120 Essential Horror Scenes Part 3: Mutilations
It’s what most horror films are known for: the gore that splatters on the screen. But when done right, the flying viscera becomes more than just gallons of red stuff, it becomes a chilling reminder of the fragility of the human body and of the ingenuity of filmmakers in making our most twisted fears and fantasies into a stomach churning reality. Grab your barf bag!
Antichrist (2009)- His and her pain
As far as horror subgenres go, torture porn is up there with found footage as the most understandably reviled by audiences. With Antichrist, Lars Von Trier attempted to write a film that dealt with his personal demons. Confessing that he had been suffering from depression while writing the screenplay, Trier ended upbringing torture porn to its logical conclusion by taking the title of the sub-genre all too literally and creating a macabre near-masterpiece out of trashy genre origins. In the prologue that opens the film, we see an unnamed married couple (Willem Defoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg) have sex while their young child accidentally falls to his death from the balcony window (a brief glimpse of full-penetration from porn actors is shown during this sequence, offering the viewer a little porn before the physical and emotional torture to come). The couple visits a cabin in the woods as solace for the grief, where the husband discovers that his wife’s thesis study is on the subject of genocide. It is here where her erratic behavior reaches fever pitch, leading to the most hard-to-stomach sequence in the entire cycle of torture-porn movies.
Understandably, the graphic mutilation of both male and female sexual organs caused considerable controversy and in many ways undercuts (no pun intended) the surrealistic despair that comes before it. In fact, it may very well be the worst sequence in the film, one that seems to be included to cause controversy in the way Von Trier, the shameless self-publicist, is known for. But by bringing torture porn to its most graphic extremes, Von Trier ensured that the genre became obsolete and that there was no longer anything that could be proved to be more shocking. (Alistair Ryder)
Audition (1999)- Kiri kiri kiri
Fans of director Takashi Miike know him as a master of überviolence in Japanese cinema, having helmed the 2010 remake of 13 Assassins and the highly controversial Ichi the Killer. That makes the relatively bloodless torture scene from Audition all the more interesting.
The scene begins with an extreme close-up on a syringe extracting a paralyzing agent from a vial, then panning up to emphasize its overtly phallic length. We cut to a dramatic angle of the torturer, Asami, dressed in rubber gloves and an apron as she gives her victim, Shigeharu, a blank, icy stare.
The scene relies on sound and editing over gore to convey the violence. Asami’s first act of torture is using the syringe to pierce Shigeharu’s tongue. An extreme close-up of the tongue about to receive the needle is interrupted by an extreme close-up of Shigeharu’s eyes widening at the pain. Cringe-inducing sound effects denote most of the sadism, which includes the piercing of the skin and the slicing off of a foot with a piano wire.
There is overt sexuality in this scene as well, a very prominent theme throughout the film. After paralyzing Shigeharu, Asami straddles him and cuts off his shirt to reveal his bare torso. She derides him for rejecting girls who come in for auditions only to “ring them up later to have sex with them.” With each successive needle she sticks into his stomach, she keeps repeating “Kiri, kiri, kiri,” which translates to ‘deeper.’ By taking great pleasure in causing so much pain, her dominance reverses their sexual roles. It’s an unflinching 9 1/2 minutes of depravity. (William Penix)
Black Swan (2010)– Breaking a nail
However often (or not) Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan is recognized as a body horror film, it’s only the most obvious elements that are cited: the feathers protruding from Nina’s (Natalie Portman) back, the bent joint of the leg, the extension of the neck, etc. And while these succeed on a bit of a surreal level, with plenty of acknowledgment of the “self-mutilation” involved (both psychologically and physically), the most unsettling scenes of Black Swan are perhaps the simplest.
Many seem relatively unfazed by these comparably ostentatious scenes, but when Nina picks at her cuticles, that’s when real nausea and revulsion set in. Everyone has picked at their nails at one point or another, and even people who are not me make an effort to keep their nailbeds pristine. A thin layer of wax and cutin surrounds the base of the nail, helping to prevent water loss and infection. When damaged, the safety net becomes vulnerable.
While in a hallucinatory state in the bathroom, Nina begins feverishly picking at her nails. She takes a thread of her cuticle skin and begins to pull it back, the ribbon never-ending. The graphic nature of the scene realistically excludes much blood, but the deliberateness of her peeling back the skin–vulnerable and painful–is disgusting.
