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Permanent Midnight is a weekly Complex Pop Culture column where senior staff writer, and resident genre fiction fanatic, Matt Barone will put the spotlight on the best new indie horror/sci-fi/weirdo cinema, twisted novels, and other below-the-radar oddities.
Think back on some of horror’s most unforgettable images. David Naughton’s CGI-free transformation into a lycanthrope in An American Werewolf in London, complete with close-ups of the actor’s skin stretching, bones protruding beneath his flesh, and his pain-fueled cries and wails. Or the infamous “chestburster” in Ridley Scott’s Alien, when John Hurt lies on that table and the little E.T. rips through his chest cavity. Or, to a much less iconic but no less effective degree, the brunette in Cabin Fever shaving her lesion-covered legs in the bathtub, pulling wads of skin off instead of hair.
Why won’t those movie scenes ever stop being hard-to-watch and incredibly terrifying? Because they’re all part of what’s known as "body horror," those scares that tap directly into the viewer’s own sense of physical vulnerability. A homicidal maniac who pops up out of nowhere and cuts someone’s head off with a machete? Nowhere near as frightening—that kind of attack is sudden, abrupt, and beyond the victim’s control. But knowing that your body has betrayed you and it’s slowly killing from the inside out? It doesn’t get much more unnerving than that. A smart man or woman would opt for Jason Voorhees quickly crushing his or her skull over helplessly watching their skin mutate, decompose, or emit whatever variety of creepy-crawly parasite.
FX’s new hit series The Strain is ridiculously over-the-top and a huge mess narratively, but it’s also one of the most enjoyably unpretentious hours on television right now. Executive producer Guillermo del Toro never loses sight of what makes the show such a unique blast—unlike everything else on TV, The Strain revels in its grossness. Ostensibly about a vampire epidemic in NYC, it’s more so a weekly dose of body horror for people with strong stomachs. In one scene, an infected Goth rocker stands above a urinal as his schlong falls into the toilet and goes flush; in several others, the city’s ghouls are attacking civilians by shooting tentacled larvae out of their mouths and onto the victims’ necks. The Strain taps into the same kind of bodily disruption as, say, Alien’s chestburster but does so with its slithery, pulsating tongue firmly rooted in its figurative cheek.
Not unlike how The Walking Dead brought zombies into the mainstream, The Strain is body horror’s shining moment in pop culture. It doesn’t, however, hold a blood-dripping candle to the following six examples of bodily terror, selected in part by my Complex colleague, and fellow body horror fan, Nathan Reese. If The Strain’s often nasty brand of anatomical horror is currently your bag, these far superior works will turn you into a veritable physique-nightmare freak.
The Troop, by Nick Cutter (novel, 2014)
If it's ever adapted for the big screen, Canadian author Nick Cutter's The Troop will make for the craziest and most brutal rated-R movie starring pre-teens kids imaginable. Written in a loose, experimental style that's similar to Stephen King's Carrie, with several chapters presented as newspaper clippings and in other non-narrative formats, The Troop explores what exactly happened to five Boy Scouts and their group leaders when they spent time on an isolated island and, foolishly, tried helping out a sickly stranger.
In broad strokes, The Troop is The Lord of the Flies by way of Eli Roth's Cabin Fever (another notable addition into the body horror lexicon). In regards to the William Golding comparison, Cutter's young, inexperienced characters—five 14-year-old scouts who foolishly help a sickly old man—all have distinct personalities, and the group's various interpersonal dynamics both evolve and devolve convincingly and compellingly; as for the Eli Roth parallel, readers with weak stomachs should be warned—there are body-consuming, bio-engineered tapeworms at the story's center, and they're harbingers of some of the nastiest literary gore this side of '80s splatterpunk fiction. They're more nauseating to read than Stephenie Meyer's
You'll never look at someone back-spine the same way again—you know, without nearly upchucking while picturing The Troop's insatiable tapeworms wrapping themselves around it. —Matt Barone
Black Hole, by Charles Burns (12-issue comic book series, 1995-2005)
If body horror at its best is a warped mirror of our own human insecurities, there may be no better example of the genre than Charles Burns' Black Hole. Burns covers all the necessary bases of the body horror gamut: disgusting visuals, terrifying scares, and sexual frustration, but at its core Black Hole is a story of teenagers losing their innocence and discovering who they really are.
The story centers around a group of high-schoolers in a small Pacific Northwest town afflicted by a mysterious sexually transmitted disease. After exposure, which the teens can't seem avoid, they slowly transform into mutants—and not the X-Men type. Instead of super-powers, symptoms include the growth of tails, severe skin problems, and vaginas where vaginas shouldn't be. (Many artists have created visual euphemisms for female reproductive organs, but none have done so with more psychosexual unease than Charles Burns.)
