Horrorland is a column within Cinema Quarantino, the Hassle’s ongoing series of alternative streaming picks for the self-quarantined and the socially distanced, in which Hassle film staff writer Alexis den Boggende delves into the ins, outs, and deeper meanings within the horror genre.

THE FILMS: The Fly (1986) dir. David Cronenberg | The Human Centipede (2009) dir. Tom Six | Tusk (2014) dir. Kevin Smith

THE STREAMER: Amazon Prime

The human body is a funny thing, isn’t it?

Think of how today, in the age of COVID-19, we do whatever we can to keep our bodies safe. We social distance, we self-quarantine, and we wear face masks. We don’t want our bodies to fall ill, or have irreparable damage from the effects of the virus.

Our body is our home, our castle. We do whatever we can to make it as healthy, happy, and functional as we possibly can. As proven with COVID-19, when things go awry—whether by sickness, rash, or a broken bone—we panic, and do what we need to do to make it well again. We have medicine, we have surgery, we have ointments, to make all of the aforementioned issues go away. We only have one body in this life, and we’ll protect it at all costs. We’re fiercely defensive of it, aren’t we? We don’t want it disturbed in any way. We just want everything to run smoothly.

So why is it that we are so frightened when our bodies are disturbed? Why do we get so freaked out when the body is altered?

Specifically, I’m referring to the cinematic subgenre of body horror—from the ’80s Carpenter classic The Thing to 2016’s French shocker Raw, audiences are repulsed by the disruption of the human anatomy. It’s one of our greatest fears.

Body horror (or biological horror), by definition, showcases shocking, lurid violations of the human body that are widely considered disturbing. It’s often a genre that most common audiences just can’t stomach. Why is it that we find it so troubling? What makes body horror so graphic? Why are we so squeamish when it comes to our bodies?

The fear of the threat of our most sacred object—our meat suits—being destroyed or abhorrently effected, often to an irreversible degree, is what makes body horror so terrifying. We can’t even imagine the pain, horror, and panic if our bodies were mutilated beyond repair; it’s a loss of control that we cannot fathom, and we don’t want to imagine it.

Notorious (sometimes loved, sometimes hated) flicks like The Fly, The Human Centipede, and Tusk illustrate this. Let’s take a look, shall we?

THE FLY (1986)
DIR. DAVID CRONENBERG

The king and originator of body horror himself, David Cronenberg, directed this gem. The Fly chronicles the violent downfall of scientist Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum) as he slowly deteriorates into a pulp of gore, hair and mucus that barely passes as a housefly. Brundle has created telepods that allow for transportation; however, they mutilate anything live that is put inside.

When he believes he’s improved them and steps inside, he attempts to teleport himself. Unluckily for him, he’s unknowingly allowed a fly in with him, thus fusing him with the fly on a molecular-genetic level. Brundle’s body begins to decompose and rot from the outside in—his fingernails fall off, he grows bristly hairs and loses body parts. He rapidly begins to lose not only his human appearance, but also his human capabilities of compassion and reason. As Brundle’s humanity slips through his fingertips, he is driven insane while slowly morphing into a bloody heap of an insect.

This film, like all body horror pics, is not for the faint of heart. Cronenberg spares no gore and guts in The Fly. One of the most disturbing sequences in the film (and there are several) includes Geena Davis, as Brundle’s pregnant girlfriend, experiencing a nightmare in which she has an abortion.

She fears that Brundle impregnated her after his fateful transportation with the fly, thus making her possibly pregnant with some sort of horrifying hybrid. During the nightmare abortion (performed by Cronenberg in a cameo role), she births a huge, wriggling, bloody maggot. In general, it’s a scene amongst others that makes your stomach churn, but as a woman, that one really sticks with me. The thought of having something like that inside of you, completely out of your control, is absolutely horrifying.

The scariest thing about The Fly when set against The Human Centipede and Tusk is that it’s the only film among the three that doesn’t feature a forced transformation. Brundle’s demise is all by accident, a simple slip-up that causes the destruction to his body. That’s what’s so terrifying: it’s akin to that of getting sick, or getting in an accident; it’s really out of your control and happens by slim chance. We’re afraid of the loss of that control of our bodies and of that slim chance. Sometimes, biological factors take people down and they can’t stop it.

Bonus: check out Cronenberg’s weird 2013 short film, The Nest. It’s a short little flick, detailing a conversation between a doctor (Cronenberg) and a patient (Evelyne Brochu), who is convinced that there’s a nest of flies that have colonized inside her breast.

Yikes.

THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE (FIRST SEQUENCE) (2009)
DIR. TOM SIX

Horror fan or not, I bet you remember when The Human Centipede came out.

Moviegoers were freaking out, calling it revolting and shameful. I saw The Human Centipede in 2009 in high school, during a bad thunderstorm at a friend’s house. Our English teacher had dared anyone in our class to watch it, and if we did, he’d give us a free A for an assignment. Game on, we thought. We sat through it, and came to the conclusion that The Human Centipede, well, is trash—but it’s fun trash with a deeper meaning in there somewhere, a nostalgic pop culture controversy that brings back a little nostalgia, despite its revolting plot line. It’s a fascinating film, in all honesty, and not something that is to be passed off at face value as just another “gross-out” flick. Believe it or not, there’s some meaning behind it.

