Anyone who has watched a movie from the body horror sub-genre knows how gruesome and disturbing they can be. From 1931’s Frankenstein to 2018’s Overlord, body horror has been thrilling audiences for ages. While more squeamish audiences may try to avoid these terrifying transformations, there are actually plenty of non-horror movies that technically fall under the body horror umbrella. While they are disguised as action, drama, comedy, or even family friendly, they can’t fool us. We know better!
Here’s 10 non-horror flicks that are.. dare we say.. transformative?
10. Big (1988)
This Oscar-nominated, Golden Globe-winning comedic drama may seem innocent enough, but let’s face it; Big is definitely body horror. Twelve-year-old Josh (David Moscow) is frustrated that he’s not tall enough to go on a carnival ride with his older crush, leaving him frustrated. This leads him to make a wish to a mysterious Zoltar machine to be “big.” While Zoltar says that his wish has been granted Josh is skeptical… until he wakes the next morning to find himself in a grown man’s body! Tom Hanks portrays Josh as an adult and does a fantastic job of showing how horrified the 12-year-old is when he discovers he’s trapped in the body of a 30-year-old. Not only does his mother freak out and send him crying from the house, but later in the film he has an awkward first encounter with a grown woman. (Just think about that for a second…) This one is on the milder side as far as body horror goes, but we’re just getting started.
9. Edward Scissorhands (1990)
In a dark, brooding castle on the edge of a cookie-cutter suburb, The Inventor (Vincent Price) creates a living man named Edward (Johnny Depp) from what was once a robot who chopped food with this scissor hands. Sadly, The Inventor dies suddenly before he can complete Edward and give him his human hands. As a result, Edward is unable to touch or use his scissors like the average person uses their hands. He remains secluded in the castle until a kind Avon lady (Diane Wiest) discovers him and brings him home with her. Because of his scissor-hands, Edward is ostracized despite showing he is kind-hearted. At first, the suburbanites fear him, but even when they “accept” him, it’s just a superficial welcome before they turn on him again. His hands cause him to be an outcast, but he puts them to good use and continues to thrive on his own away from the masses.
Even though he’s not completely human, I see Edward Scissorhands as being akin to Pinocchio; while they both start out as constructs, they do become human at some point. Both can eat, drink (and get drunk), cry, feel emotions and pain, and share many human characteristics. Pinocchio, too, can be considered body horror if you consider his transformation into a donkey and the growth of his nose when he lies.
8. Howl’s Moving Castle (2004)
After 18 year-old Sophie has an unexpected encounter with the wizard Howl, she is targeted by the evil Witch of the Waste. This results in Sophie being cursed and turned into a plump, gray-haired elderly woman by the Witch while working in her father’s hat shop one day. Beyond her appearance, Sophie’s voice is also changed at first by the curse (at one point her mother tells her she sounds like a 90-year-old grandmother). Sophie also finds that she can’t move as quickly, is more persnickety and assertive, but ultimately feels unattractive and sad. Throughout the film, Sophie’s appearance and age seem to be altered by her determination and emotions. When she is more confident and strong-willed, she grows younger. However, when her confidence is rattled, she ages again quickly. This scenario really plays on the fear of growing older, your appearance, and being limited in the things you can accomplish.
7. The Last Unicorn (1982)
The Rankin/Bass animated adaptation of Peter S. Beagle’s fantasy novel introduces us to a unicorn (Mia Farrow) who realizes she is the last of her kind. Determined to find others like her, she sets out on a journey and is captured by the witch, Mommy Fortuna (Angela Landsbury). Fortuna puts the unicorn in a traveling sideshow, Mommy Fortuna’s Midnight Carnival, with magically altered animals. After the bumbling wizard Schmendrick (Alan Arkin) helps to set the unicorn free, he accompanies her on her quest. But in order to keep her safe from The Red Bull, who they discover has been hunting down unicorns, Schmendrick uses his magic to transform the unicorn into a human woman. Now known as The Lady Amalthea, the once immortal creature becomes hysterical, feeling as though she is dying in her new body. The longer she remains Amalthea, the less she remembers of her quest and her life as a magical creature. It would seem she is completely losing herself after being magically transformed into something she is not.
6. RoboCop (1987)
Alex Murphy (Peter Weller) is a police officer in crime-ridden Detroit set in a dystopian future where the police force is about to be privatized by a company called Omni Consumer Products (OCP). After Murphy and his partner, Anne Lewis (Nancy Allen), attempt to arrest a violent street gang, Murphy is brutally murdered. This bloody scene alone would qualify as body horror as we watch the gang members take turns shooting appendages off of the police officer. However, it’s what comes after his demise that really drives the body horror angle home. Officer Murphy has his remaining arm amputated and is upgraded by OCP to be a cyborg known as RoboCop. In addition to being reconstructed with Kevlar and titanium body parts, RoboCop is treated like a product instead of a person. When he begins recalling memories from his life as Alex Murphy, including flashbacks of his wife, son, and those who killed him, he begins working independently of his programming. We watch as he struggles with the realization that he’s lost his wife and son and has to come to terms with what he has become.
This type of body horror has been done a few times, most notably with the anime film Ghost in the Shell and Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith when Anakin Skywalker becomes Darth Vader.
5. The Diving Bell and The Butterfly (2007)
Based on the memoir of Jean-Dominique Bauby, this true story chronicles the Elle editor’s life after he suffers a devastating stroke at the age of 43. Bauby, played by Mathieu Amalric, finds himself in a hospital in France after waking up from a three-week long coma. He learns he has a rare condition known as “locked-in syndrome,” which leaves him unable to move anything except his left eyelid. He also cannot speak even though his mental faculties are completely intact. In the film, we hear Bauby’s internal dialogue and learn he is devastated and feels trapped in his own body. His speech therapist, Henriette (Marie-Josée Croze), teaches him a form of communicating where he blinks when she gets to the letter he needs to spell out a word. The process is painstaking, but Bauby is determined to write his memoir and to prove he is still cognizant and aware. Through the process, we learn through metaphor that he feels like a diver being physically imprisoned in a diving bell while his mind flies freely like a butterfly. His tragic story ends just days after his memoir is published, just two years after his life-altering stroke.
