Decay. Death. Mutilation of flesh. These are some of the primal fears that connect us together as humans—and, unsurprisingly, this fear of the grotesque has been deftly exploited in cinema.
In horror, there's a creative impulse to render the human body as somehow less than human, as violently imperfect, as dramatically unsound. That impulse reflects our fears of human mortality.
And that impulse led to the creation of a very particular subgenre of horror movies called body horror.
What Are Body Horror Movies?
Body horror movies focus on depicting the physical body as ruined, contaminated, deformed, or infected. There's a fascination with showing the breakdown of the body, its transformation into something else—something other, something inhuman.
To be clear, not every film that features themes of bodily violence counts as a body horror movie.
The genre specifically emphasizes the human body as emblematic of something greater. Often, there are allegories at work and there are deeper meanings beneath the surface vileness. Indeed, meaningfully grotesque disfiguration is the name of the game.
As such, slasher films that showcase the violent hacking of body parts typically don't count as body horror. (Sorry, Jason!)
Similarly, while Get Out (2017) and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1955) are fantastic allegorical horror films about the abduction of the body, they aren't exactly body horror because they don't feature corruption of the body as a symbolic focus.
With the term now defined, let's dive into our picks for the best body horror movies of all time and why they're so fascinating.
10. Titane (2021)
Titane was the brain child of French auteur Julia Ducournau. Though she's only made two movies so far—the other one being Raw (2016)—both have demonstrated a keen interest in body horror.
This one recently won the Palme D'Or, so you know it's good! But it's also strange and takes a large number of narrative turns that might confuse you on first watch. Still, it's an excellent body horror that's worth experiencing if you want something a bit different.
9. An American Werewolf in London (1981)
John Landis was well-regarded as a great comedy movie director in the 1970s, so when he came out with An American Werewolf in London in 1981, people expected it to be a hoot.
Many of them ended up being terribly surprised when they discovered it was more body horror than laugh-out-loud romp.
When two American tourists get lost in the British countryside, things take a turn for the worst. What follows is a rather tragic tale that's chock-full of lore, secrecy, and one unlucky lycanthrope.
8. District 9 (2009)
District 9 remains one of the most lauded and most impressive films to come out of the 2000s. It also just happens to be one of the best body horror movies—not just of the decade, but of all time.
Featuring a solid performance from Sharlto Copley, District 9 follows a man who's slowly turning into an alien. It documents his horror and panic as he tries his best to remain human.
District 9 is an intelligent and much-needed socio-political allegory for how we see and treat other people, especially outsiders.
7. Videodrome (1983)
Videodrome was the first David Cronenberg film to gain any studio backing, and it resulted in one of the most interesting body horror films ever made. (And as a heads-up: this won't be the last time you see David Cronenberg on this list.)
Featuring James Woods in his prime, Videodrome follows a man who watches a snuff film, only to become obsessed with the mystery behind the channel he's stumbled upon. What are its origins?
The answer to that question leads him down a dark path of body horror and technological madness. It's a most strange but fantastic film.
6. Slither (2006)
Before James Gunn directed any of the Guardians of the Galaxy movies, he made his directorial debut with Slither, a body horror movie that pays homage to all the body horror movies that inspired it. How meta!
It sees Nathan Fillion playing the Police Chief of a provincial town that's subject to an alien invasion, and we get thrills, laughs, and screams of disgust as Michael Rooker's character slowly becomes deformed.
5. Eraserhead (1977)
David Lynch is one of the most cerebral directors of our time, having created some of the most ineffable films ever made.
Eraserhead is one such film. It centers on a man who's thrust into the nightmare of fatherhood—and just like any real nightmare, Eraserhead is surreal, horrifying, and confusing.
Henry's (Jack Nance) offspring turns out to be a deformed, disgusting, worm-looking creature. We're never given the reason as to why, and the entire film moves forward in a delirious haze.
4. Black Swan (2010)
Darren Aronofsky was never a man to make a relaxing film. Even so, with Black Swan, he made one of his most intense and unsettling films ever.
Though the movie is primarily a depiction of obsession and the kind of madness that's induced by unending ambition, Black Swan shows the ramifications of such hysteria in bodily form.
There are several scenes in the film that feature moments of stomach-turning body horror, but the one that has stayed with me for years is when Natalie Portman is pulling at a hangnail. Yeesh...
3. Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1989)
Tetsuo: The Iron Man was written, produced, edited, and directed by one man with a disturbing vision: Shinya Tsukamoto.
And what a disturbing vision it was! Of all the films on this list, Tetsuo: The Iron Man is perhaps the most off-putting. (Given that this list also features Ducournau and Cronenberg, that's saying a lot!)
Tetsuo: The Iron Man centers on a man who's tormented by images of metal and industrialism, and those intrusive thoughts end up driving him hysterical. It's a challenging film to watch with all the self-harm, sodomy, and maggot-infested wounds, so viewer discretion is advised...
2. The Thing (1982)
No doubt director John Carpenter learned a thing or two from his predecessors when it came to body horror. That said, John Carpenter was also the director who changed the entire genre.
After The Thing, body horror would never quite be the same again. With the help of Robin R. Bottin and Stanley Winston—two of the best special effects artists in the film industry—he made a most shocking film.
Audiences had no idea what they were in for when they walked into the theater to watch The Thing in 1982.
The scene where "the thing" from another world starts assimilating itself with dogs in the kennel? It became a landmark that showed every film director (body horror enthusiast or not) what was possible in cinema.
1. The Fly (1986)
When picking the best body horror movie of all time, it's a tough choice between The Thing and The Fly. But ultimately it's David Cronenberg who reigns supreme as the body horror virtuoso.
And The Fly is Cronenberg's masterpiece. It features Jeff Goldblum in his best performance as a scientist who's on the cusp of discovering one of the most groundbreaking inventions in history: teleportation.
However, as the title might suggest, something goes wrong... and what follows is a film unlike any other.
The film is part remake of The Fly (1958) and part homage to Kafka's The Metamorphosis (1915), but all David Cronenberg: tragic, horrifying, and disturbing. In terms of sheer body horror, The Fly remains unrivaled.