Flesh and Blood: Body Modification and the Movies

body modification Island of Lost SoulsI suppose it all began, it cinematic circles at least, with the Germans. The Student of Prague (1913), The Golem (1920). Morbid tales of the undead. The soulless. They begat Frankenstein in 1931 (though I suppose Mary Shelley actually begat it) and the rush was on. Altered versions of the human form would become a dominant element in the horror film universe.

These creatures were certainly flexible. They could support stories about the morality of man’s attempts to replace God (as Mary herself says in rather odd close-up during the prologue to The Bride of Frankenstein [1935]). They could turn into good old-fashioned zombie frightfests. They could also veer off into the sub-genre of body modification.

Body modification movies themselves can come in many shapes and colours. They often, but not always, involve a mad scientist/doctor type. They often, but not always, involve unwilling victims. The instigator, scientist or not, is usually human, though environmental accidents can also be involved, as in Wes Craven’s beloved Swamp Thing (1982). When intentional, the reasons for the modifications may include punishment, experiment, or personal expression. Jack Smight’s The Illustrated Man (1969) used extensive tattooing as a framing device for a portmanteau based on Ray Bradbury.

The most famous of the more recent movies which employ body modification is the Oscar-winning Silence of the Lambs (1991), whose Buffalo Bill character is attempting to construct a new body for himself out of the pieces of his victims. The most notorious is The Human Centipede (2009), a classic mad scientist experiment story which recalls the multiple versions of H. G. Wells’ The Island of Doctor Moreau (the best version of which is still the original: Erle Kenton’s Island of Lost Souls [1932] with Charles Laughton). Several chapters of the anthology horror The ABCs of Death (2012) touch on the subject (like Removed) while one, XXL is specifically concerned with it.

It’s perhaps to be expected that this type of movie, with its reliance on special effects, would become more popular as technology improved. But I think there has also been a bit of a shift in the flavour of these movies as personal freedom and personal expression have become more prevalent. This has been more obvious in the world of documentary where two movies in the past decade, Modify (2005) and Flesh & Blood (2007), have given a glimpse into the world of body modification artist Steve Haworth and other practitioners of the craft.

Here are three movies from various points in cinematic history, which touch on the many aspects of body modification.

Freaks (1932)

Before David Cronenberg and Eli Roth, there was Tod Browning, a man who seemed consumed by the horrors he depicted on screen. Browning treated horror as a serious subject, and his films with Lon Chaney are marvels to behold. Freaks, however, is his masterpiece. It is not primarily concerned with body modification. But it is very concerned with abnormalities of the body. The circus performers who make up the bulk of its cast have missing arms and legs, undersized skulls, and confused gender coding. There are Siamese twins and there are dwarfs. The reason I have included it here is because of its ending, in which intentional body modification is performed as a form of punishment in a sequence that was often edited out of subsequent versions of the movie after the 1934 Production Code came into full force. The titular freaks truly turn the beautiful Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova) into “one of us.”

If you prefer your nightmarish circus stories to have fewer bizarre body parts, check out Edmund Goulding’s Nightmare Alley (1947), one of Tyrone Power’s best parts.

Eyes Without a Face (1960)

Georges Franju is best remembered as a leading film archivist. His second most important contribution to the world of movies was as a documentarian (watch seminal documentary shorts Le sang de bêtes [1949] and Hotel des Invalides [1952] if you doubt that). But he also made several good fiction features, and Eyes Without a Face tops that list. Here, a doctor attempts to assuage the guilt he feels over causing his daughter’s disfigurement by attempting multiple face transplants. Of course, it’s not easy to find young beautiful women willing to donate their faces for such a worthwhile cause, which is where the horror comes in. Franju’s ability to tilt reality ever so slightly, as manifested in the angelic, unmoving mask that the doctor fashions for his daughter (Edith Scob), is truly chilling. Pierre Brasseur’s doctor is a key addition to the mad scientist canon.

If you like your mad doctors to come with a campy twinkle, try The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971), a wonderfully silly-scary revenge fest from director Robert Fuest and the king of camp horror, Vincent Price (but don’t watch the sequel – life’s too short).

American Mary (2012)

I began with Mary Shelley and I end with Mary Mason. This horror, from Jen and Sylvia, the Soska twins, (who will be directing one of the shorts in The ABCs of Death 2, due out later this year) has a little something for everyone. Mary, played by the outstanding deadpan Katharine Isabelle of Ginger Snaps (2000) fame, is a medical student who becomes involved in the world of extreme modification. Most of her clients seek out varied forms of implants, amputations and nullifications as a means of personal expression. But she also performs horrific surgeries on a man who drugged and raped her in one of the very best revenge stories you can imagine. It is unclear whether it is this violation or the effects of these bizarre surgeries that ultimately lead to Mary’s breakdown. Indeed, the movie is a bit of a mess, in more ways than one. But there is no denying its impact. It’s a fun ride if you like rides with lots of blood.

I’ve written about Lucky McKee’s May (2002) previously so I didn’t include it here, but if you like Mary, I suspect you’ll love May – part Carrie (1976), part distaff Silence of the Lambs. 

Apologies to the aforementioned Mr. Cronenberg, one of my favourite directors, who towers over this broad category of movie like no other. But his mutations are typically of the unintended, organic type in which viruses and organisms compete for control with human hosts. A little bit different from what I was trying to get at.


Jonathan Eig has taught Screenwriting and Film History at Montgomery College (MD) for the past ten years. In that capacity, he has hosted the popular Montgomery College Film Series at the American Film Institute in Silver Spring, MD. He has been a regular contributor on Huffington Post and his writing about film can be found at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jon-eig/.

7 thoughts on “Flesh and Blood: Body Modification and the Movies

  1. Pingback: David Cronenberg’s Films Ranked from Worst to Best (Part One) - CURNBLOG

  2. Awesome choices here, Jon–I love that you mention Freaks–which is truly wild–and Eyes Without a Face–which is is truly horrifying and, dare I say it, beautiful at the same time. What do you think of Seconds? That’s the one that always comes to mind for me when it comes to body modification in the horror genre.

    • Thanks Simon. I think there’s much to like in Seconds, especially James Wong Howe’s cinematography. But I must admit that the psychedelia and long set pieces after the transformation don’t do much for me. I do really like John Randolph early on, and Jeff Corey and Will Geer make for great benign-yet-terrifying villains.

  3. Great idea for this article Jon, and it includes one of my favourites, ‘Freaks’, a much misunderstood film that actually empowers the unfortunates. I am also reminded of ‘Splice’ (2009) where genetic modification occurs, but I suppose this is more in the sci-fi genre.
    And for once- I have seen them all!
    Best wishes from England, Pete.

    • Thanks Pete. The most remarkable thing about Freaks is that it was not made by Universal or Columbia or one of the smaller studios that you might think would take on the project. It was Irving Thalberg at MGM, home of the most beautiful stars, that produced it. The idea that the “freaks” were better people than their “beautiful” cohorts may be even more appropriate today than it was in 1932.

    • Thanks James. I’ve always been somewhat torn over Dead Ringers. It’s arguably Cronenberg’s most accomplished horror, yet I prefer watching some of his earlier, amateurish movies, and especially, the equally accomplished The Fly (my favorite). I think it has to do with humor. There is wit in Dead Ringers, but I find it so somber overall that I have a hard time watching it. That may also be one of its great strengths. I can’t even watch Spider because it is so oppressively humorless. But I agree that if you are a fan of this type of movie, or just of Jeremy Irons, Dead Ringers should be on your list.

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