The Grossest Body Horror Moments In David Cronenberg's Films

There is no greater filmmaker of body horror than Canada's finest genre director, David Cronenberg. For over 50 years, he's been redefining what cinema can do when it comes to revealing the true grotesqueries of the human (and occasionally non-human) body. Cronenberg once said that his films should be seen "from the point of view of the disease," and that is certainly evident throughout his vast and varied filmography. Even in his more "respectable" films, he continues to be obsessed with the ways that we mentally and physically disintegrate. 

Now, Cronenberg is back on the big screen for the first time in eight years with "Crimes of the Future", which centers on a world where humans grow new organs in their bodies and one man turns this into performance art. The filmmaker has promised that it will incite many responses of pure revulsion, which sounds like the ultimate endorsement to us! But before you see "Crimes of the Future," take a gander at the most iconic and stomach-churning moments of body horror and mutation in Cronenberg's past work.

The Fingernails Come Off (The Fly)

There are many revolting moments throughout Cronenberg's remake of the sci-fi B-movie "The Fly" — enough to fill out its own list. The brilliant but obsessive scientist Seth Brundle uses himself as the test subject for his teleportation device, only to find that his body has started to mutate into a human-fly hybrid thanks to the surprise presence of a bug in his invention. 

Watching Jeff Goldblum deteriorate, quite literally, is truly horrifying, thanks to the extensive practical effects put together by Oscar-winning make-up artist Chris Walas. Sores form on Seth's body, he vomits digestive enzymes onto his food, and even his poor girlfriend Ronnie dreams of giving birth to a giant maggot. But, for our money, the moment that makes us squirm every single time is the way that Seth slowly picks off his own fingernails. It's a quiet moment, but one that instantly hits at our visceral fear of our own bodies failing us.

The VHS Stomach Slot (Videodrome)

Long live the new flesh. Long before reality TV was seen as the source of generational mind-rot, Cronenberg offered his scathing take on mindless entertainment with 1983's "Videodrome." James Woods stars as Max, the sleazy CEO of a small TV station in Toronto that specializes in only the most sensationalist of programming. So, of course he is delighted to stumble across something called Videodrome, which seems to be endless snuff. Yet its powers extend well beyond that of morbid curiosity. The more he watches Videodrome, the more Max's mind and body begins to change. At one point, Max sees a slit form on his abdomen that looks an awful lot like a slot for a VHS tape. Being able to access one's own body in such a way is pretty terrifying for poor Max, especially when he pulls a gun from his guts with ease.

Exploding Head (Scanners)

There maybe no moment on this list as purely iconic as that head exploding in "Scanners," the 1981 sci-fi horror that helped Cronenberg to break through into the American box office. You've probably seen it as a meme more times than you can count, and yet even out of context, it's a shock that continues to startle all these decades later. 

The "scanners" of the title are people with telepathic and psychokinetic abilities that are difficult to control and easy to hurt others with. The head explosion comes when one scanner hopes to host a demonstration of his abilities, only to come up against the villainous Darryl Revok, who wants to wreak revenge on those who drove him mad. It ends, well, with a lot of blood and brains on the floor. The scene happened thanks to a plaster skull, a latex body, and a whole load of gross stuff (including leftover hamburgers) being blown to pieces with a shotgun. CGI could never hope to replicate it!

Newborn Hell (The Brood)

Many filmmakers use their work to explore their personal issues. When Cronenberg went through a messy divorce and bitter custody battle over his daughter, he poured his frustrations into "The Brood," a movie he described as being "my version of Kramer vs. Kramer, but more realistic." 

An unconventional psychotherapist treats Nola, a disturbed woman dealing with divorce who has been accused of hurting her daughter during visits. Her ex, Frank, tries to move on, but finds that many people who dare to get close to him and his child soon end up dead thanks to a strange murderous creature that looks human but isn't. A particularly memorable climax reveals that Nola has been birthing these beings through a psychoplasmically-induced external womb, the offspring of her rage. This is revealed to Hal when she births another child and licks it clean like an animal. It's the most primal depiction of the genuine horror of childbirth that horror cinema has given us.

A Curious Scar (Crash)

You would think a film about people who are turned on by car crashes would be more bloody than it is, but "Crash," an adaptation of the novel by J.G. Ballard, is Cronenberg at his coldest and most clinical. Maybe that's why it proved so shocking upon release in 1996, being banned in several locations and decried as obscene by various politicians. 

In the film, people engage in sex with the enthusiasm of someone waiting in line at the bank, and people's scars are treated with greater eroticism than the sex itself. The moment that proved too much for some involves Rosanna Arquette's character, a disabled woman who wears braces on her legs. On the back of her thigh, she has a scar that can only be described as vaginal, and James Spader decides to get it on with that part of her body while they copulate in the car. It fits in a narrative concerned with the ways that technology can transform the body, although you may wonder about the logistics for a while.

Suicide by Scissors (The Dead Zone)

Stephen King knows a thing or two about body horror, but the one adaptation of his work directed by Cronenberg isn't really as blood-forward as one would have expected. "The Dead Zone" is much more focused on the mind, with Christopher Walken playing Johnny Smith, a teacher who awakens from a coma to find he has psychic powers. He is asked to help with a murder case and discovers that the local sheriff is the killer. Rather than face justice, the cop decides to end his life in the most impractical and upsetting manner possible: He impales his skull on an open pair of scissors. We don't see the deed itself but the methodical way he plans the moment followed by the aftermath makes for a moment so cringe-inducing that you barely care for how weird it is.

The Worst Medical Tools Ever (Dead Ringers)

A 2015 list by the Toronto International Film Festival listed "Dead Ringers" as the seventh most important Canadian film of all time. It's certainly got the clout to be considered his best film, and is considered so by many hardcore Cronenberg fans (and "Oldboy" director Park Chan-wook!) At the very least, it features the greatest performance in his filmography thanks to Jeremy Irons' astounding turn as identical twin gynecologists who seduce women as one man and slowly descend into mutual madness. 

The concept of a woman being tricked into sex with an unknown partner is petrifying enough, especially when you consider these men's occupations, but things take a more clinically upsetting turn. One twin commissions a set of new and bizarre gynecological instruments for "mutant women," each of which looks like an instrument of torture designed by H.R. Giger. Fortunately, he is unable to use it on an unconscious patient but we dare you to look at those tools and not immediately cross your legs.

The Butthole Bug Talks! (Naked Lunch)

How do you make a film out of one of the most unadaptable novels ever written? Cronenberg found a way. His William S. Burroughs' 1959 novel "The Naked Lunch" is one of the most important titles of the Beat generation but it doesn't invite a simple movie version, thanks to its loosely connected vignettes on drug addiction, metatextual drama, and, of course, a talking backside. Cronenberg's version is appropriately surreal and adds a somewhat more linear plot involving secret agents and drugs derived from giant bugs. One bug assigns a mission to our extremely high protagonist, but not before demanding that he have some hallucinogenic insecticide rubbed upon his lips. Which look an awful lot like, well, you know. The bugs somehow get weirder from there.