As long as there’s been horror films, there’s been body horror — and it’s not hard to see why the subgenre is unlikely to ever go out of style. Great horror movies tap into the darkest corners of our subconscious to strike at our deepest fears, and few emotions are more humane than the fear of physical harm. The human tendency to identify with one’s body is so strong that witnessing transformations and mutilations can evoke the feeling that characters are being stripped of their very humanity.
While early filmmakers explored these themes in projects such as Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the second half of the 20th century saw body horror elevated to the level of high art. No one deserves more credit for that shift in public perception than David Cronenberg, whose films like “Videodrome” and “The Fly” contained as much scientific and social commentary as blood and guts. It wasn’t long before other authors, including David Lynch and John Carpenter, were using their knack for the visual weirdness of body horror to comment on everything from parenting to the AIDS crisis.
The 21st century has allowed for the emergence of a new group of elite genre filmmakers, and body horror films are now a regular feature at elite film festivals around the world. In addition to the opportunities for social commentary they provide, body horror films also offer a huge canvas for practical effects artists to showcase their depraved skills.
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 at the same time. From Cronenberg and Carpenter to Julia Ducournau, we’ve rounded up 20 of our favorite additions to one of horror’s grossest subgenres. If you’re looking to watch something deeply disturbing but don’t feel like watching another slasher movie or creature movie, look no further than the body horror canon.
With editorial contributions from Kate Erbland, Anne Thompson, Jude Dry, Chris O’Falt, Tambay Obenson and Zack Sharf.