David Cronenberg's 10 Greatest Body Horror Moments Ranked
The Canadian director defined a genre with exploding heads, sexy car crashes and euphemistic buttholes
Published Jun 13, 2022This spring, legendary Canadian director David Cronenberg returned to the silver screen with Crimes of the Future, marking his first "pure" body horror film in over two decades. Although Cronenberg has openly rebuffed the label — he told Flavorwire in 2014, "I don't even know what body horror is. It was invented by some clever journalist, and it seems to have stuck" — whether he likes it or not, his films have shaped and defined the subgenre.
Body horror typically focuses on the mutilation and/or transformation of the human body, contorting our physical being to show our humanity in a different way. While it's easy for body horror to be used purely for shock value, the best filmmakers use these elements to elevate their storytelling. Recently, directors Julia Ducournau and Cronenberg's own son, Brandon Cronenberg, have offered up enticing additions to the genre — but there is still only one master of body horror.
In celebration of Mr. Cronenberg's return, we look back on his gruesome career and count down his best (and most vivid) uses of body horror in his esteemed filmography.
10. The Foreign Body Objects of Shivers (1975) and Rabid (1977)
Two of Cronenberg's earliest works show him using body horror to extremes, and not necessarily in a composed manner. We've clumped Shivers and Rabid together given their similar use of body horror and their premises: the use a foreign body part to spread a disease that will alter the behaviour of others.
In Shivers, a large, worm-like parasite attacks individuals, causing them to become sexually aggressive, resulting in a film excessively filled with sexual violence against women — an unsettling watch, to say the least. Instead of an internal parasite being excreted from one body and latching to another, Rabid sees a new organ, resembling an insect stinger, launching out of the host body and piercing others, causing the infected to act in a violent manner like rabid animals.
Much of the body horror in these two films feels unrefined, especially in comparison to what was to come in Cronenberg's portfolio. There are some genuine moments of ick, like when a young girl is sliced open and acid is poured into her stomach in Shivers, but overall, both films feel more shocking than provoking.
9. Surgery Is the New Sex in Crimes of the Future (2022)
In a world where humans have evolved beyond feeling pain and organs can be grown seemingly at will, performative surgery and body mutilation are the new forms of arousal and connection.
Being the most recent of Cronenberg's films, Crimes of the Future benefits greatly from CGI previously unavailable to the director. The design of the organs, the precision of the cuts into the skin and the fleshy controller used during the surgeries all feel tactile and authentic.
The film is timely and intriguing, and while the displays of body horror go a long way in delivering on the story's premise, it lacks the sophisticated Cronenberg kick in the stomach we've become accustomed to.
8. The Operating Tools of Dead Ringers (1988)
The dream sequence imagery of gynaecologists and identical twins Beverley and Mantle (both played by a brilliant Jeremy Irons) connected at the stomach by external bowels may be what's ingrained in the public's memory of this film, but the most terrifying moment of body horror in Dead Ringers doesn't actually involve showing any body parts.
As Beverley prepares to operate on a "mutant woman" who has abnormal genitalia, he presents the operating team with a set of unusual gynaecological instruments for the procedure. The design of the tools are medieval in style and terrifyingly otherworldly. Although Beverley is stopped before being able to actually use these on the patient, the threat of mutilation using these tools creates a visceral reaction and tightening of the audience's shoulders. Cronenberg is such a skilled craftsman, he doesn't even need to show us actual bodily harm to ignite the associated tension and cringe.
7. The Mind-Blowing Scanners (1981)
A strong argument can be made that Shivers, Rabid and Crimes of the Future showcase more of Cronenberg's penchant for body horror than Scanners. Truly there are only two moments that would qualify as "body horror" — but boy do they pay dividends.
The most famous of the two is the exploding head of an employee of ConSec, a private military company searching for "scanners" — those with the supernatural ability to control others using telepathy and psychokinesis. A malevolent scanner, Darryl Revok (Michael Ironside), infiltrates a ConSec meeting and uses his abilities to literally blow the mind of one ConSec member.
According to Slate, the shot was done practically by filling a gelatin head with all the bits and bobs they could find on set, including latex scraps, wax, and even burgers, drenched in corn syrup. Initially, the effect was to be done by explosions, but they proved difficult to operate properly. Instead, special effects supervisor Gary Zeller evacuated the set, positioned himself accordingly, and emptied a shotgun round into the back of the gelatin head.
Oh, and by the way — all of this happens within the first 10 minutes of Scanners. And so, while the rest of the film is largely free of body horror, we're immediately made privy to how powerful and detrimental a scanner can be — the threat of which looms large over the entirety of the film.
6. The Surrealist Butt Beetle of Naked Lunch (1991)
One of Cronenberg's weirder films (and that's really saying something), Naked Lunch is an adaptation of a semi-autobiographical book of the same name by William S. Burroughs. Much of Burroughs's writings are taken from his experimentation and addiction to opioids. As such, Cronenberg's interpretation of the 1959 novel is surreal in nature and mostly straight-up bizarre.
Peter Weller plays the lead role of William Lee, an exterminator who injects himself with insecticide, causing him to hallucinate that he is a secret agent. His typewriters are giant heads of alien-centipede creatures that provide him with emotional support and advice, and he's given assignments from a beetle who insists on having the insecticide rubbed on his lips, which, I'm sorry, looks an awful lot like an anus.
