The recent release of Nicolas Winding Refn’s body horror Neon Demon caused an uproar at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival. A depraved mix of self-indulgent cinematography and a muddled plot led to audience members literally yelling at the screen. Refn is all too familiar with strong reactions to his work, the jarring violence within Drive (2011) being heavily criticized upon release. However, there is one element within Neon Demon which, for better or for worse would have aided in the audience’s reaction – a throwback to the Body Horror Genre.
Body Horror’s “scares” are in the name; mostly centered on the destruction, degeneration, or mutation of the human form. It finds its roots in our primal fear of the uncanny and from an internal, not external threat. This leads to an alienation of our own physical self, ensuing in tension and paranoia pitted against our own biological makeup. Bodies designed or moving in a recognizable but jarring way, the Uncanny Valley, often provoke this reaction and feed into our subconscious fear of the other. This is why body horror is so disturbing, the images stick in the memory and the source of fear is inescapable, coming from within ourselves.
David Cronenberg’s The Fly (1986), Lynch’s Eraserhead (1977), and John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982) are brilliant examples of every day made strange. As a storytelling device, Body Horror lets the writer have free reign over the internal logic and “rules” of their story world. This is due to the fact that they are working beyond realism and invites the audience to suspend their disbelief, a liberating place to be as both audience and filmmaker.
Often Body Horror relies on physical effects such as the animatronics in The Thing and the prosthetics and use of latex in Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979). Dawn of the Dead (1978) also relied heavily on practical makeup. George A. Romero’s visual effects and makeup artist Thomas Savini was inspired by his time serving in the Vietnam War.
Whilst some forms of the genre focus entirely on torture, take the Saw (2004) and Hostel (2005) franchises, for instance, many of the more successful and resounding films take a more psychological, surreal, and often political twist on Body Horror.
David Cronenberg’s Shivers (1975) follows the residents of a state-of-the-art Apartment complex as they succumb to a parasite that turns them into “sex zombies”, spreading through sexual activity and an aggressively heightened libido. David Cronenberg is often described as the King of Body Horror and Shivers, his first commercial feature, “cuts to the heart of those moral and ethical structures surrounding correct social and sexual behavior”. (The Politics of Insects: David Cronenberg’s Cinema of Confrontation by Scott Wilson, Pg. 47). At one point in the film, an infected character has one of the slug-like parasites escape from their mouth, revealing itself as a grotesque representation of a phallus. The film itself begins to act as a subverting of middle-class America’s sexual and social taboos. Before the escape of the parasites we are shown affluent but socially disengaged and isolated individuals living in the Apartment complex. After the Parasite begins to take victims, we witness their primal instincts begin to take hold, their repressed and rather Freudian urges begin to take over.
Another movie of the Body Horror genre that critiques both class and sexuality simultaneously is Brian Yuzna’s Society (1989), showing the literally monstrous excesses of wealthy Beverley Hills dwellers. This is a regular trope in the genre; highlighting the absurdities of modern living to grotesque and horrifying extremes. A close descendant of the Body Horror genre is the Zombie Horror genre. Especially in Dawn of the Dead similar critiques are made on society. The Undead shamble around a Shopping Center, attracted to consumerism due to some basic instinct, vacant but with an insatiable appetite.
Videodrome (1983) also draws parallels with modern life through Body Horror. James Wood’s eventual assimilation with technology comments on the media’s influence on humanity. The psychological is represented in the physical and in this is the power of Body Horror. As one of the more visceral genres of cinema, Horror, and Body Horror, in particular, have the potential to stick in one’s mind indefinitely. The most effective pieces are the ones that use mutations, transformations, and human heads sprouting Spider legs as a statement-making tool. Refn understood this when making Neon Demon and utilized it in a provocative and therefore memorable way.
If a picture says a thousand words, then with context, Body Horror can make an audience puke them.