The fear of paralyzation and being trapped in one’s own body is something we’ve seen again and again in horror movies, particularly with sleep paralysis and what is perceived as ghostly encounters. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is all the more terrifying considering it is a true account of one man’s suffering and determination.
4. Tale of Tales (2015)
Three fairy tales are brought to life in this gruesome European fantasy film from director Matteo Garrone. The tales are intertwined as they are set in neighboring kingdoms. The second story of the anthology brings us a grim lesson about the obsession with beauty and youth. The story was adapted from the fable La Vecchia Scorticata (or The Flayed Old Lady) by Italian poet Giambattista Basile. In it we meet the King of Strongcliff (Vincent Cassel) who is enthralled by the sound of a woman singing. Not realizing she is one of two elderly sisters, Dora (Hayley Carmichael) and Imma (Shirley Henderson), he spends the night with Dora in complete darkness, only to discover her true appearance the next day. Disgusted by his lover, he has her tossed out of his window by his guards, where a witch finds her dangling from a tree. This witch nurses Dora from her breast and when she awakens, she is young and beautiful. Later, The King finds her while out hunting and makes her his Queen.
Dora invites her sister Imma to their wedding and offers to take care of her, noting that she cannot live with her in the castle. However, Imma refuses to leave and demands to know how Dora became a young maiden again. Upset and annoyed, Dora lies to her sister and tells her she was flayed. After being forcibly removed from the castle, Imma finds a person who is willing to flay her skin, which results not in her becoming beautiful, but instead leaves her disfigured and bloodied. It’s a gory scene but shows the length that people will go when clamoring for beauty and youth. And in the end, not even Dora’s beauty lasts. We see her youth begin to fade while she’s attending a wedding in another kingdom and watch as she flees the court.
3. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)
Brad Pitt stars in this fantasy drama about a baby, Benjamin Button, who is born with an aging disorder that makes him age in reverse. While Benjamin’s mother dies after giving birth, his father, overcome with grief and shock that his newborn looks like an elderly man, leaves him on the doorstep of a retirement home. A caregiver at the facility, Queenie (Taraji P. Henson), discovers the baby and decides to raise him as her own child. After doctors discover Benjamin has health issues like osteoporosis and arthritis, they don’t expect him to live long. But Benjamin thrives, especially after meeting Daisy, who would become the love of his life. As Benjamin ages, they discover he begins to grow younger. So, at birth, while Benjamin had the mind of a child, he was withered with age. However, as time passed, his body grew younger and his mind grew older, causing him to look like a 7 year-old while actually being an elderly man with signs of dementia.
Similar to Sophie in Howl’s Moving Castle, Benjamin’s story plays on the fears of aging and the changes and limitations that come with it.
2. The Incredible Hulk (2008)
The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) is just brimming with body horror from both heroes and villains. While I could point out dozens of characters who fall into this category, from Spider-Man’s genetically modified spider bite to the mutants in The X-Men (Wolverine alone could take up an entire article), I’ve chosen to focus on Bruce Banner and The Hulk. Maybe its because I grew up watching Bill Bixby and hearing “The Lonely Man” play at the end of each episode, but I feel that Banner has one of the most affecting storylines in the MCU. He has little control over when he changes, but loses all control when he does.
The opening credits of The Incredible Hulk shows us The Hulk’s origin story, which occurs after an accident in a lab. Banner, (Edward Norton in this film), is experimenting with gamma radiation alongside Betty Ross (Liv Tyler) and her father, General Ross (William Hurt). But something goes awry and Banner is pelted by gamma rays, turning him into a monstrous, green-skinned juggernaut. He thrashes around the lab, destroying their equipment and injuring both Betty and her father. Later, when Banner visits Betty in the hospital, her father angrily kicks him out. Banner flees but is pursued by the government in hopes that they can somehow weaponize the creature they’ve created. Banner spends much of his time on the run, hiding from capture, but also from himself. He learns meditation and relaxation techniques and lives in Brazil in an attempt to stay off of General Ross’s radar. He counts the days since his last Hulk-out and tries to keep his heart rate and anger to a minimum. This all constitutes as body horror, not only because of the way he morphs into The Hulk but because of his loss of control. His body physically changes, but he also loses his personality and becomes someone else, much like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
1. The Princess and The Frog (2009)
When Tiana (Anika Noni Rose), an aspiring restaurateur, attends her friend’s masquerade ball in New Orleans, she is mistaken for a princess by a frog who is eager to be turned back into a prince. Known as Prince Naveen in human form, the frog, (Bruno Campos), convinces Tiana to kiss him in hopes that it will break the voodoo spell that was placed upon him. However, when Tiana plants a kiss on his cold, froggy lips, she is also transformed into a frog. The duo then have to work together (despite their bickering) to find a solution and turn themselves back into humans.
While this is one of many films portraying humans stuck in animal form, I think The Princess and The Frog, in addition to being body horror, also has a greater element of danger than some of the others. With movies where people transform into cats or dogs, the animals are less likely to be maimed or eaten. However, as frogs, Tiana and Naveen are not only prey for other animals in the swamp, but they are also hunted as food at one point by humans.
There are plenty of flicks out there that fall under these different categories, so which movies would you include as non-horror body horror? Tell us over at Twitter, Reddit, and in the Horror Movie Fiend Club on Facebook.