Dutch director Tom Six spins the eerie story of two American tourists, Lindsay (Bostonian Ashley C. Williams) and Jenny (Ashylnn Yennie), who get lost while driving to a club in Germany. Their car breaks down during a freak rainstorm and they knock on the door of Dr. Josef Heiter (Dieter Laser), a retired surgeon who used to specialize in separating conjoined twins.

Unbeknownst to Lindsay and Jenny, Heiter is much more interested in joining things together in his retirement. He drugs the girls and traps them in his basement with kidnapped Japanese tourist Katsuro (Akihiro Kitamura). When they wake up, the trio are horrified when Heiter explains that he is going to conjoin the three of them, mouth-to-anus, to create a being with one single digestive tract that will serve as his pet.

Differing from The FlyThe Human Centipede is the more disturbing and, arguably, more frightening than The Fly due to one major factor: it details a forced metamorphosis, an a subject in horror that is more horrifying than any demon or ghost.

Forced metamorphosis is one person mutilating and manipulating the body of others against their will to create a mutilated end product that leaves the victim “changed.” All control is taken away from them, and their bodies have received irreversible damage (in Six’s film, ligaments in their legs have been cut, and mouths have been sewn to anuses) because of the sick mind of another human being.

TUSK (2014)
DIR. KEVIN SMITH

Tusk, whether you love it or hate it, is a good body horror movie. I think that’s why so many people hate it. It’s just cringy, across the board. Kevin Smith originally came up with the storyline on his podcast, inspired by a fake ad for room and board, where the landlord requested the boarder to dress up as and act like a walrus for two hours a day. Smith thought it sounded more like a horror flick.

Through this, he made Tusk.

Brash podcaster Wallace Bryton (a mustached Justin Long) and his friend Teddy Craft (Haley Joel Osment) host a cruel podcast in which they both make fun of people from the internet. When Wallace goes to Canada to interview one of the podcast’s subjects for the show, only to find that the kid killed himself out of embarrassment, Wallace is irritated. Desperate to find someone to replace the original subject, he finds a free room-and-board ad in a dingy bar bathroom posted by an elderly, retired seaman, Howard Howe (Michael Parks), who claims he just wants company and the chance to tell interesting stories.

Wallace goes to Howe’s dark, isolated Manitoba home in hopes of getting material for the podcast. Howe drugs him and amputates his leg. Wallace, to his terror, realizes that Howe has killed many before him, in an attempt to recreate a walrus that he had been stranded with at sea years ago, and now Wallace is Howe’s latest body reaped to recreate “Mr. Tusk.”

The film, splotchy with black comedy (nothing quite like a chain-smoking Quebecois detective played by the lovely Johnny Depp in a beret with a fake nose), is entertaining, and a movie I enjoy, if just for a good, weird watch. Smith made it because he wanted to and thought it would be fun, not because he wanted to please audiences, and I have to give him a lot of respect for that.

Tusk, in my opinion, is the most horrifying film on this list. I think, creature-wise, it surpasses The Human Centipede. Call me crazy, but the thought of being sewn into a human skin walrus pelt with no possible way of getting out is worse than being put into a human centipede. It’s nothing short of horrifying. At least, with the centipede, there may be some way out—getting completely altered into a walrus? Not so much.

Long’s forced metamorphosis is abhorrent and gory; Park’s masterfully manic acting, talking at Long like a pet as he cuts off his legs and sews his arms to his torso, is the sloshy cherry on top of a disgusting sequence.

The end result is nothing short of jaw-dropping; I’ll let you Google “Justin Long as a walrus” instead of dropping the image here, or maybe I’ll just leave it to your wild imagination. All I have to say is that I remember seeing it in the theater back in college and uttering, “What the fuck?” softly to my roommate sitting beside me.

Spoilers abound—the ending of Tusk is what really messes with me, and from what I’ve heard and read from others, I’m not alone. When Teddy, Wallace’s girlfriend Ally, and Depp finally find Wallace in Howe’s basement, he is completely transformed into the walrus. He’s metamorphosed both mentally and physically through Howe’s physical mutilation and emotional manipulation.

There’s no going back to the way he was before. The damage is done. Tusk closes with a ridiculous ending, but a hauntingly troubling one—there’s nothing that can be done for Wallace, so he’s placed in a rundown wildlife sanctuary, where Ally and Teddy tearfully visit him.

Cue credits.

Tusk represents the loss of control of the human body, the human mind, and the future; being effectively dead, all while being completely and utterly alive.

________________________

Even as someone who loves all three of these films, I cringe at the brutality showcased in them. From Jeff Goldblum’s face falling off in gory chunks to Justin Long’s bloody body being sewn into a horribly crafted human-walrus pelt, there’s no denying that these films touch a brutally sensitive nerve.

Body horror is one of the most immersive and brutal subgenres that most horror fans will admit is difficult to stomach. The fear of losing control of one’s body, and by extension, life while still alive, is a horror that most cannot even fathom—and is scarier than any demon, exorcism, ghost, vampire, or werewolf we see in horror cinema today.

 

The Fly
1986
dir. David Cronenberg
96 min.

The Human Centipede: The First Sequence
2009
dir. Tom Six
92 min.

Tusk
2014
dir. Kevin Smith
102 min.

Streaming is no substitute for taking in a screening at a locally owned cinema, and right now Boston’s most beloved theaters need your help to survive. If you have the means, the Hassle strongly recommends making a donation, purchasing a gift card, or becoming a member at the Brattle TheatreCoolidge Corner Theatre, and/or the Somerville Theatre. Keep film alive, y’all.

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