In a genre built around making us feel uncomfortable in our own skin, only Charles Burns actually shows people literally crawling out of it. —Nathan Reese
David Cronenberg's legacy is, in a word, singular. Before his more recent forays into less-weird mainstream flicks (A History of Violence, Eastern Promises, A Dangerous Method), the king of Canadian genre filmmaking was the go-to guy for all things body horror, from The Brood (about a pregnant woman's fetuses manifesting themselves as killer dwarves) to Scanners (see: this epic GIF) and into The Fly (basically 96 minutes' worth of revolting body grotesqueries).
Cronenberg's body horror supremacy started with the audacious 1975 horror flick Shivers, a wicked amalgamation of eccentric exploitation and deeply perverted sexual imagery. Think George Romero's Dawn of the Dead remixed by '60s/'70s smut champ Russ Meyer. In a massive, trendy apartment complex, a parasite works its way into the orifices of various tenants, turning them into overly horny lunatics. One of them even slithers its way into a woman's you-know-what while she's taking a bath.
Shivers is a pint-sized-creature feature cum zombie movie by way of Viagra and Love Potion No. 9—and it's even crazier, not to mention more entertaining, than that sounds. —Matt Barone
The Thing (1982)
The set-up is classic horror: A team of scientists is stuck in a remote research center. No one can get out. Anyone could be the monster. But though the premise may be familiar, everything about the the titular Thing is alien.
I’ve probably seen the John Carpenter's The Thing more than fifteen times over the years, and not once have the bloody, goopy effects not made me queasy. In one scene a wrinkled, tumor-ridden head emerges from a man's torso. That may sound like typical gross-out horror, but the clumps of matted hair in the pulpy blood bring it to another level entirely. In another, a dog transforms in a writhing mass of tentacles. Why do these aliens seem to explode into a gory mass when confronted? It's not clear, but it makes for some of the greatest physical effects displays ever put on film.
And don't get me started on Ennio Morricone's ingenious soundtrack, or Kurt Russell's steely, spot-on lead performance. From the music to the acting and the monsters, everything about The Thing is visceral and revelatory —Nathan Reese
One night in 2004, Brandon Cronenberg—yes, the son of body horror master David Cronenberg—was watching an episode of Jimmy Kimmel Live. The guest of the hour: actress Sarah Michelle Gellar. The former Buffy the Vampire Slayer star chatted with Kimmel while sick, telling the late-night host that if she sneezed, the whole audience would get infected with whatever disease she had—and everyone started clapping and cheering.
Cronenberg, then a first-year film student at Toronto's Ryerson University, had an idea. At the time, he was developing a screenplay inspired by his own recent bout with the flu, and how realizing that he probably caught the illness from somebody else created a strange kind of intimacy between them, even if they'd never actually met. From these germs, Cronenberg had the plot for what would become his feature-length debut, Antiviral. Set in an alternate, slightly futuristic version of Toronto, Antiviral, which Cronenberg also wrote, centers on Syd March (Caleb Landry Jones), an employee at the Lucas Clinic, where people pay for needle-injected transmissions of their favorite celebrities' diseases. It's all very legal, and very hip.
As the film opens, Syd meets with a young man whose infatuation over a beautiful starlet named Hannah Geist (Sarah Gadon) leads to Syd filling his upper lip with Hannah's herpes. But then Hannah gets sick again, and when Syd visits her to take a sample of her latest, unclassifiable ailment (contracted while she was "looking for orphans in Africa"), he decides to try some out for himself. Shortly after, Hannah's condition drastically worsens, and Syd starts to feel her pain. And from there, Antiviral fascinatingly demonstrates the grosser sides of celebrity obsession. It's a cynical satire that's also one of the most underrated indie genre movies of the last few years. —Matt Barone
Some of the best body horror, like the best horror in general, is social commentary. David Cronenberg, aside from being a master of all things terrifying and nauseating, is an adept psychologist obsessed with the darkest reaches of the human mind. But not everyone is Cronenberg, and sometimes it's better to just go all-out.
Enter: Stuart Gordon's Re-Animator, perhaps the most batshit crazy zombie film ever made. The plot itself, which deals with a crazed doctor trying to bring the dead back to life, is too convoluted to properly explain here. Let's just say that, over the course of the film, there are lots of zombies, immense amounts of gore, and a particularly inspired scene featuring cunnilingus from a severed head. How's that for for a visual pun? Sometimes you just need to throw subtlety out the window and enjoy the mayhem. —Nathan Reese