Return of the Living Dead 3

Body horror is as endlessly fascinating as it is uncomfortable. When we think of body horror, we tend to think of movies about the body breaking down and becoming something else, being transformed by outside or inside forces, against our own will. The Thing, The Fly, Videodrome—most of the films that come to mind immediately all fall into this transformative genre. But body horror is incredibly wide and is filled with smaller subsets and even sub-genres.

Of those sub-genres, one of the most interesting is body modification. Most body horror is inherently sci-fi based, it’s about an alien or a virus or technology gone wrong. It’s something outside of you, beyond your control, turning you into something else.

It can be really fun to reverse that. What if these extreme bodily changes are done by human hands? What if you’re willingly doing it to yourself? This is a kind of horror that doesn’t come up often, but can be just as engaging and fascinating as classics like The Thing and Videodrome.

With that in mind, we’re going to look at some of the very best that this sub-genre has to offer, from forgotten gems to contemporary classics, these are the most endearing and imaginative body modification horror films. Whether shockingly grotesque or gruesomely funny, they all push the boundaries of the flesh.

The Skin I Live In

A disturbing thriller about a cosmetic surgeon trying to perfect an artificial skin, there are body modification themes running throughout every scene of this film. It takes heavy inspiration from Eyes Without a Face and is by and large a deeply psychological look at the power of transformation and the effect it can have on the mind.

Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas) in the Pedro Almodovar film The Skin I live in.Frankenhooker

There’s a reason Frankenhooker is on the list instead of Frankenstein. Mary Shelley’s classic novel and James Whale’s classic film are both about using dead flesh to create something entirely new. Frankenhooker is about a man trying to “save” his girlfriend. The problem is that he’s using new body parts to create a body that’s perfect in his eyes, but far from the form she originally had. He’s bringing her back in a completely new body—save for her head—because he thinks she’ll be better this way. That’s where the body modification comes in.

The bride is brought to life in FrankenhookerTusk

Tusk is about as extreme a body modification horror story as you can get. It can even be argued that the idea behind it goes further than Human Centipede simply because transforming a man into a walrus, by hand, through surgery… that just feels like a lot more work. It’s a hilarious concept at first, but it’s a truly unnerving, claustrophobic horror story. It’s an underrated film that deserves a little bit more recognition for how much it embraces its own weirdness.

Howard Howell snuggles up in TuskEyes Without a Face

One of the most disturbing and influential early French horror films, Eyes Without a Face is about a young woman, believed to be dead, who was disfigured in an accident and is hidden away in her father’s home. He works diligently to find a way to graft another face onto hers, so that she will no longer have to wear a blank white mask to hide her scars. The mask here was the primary inspiration for the look of Michael Myers in Halloween.

eyes-without-a-faceReturn of the Living Dead 3

Return of the Living Dead was a counter-culture horror movie for the nihilistic punk generation. The third entry updates that concept for the body mod culture of the early 1990s. In the original, a zombie notes that they eat brains to keep the pain of being dead at bay. This one inverts that kind of brilliantly, by centering on a zombie who inflicts pain on herself to suppress the hunger for brains. It results in one of the coolest-looking horror characters of the ‘90s and a horror hero for body modification fans.

Julie in Return of the Living Dead 3American Mary

Few horror films deal with body modification as explicitly as American Mary. It also deals with the subject realistically and with respect. Mary Mason takes to giving back alley body modification surgeries just to pay her way through medical school. Obviously it takes a turn for the horrific, but the body modification is never really a part of the horror of it, which is ultimately refreshing.

American Mary directed by the Soska Sisters.Hellraiser

It’s the grand daddy of body modification movies. It took the concept of body horror and put it on a pedestal. With Hellraiser, Clive Barker had the gall to look at the end results of typically gruesome transformations and say, “This is beautiful.” That’s what ultimately makes it such an entertaining, fascinating film. It’s not just about exploring this darker world, it’s about the people who want to see that world and want to be changed by it.

Cenobites in Clive Barker's Hellraiser