It’s no secret that horror has an obsession with sex and the terrors that can come from the act. Much of horror seems to condemn the act of sex, making it destructive, disgusting, and a site of decomposition. But other horror films try to make it a site of empowerment and agency. This list tries to look at both sides of the use of sex in body horror. While some more explicitly condemn sex more than others, there is no doubting each film’s importance in how we view and interpret sex through the lens of horror.
10. Trouble Every Day (2001)
In Claire Denis’ art house body horror, two people, Coré (Béatrice Dalle, Inside) and Shane (Vincent Gallo, Goodfellas), are inflicted with some kind of disease that make them sex-crazed cannibals. Whenever they have sex, they are overcome with insatiable hunger and must consume their partner. This makes Shane’s honeymoon awkward, as he must keep finding excuses to keep from having sex with his wife. While he tries desperately to find a cure, the body count rises. It is a film full of blood, semen, and other bodily fluids as they both try to navigate life with this sexual hunger.
9. Antibirth (2016)
In Danny Perez’s Antibirth, body horror meets a psychedelic hellscape, full of bright colors, bong rips, and bizarre creatures. A fabulously crass Natasha Lyonne (Orange Is The New Black) plays Lou, a party girl who has no other desire than to get high and mess around. However, after a particularly gnarly night of partying, she finds herself pregnant. But this isn’t a normal pregnancy; it’s accelerated and is doing some unnatural things to her body. The whole film culminates in quite the birth scene. Perez, who previously directed music videos for Animal Collective, brought his unique aesthetic to his first feature film, creating a body horror film that will burn itself into your memory.
8. When Animals Dream (2014)
This wouldn’t be a sex-and-body-horror list without at least one coming-of-age story. When Animals Dream is a Danish film full of young female rage and sexual frustration under the guise of lycanthropy. Marie, played by Sonia Suhl, is going through some changes. She develops a rash, starts growing patches of hair, and is having bloody dreams. She slowly discovers she is becoming a werewolf, but not due to some kind of bite or encounter with a werewolf. Instead, her condition is genetic, one that her father has hidden from her. This contemplative body horror is perfect for anyone looking for a new twist on the coming age story.
7. Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1989)
Maybe a little experimental for some, this Japanese cyberpunk body horror involves a drill penis. A metal fetishist, played by Shinya Tsukamoto, is obsessed with putting metal into his body. However, it goes too far and the wound begins to fester. He runs out of his apartment in horror, only to be hit by a car. A salaryman and his wife try to hide the body, but cannot escape the consequences. The salaryman’s begins transforming into a mass of metal and machinery; the metal fetishist’s wildest fantasy has come true. A mass of metal, sex, and desire, Tetsuo: The Iron Man is a masterpiece of Japanese cyberpunk cinema.
6. Dead Ringers (1988)
While Dead Ringers may not be Cronenberg’s most gory piece of body horror, it is perhaps his most sexual. Twin gynecologists, Elliot and Beverly, both played by Jeremy Irons, are renowned for their work on the woman’s body. However, Beverly begins to unravel and must push the boundaries of gynaecology even further. He fashions medieval-looking instruments to use in and around the vagina, instruments that seem more about inflicting pain than easing it. Dead Ringers is a film about the many forms of sexual obsession and its strange, horrifying manifestations.
5. Thanatomorphose (2012)
Thanatomorphose means an organism’s decomposition caused by death, so you can guess where this goes. Laura is young adult who has an active sexual life, including a relationship with her less-than-ideal friend who treats her poorly. One day, she wakes up covered in mysterious bruises. The film follows her as her body decomposes and her flesh seems to slough off her body. Similar to Contracted, which makes an appearance on this list, Thanatomorphose sickly illustrates a fear of sex and its unforeseen consequences.
4. Teeth (2007)
People are scared of vaginas. I never understood until I saw Teeth, a film about Dawn, a young woman who has vagina dentata, or a vagina with teeth. While it terrifies her at first, Dawn realizes that she can use it as a weapon against rapists, but only after a few harrowing sexual experiences of her own. Some view Teeth as an addition to the rape-revenge genre, which I would agree with. This was a formative film for me in high school, so take that as you will, but it is essential viewing for those interested in how youth and sexuality is portrayed in horror. It is full of dark humor, castration, and female empowerment.
3. Hellraiser (1987)
“We have such sights to show you.” These iconic words uttered by Pinhead the Cenobite are ingrained into the minds of most horror lovers. Pinhead is summoned into our world by a puzzle box. When opened, this box leads to Hell, which is a world of pain and pleasure. It is full of hooks, torture, and dismemberment, which the unfortunate Frank discovers. But it doesn’t stop with Frank as his brother and daughter must deal with the consequences of his search for sex. This horror classic is a perfect example of the union of sex and horror, particularly through the eyes of the visionary Clive Barker.
2. Contracted (2013)
This is a film that has haunted my thoughts since I watched it a few years ago. It is repulsive and difficult to watch, so I suppose it achieved its goal. After being raped by a stranger at a party, Samantha begins exhibiting symptoms of some kind of STD. But it’s no normal STD; it involves heavy bleeding, changing eye colors, losing flesh, and hallucinations. Her body begins to decay at a rapid rate and it becomes very apparent that this is more than just an STD. It includes a scene that involves sex and maggots, so take that as a word of warning. While parts of this film are difficult to watch and may turn some off immediately, it is an interesting look at sexuality in horror film and the treatment of gay characters on-screen.
1. Shivers (1975)
It’s only appropriate to have a Cronenberg film end this list, especially a piece of his work that is said to be the first that unites sex and body horror. The film begins with the murder-suicide of a scientist and a young girl. It is then revealed that the scientist suffered from a parasite he engineered, one that he wishes to be “a combination of aphrodisiac and venereal disease that will, hopefully, turn the world into one mindless orgy.” This parasite starts making its way through an apartment building, turning its hosts into violent, sex-crazed maniacs. Its original title was Orgy of the Blood Parasites, so you know it’ll be good.