The Fly” came later. —AT
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