Only Cronenberg could take the works of an author often thought of as unadaptable and not only make it cinema, but also make it distinctively his own.
5. Sexy Scars in Crash (1996)
Having Rosanna Arquette fashion a vaginal-looking scar on her thigh as the result of a car crash in a film about people who become sexually aroused by vehicular accidents may seem a bit on the nose. Add in the fact that James Spader fingers said scar while their characters have sex in a car, you wouldn't be wrong in thinking Cronenberg's gone a step too far (after all, Crash was notoriously banned in multiple places upon its release).
There's a steely distance drawn between the audience and the film's characters — we are merely observers of these curious individuals, enjoying our own voyeurism while they participate in theirs. This disconnect adds to Crash's unique spin on the genre. Going beyond the usual physical contortions and lacerations, Cronenberg explores the desire of the human body in inopportune moments when bodies are severely injured and deformed.
By utilizing the tangible and intangible elements of the human body, Crash taps into a holistic form of body horror that we haven't seen before or since.
4. The bUttholE of eXistenZ (1999)
A more innocent take on body mutilation, eXistenZ creates biopods — a fleshy, nipple-y looking video game console that connects to its player via a port surgically created in one's mid-back. The cable and connecting plug look like umbilical cords, and the port is anus-like in appearance (a recurring aesthetic with Cronenberg, it would seem).
When players plug into eXistenZ the video game, they are transported into another world to play, with the possibility of moving deeper into the game, further detaching one from reality. The brilliance of eXistenZ's body horror lies in the contrast of futuristic gameplay, the organic appearance of the console, and the grounded nature of how a player connects to the game.
Cronenberg marries the inherent biology of humans with technological innovation to depict a rather bleak outlook for humanity. He was ahead of his time predicting virtual reality, gaming-obsessed culture, and attachment to devices, using the body as our conduit for understanding humanity's overall loosening grip on self-awareness.
3. Birthing The Brood (1979)
Inspired by Cronenberg's own acrimonious divorce and subsequent messy custody proceedings, The Brood tells the story of Nola, a woman undergoing unconventional therapy treatments, and Frank, Nola's estranged husband trying to look after their daughter. When strange, asexual creatures attack those close to Nola and their daughter, Frank goes on a search for what these things are.
The film culminates in Frank confronting Nola, who has been birthing these creatures in an external womb. In arguably the most disturbing birthing scene in cinema, Nola tears open the womb with her teeth, and then pries open the sac, revealing a baby creature dripping in blood, which she ceremoniously licks clean. The reflexive reaction of audiences is echoed in the face of Frank as he faces off with Nola's deranged methods of protecting their daughter.
It would be putting it kindly to describe The Brood as a takedown of marriage, divorce and parenthood. And perhaps Cronenberg himself said it best: "The Brood is my version of Kramer vs. Kramer, but more realistic."
2. Long Live the New Flesh of Videodrome (1983)
If you're of a certain age and stayed up watching TV into the waning hours of the evening, you may remember CityTV's enticing late-night programming that included softcore pornography. Controversial during its time (and since discontinued), Cronenberg took one of Canada's national broadcasters to task, warning of the dangers of television, violence and sex.
In Videodrome, James Woods plays Max Renn, the CEO of a television station who discovers a foreign broadcast signal of snuff films. Seeing an opportunity to drive his channel's viewership up, Max televises the show — but, in trying to track down the source of the signal, uncovers a web of lies and deceit.
Similar to eXistenZ, Cronenberg uses body horror to emphasize our attachment to technology, and in this case, specifically, the attraction to mindless, titillating entertainment. The most compelling of the body horror is the giant slit in Max's stomach that is not only used as a gun hideaway, but also a Betamax player — a brilliant way of illustrating how we are ingesting ideas and values, sometimes against our will.
Videodrome has become a cult classic since its release, due in part to the visceral imagery — the abdomen slit is the most notable, but let's not forget the various ways Max's fears and desires are manifested in inanimate objects (whipping a gyrating television set, for example). One of the best uses of body horror in film, Videodrome foreshadowed the grip television content would have on society in a way only Cronenberg could do.
1. Life Finds a Way in The Fly (1986)
Body transformation is one of the better known attributes of a sub-genre that is relatively difficult to define. The change of our human body from one state to another emphasizes our discomfort with and attraction to the strange and unknown, and no other Cronenberg film exemplifies this like The Fly.
Scientist Seth Brundle (the eminent Jeff Goldblum) is experimenting with teleportation, and, during one test wherein he is the test subject, a fly finds its way into the telepod. What results is Brundle's degradation from man into fly. We not only see a physical transformation of appearance, strength and abilities, but also a mental change in confidence, curiosity and desire.
The Fly has some stark depictions of body horror: baboons being obliterated during teleportation and human shells crumbling down in a heap of bloody flesh — but it's all done in the name of uncovering our acceptance (or lack thereof) of death and aging. No other sequence explores this more than when Brundlefly's nails and teeth fall out. In two quiet moments, Brundlefly's human qualities break loose with great ease, in a powerful statement of how easy our physical state will fail us.
It's hard not to see the parallels between The Fly and the AIDS epidemic of the time. And although Cronenberg stated in the DVD commentary that this was not his intention, the scope of The Fly speaks to its depth. As we see Brundle lose his physical humanity, we see the desperation and cruelty of our inevitable end.