(David Cronenberg, 1986)
(essay by Robert)
I’d like to assume that most people here have seen this film. If you have not, please stop here and go watch this wonderful remake (original, 1958 directed by Kurt Neumann) and a visually fascinating effort. The most memorable aspect is scientist Seth Brundle’s (Jeff Goldblum) transformation stages. The Fly is one of the most recognizable examples of Body Horror.
Instead of reviewing the film, I’d rather like to further explore the concept of Body Horror as well as David Cronenberg’s association with the method. As noted here in past write-ups and comments, Body Horror is a sub-genre of horror that focuses on the physical transformation or “physical wrongness” of a character. Body Horror, when thought of seriously as a film mechanism may be the most intimate of all film mechanisms as it focuses on the most core human instinct of bodily awareness- something universal yet unique to each of us. To me, this makes it possibly the most intriguing, if not the most important category of the most important genre.
Aside from The Fly, Cronenberg has utilized Body Horror multiple times very successfully and fluently. Notably Rabid, and aforementioned The Brood, and Videodrome. He has an unmistakable physical force in his films. There is nothing more human than the body and Cronenberg endears his audiences through this exploration. Of course not all of his films are body horrors. He has, particularly more recently, explored other genres but has firmly maintained a focus on bodily transformation and awareness throughout his career. Note the symbolically tattoo-covered Mortensen in Eastern Promises, the close hand-to-hand fight sequences in A History of Violence and the intimate mangles in Crash.
I came across this article/interview with Cronenberg from 2005 digging deeper into his fascination/obsession with the body.
As much as I love Cronenberg’s work and as synonymous with Body Horror as he has become, I think it is easy to get trapped into narrowly defining the genre by his interpretations. It is so easy, I think, because he has used multiple different avenues. We would be missing the point though if we did not explore Body Horror beyond his works.
Body Horror often uses shocking imagery to emphasize a psychological or emotional struggle. The Fly is a fine and very aggressive example of this. On the other hand, there are examples of Body Horror that use much more subtle delivery or at least less consuming approaches. Rosemary’s Baby, of course, deals with the victim’s unyielding obsession with her own fetus/baby throughout but the character’s actual physical transformation is relatively limited. These, I think, are fine pillars to note the opposite ends of the spectrum in Body Horror.
Another interesting consideration is a film’s degree of “body”. Many, many horror films utilize some degree of “body” almost unavoidably. Whether they are true “body horrors” may really be beside the point. Take a film like Basket Case (1982 directed by Frank Henenlotter). The film, which is as much a comedy as it is a horror, focuses primarily on the extrasensory connection between a young man and his repulsive Siamese “brother”. They have an irrefutable physical connection (being born of the same embryo) but the movie is more focused on their non-physical connection. One of my personal favorites, The Exorcist, exhibits undeniable and remarkable physical transformation throughout. In this case though, the bodily transformation is used more as a method than the focal point of the film. Think also about the transformations that occur in Werewolf films. Often the visual highlight of the movie, the transformation, takes only seconds. It is he ongoing bodily consciousness that consumes the character though and ultimately the point of these films. Are these, body horrors? I suppose it does not really matter. What is important is the effectiveness and prevalence of the mechanism.
Much is made of the metaphoric aspects of Body Horror- rightfully so. Almost always, the director is making a statement or alluding to something deeper or larger. Many times the reference is itself physical. For example, several body horrors are interested in commenting on human disease or even something as universal as growing old or death. In other cases, the commentary is more on human interaction or sociology (Cronenberg has explored both). Truly, the boundaries are limitless in terms of symbolic meaning.
For serious film and horror fans, an appreciation of Body Horror is, I suppose, unavoidable. I would also attest that Body Horror presents the most straightforward means of introducing/exploring the horror genre with uneasy and/or skeptical critics (far too many).
Additional fine examples of Body Horror from various eras- not included in this countdown:
Matango (Ishiro Honda, 1963)
Taxidermia (Gyorgy Palfi, 2006)
The Incredible Melting Man (William Sachs, 1977)
(this film appeared on Robert’s list at #57, Troy’s at #30, and Kevin’s at #15)