Morbidly Beautiful

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Past the glorious gore, body horror intelligently exposes the monstrous horrors of humanity, and vivisects our greatest fears.

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Body horror uses grotesque imagery to invoke various reactions, ranging from shock and disgust to the exploration of sociopolitical anxieties. This particular subgenre often plays on human psychology by showcasing violations and mutilations of the physical body, which is all too relatable to the human viewer.

When we think of body horror, we often think of films such as Ichi the Killer, Scanners, and Teeth. In this morbid and powerful subgenre, it can be intimidating to want to dig deeper on your own. The following four films were specifically chosen to speak to the seasoned body horror connoisseur and the beginner alike.

Braindead (1992)

Braindead, or Dead Alive to us North Americans, is a horror comedy masterpiece brought to us by Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson.

On Skull Island, a team of zoologists capture a Sumatran rat-monkey hybrid and, against the wishes of the locals, ship the creature off to the Wellington Zoo. Lionel, a young, eligible bachelor, lives with his overbearing mother, Vera. After Lionel and Paquita, a village shopkeeper’s daughter, spark a romantic interest in one another, shit really hits the fan. When Vera stalks Paquita and Lionel while they are on a date at the Wellington Zoo, she gets bitten by the rat monkey and is infected with a rapidly developing condition that turns her into a zombie with flesh practically flying off of her face.

What follows is an increasingly absurd chain of events in which Vera slowly turns everyone in their town into a zombie as well, including a nurse and a priest who later copulate and welcome a divine zombie baby into the world.

This film has everything a successful horror comedy should have, particularly in the penultimate scene, which showcases Lionel and Paquita’s innovative zombie-killing methods (including a push lawnmower and a blender).

Part romance and part illustration of an emotionally incestuous relationship between a mother and son, the viewer’s journey with Lionel is filled with empathy and laughter alike. 

Eraserhead (1977)

body horror of Eraserhead

From the brilliant mind of David Lynch, Eraserhead is an absolute nightmare.

Henry Spencer, after coming home from the grocery store, is met by the Beautiful Girl Across the Hall, who notifies him that he has missed a phone call from his girlfriend, Mary, in which she has invited Henry over for dinner with her family. At dinner, Henry is made aware that Mary is pregnant and birthed a child who is waiting for them to go pick up from the hospital after they are married.

Mary and I share a similar view on this matter, which is to say that this “being” she bore is hardly a baby. The baby cries incessantly, and Mary hysterically leaves Henry with the child to raise on his own.

After Henry discovers that the baby is having difficulty breathing and has an extremely high fever, he attempts to care for his sick child while experiencing visions. Henry eventually jumps in the proverbial sack with the Beautiful Girl Across the Hall and, upon later finding her with another man, takes scissors and stabs his child’s exposed organs that had previously only been held together by a wrapping bandage.

From the spermatozoon emerging from Henry’s mouth to the Lady in the Radiator, Lynch holds our hand through this nightmare in a way that only he can for our descent into the madness of becoming a parent to an unwanted child. 

Hellraiser (1987)

body horror of Hellraiser

Written and directed by Clive Barker after the release of his novella titled The Hellbound Heart, Hellraiser is a brilliant exploration of sadomasochism. (Horror taking on the topic of a taboo? Never heard of it!)

Hedonist Frank solves a puzzle box that is promised to provide access to pleasure from another dimension. Upon his solving, Frank is torn apart by hooks and chains in the attic of his home, and the attic is restored to normal after a figure in a black robe resets the puzzle box. Larry, Frank’s brother, and his wife, Julia, later move into the home. While moving furniture, Larry cuts his hand, and the blood falling on the attic floor from the laceration brings Frank back from his adventures in the form of a body with no skin.

Julia, having had an affair with Frank before her marriage to Larry, still loves Frank with a passion so deep that she agrees to lure men into the home and kill them, which results in Frank’s body regeneration. Larry’s teenage daughter, Kristy, solves the puzzle box herself out of curiosity after collapsing and waking up in the hospital. She accidentally summons the Cenobites.

The Cenobites explain that they are beings from another dimension that can no longer differentiate between pain and pleasure and want to take Frank back into their possession.

Hellraiser is an original and innovative story that plays on the fear in the 1980s of the kink community and gives those judgmental fucks a proverbial middle finger. 

Cabin Fever (2002)

Cabin Fever, Eli Roth’s directorial debut, is a horror film inspired by a skin infection Roth contracted during a trip to Iceland. From that inspiration comes this incredibly entertaining story following a group of college students who rent a remote cabin for their spring break trip and are overcome with a flesh-eating virus.

Jeff, Paul, Marcy, Bert, and Karen are way over their heads in this terrain. After Paul accidentally kills a local drifter, Henry, Karen is so upset that she seeks the sexual comfort of Paul and ends up with a skin infection around her groin. The group isolates her in a shed on the property, and Bert fixes their truck after Henry vomits his blood all over it and coughs up blood himself.

Marcy, in a vulnerable state of freaking out about all of them contracting the virus, seeks the comfort of having sex with Paul. When Marcy later takes a bath, she discovers she, too, has the virus when she shaves her legs, and her skin comes off with each drag of the razor.

Body horror films with a focus on infection typically take place in densely populated settings, such as a crowded city.

The use of the remote setting and small group of individuals is a creative storytelling mechanism, showing how quickly the loyal dynamics of a friend group can change. 

Body horror functions as both a subgenre and a storytelling device. While some viewers cannot tolerate the imagery, body horror is no less important to the horror community than any other subgenre. Discounting it as a cheap thrill means completely missing the significance of these works of art.

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