The fragility of the cuticle and the universality of the action is what sends shivers down the audience’s spine. Because unlike turning into a swan, or being chased around by a demon or a serial killer, cutting one’s cuticle is the kind of thing everyone has actually experienced and can identify with. This also gives insight into Nina’s obsessive nature: her compulsive need to be perfect and to cast out any kind of weakness in herself. It’s not like the imagined pain of a beheading or even a stab; it’s the simple act of making yourself that much more vulnerable to weakness. (Kyle Turner)
Bug (2006) – Emergency dentistry
Peter (Michael Shannon) is quite positive that there are bugs–aphids specifically–living in his head. As an ex-soldier, he underwent a litany of tests that he believes were just experiments to implant the insects in his brain. Driven not to be a victim anymore, he decides to remove a tooth he is sure contains the bugs. William Friedkin is no stranger to graphic mutilations (this is the man behind the crucifix scene in The Exorcist after all), but watching Peter rip his teeth out is another level of messed up. It’s an act of brutality so unflinching that the audience begins to hope the devices are just in his head, so his life–and the life of his girlfriend, Agnes (Ashley Judd)– make some measure of sense. Friedkin refuses to turn away from Peter as he yanks on the tooth with pliers, gushing fountains of blood all over the bathroom mirror. There’s no music to overshadow what is happening, just the sounds of the pliers ripping flesh and Agnes pleading for him to stop. In a film that largely plays with viewers’ minds, the tooth-pulling scene stands head and shoulders above any torture porn from the decade. Plenty of horror films get their kicks out of blood-letting onscreen, but the mutilations Peter and Agnes inflict on themselves induce genuine shudders. (Colin Biggs)
Clean, Shaven (1994) – Transmitter removal
Lodge H. Kerrigan’s Clean, Shaven is not an easy film to watch. Kerrigan, who wrote, produced, and directed this unsettling psychological thriller, traps us inside the mind of a madman for the entire viewing experience. Peter Winter (Peter Greene) appears to be a killer–even worse, a child killer–but not much about him is objectively clear, and we are never sure if what we are seeing is real or a product of his tormented imagination. The film heightens the tension by restricting its focus to Peter’s unsettling, confused, and angry view of the word. The most gruesome violence inflicted on Peter comes by his own hand. In the most unforgettable scene, Peter slowly mutilates his body in order to remove what he believes is a receiver in his scalp and a transmitter under his fingernails that were implanted inside him while he was locked away in a mental hospital.
It’s hard to forget the infamous fingernail scene; the gruesome moment made festival audiences scream, squirm, hide their eyes, and run for the exits. Legend has it that audience members at the 1994 Sundance Film Festival fainted, and as a result of this thirty-second sequence (which the filmmaker refused to edit out), it took nearly two years to acquire a distributor.
Working on a minimal budget, Kerrigan brilliantly captures Peter’s paranoia through sporadic edits, eerie reflections, and a soundtrack that reverberates with static, hums, electrical noises, distant screams, and distorted voices. Kerrigan also makes great use of the technique of doubling to add to the confusion. In the beginning, we watch as Peter observes himself in his car’s rear-view and side-view mirrors. He does not like the sight of his own reflection and uses newspaper to tape up every reflective surface that surrounds him. But try as he might, Peter can’t escape the sights and sounds that bring back memories of his missing daughter. Clean, Shaven is a movie that powerfully conveys the disturbing mental state and will leave an indelible imprint long after the closing credits roll. (Ricky D)
Dead Alive (1992) – Lawnmower man
New Zealand’s wunderkind and enfant terrible Peter Jackson made his big splash on the cult-movie scene with Dead Alive. Originally released as Braindead, Dead Alive is the godfather of Kiwi gore and the magnum opus of Jackson’s early career. Not only does Jackson’s second feature eclipse the gross-out quotient of his low-budget directorial debut Bad Taste, but it also eclipses every movie ever made before or since. The finale is the greatest gore-fest ever put on celluloid, requiring 300 liters of fake blood pumped at five gallons per second. Lionel (Timothy Balme) charges into battle with a lawnmower and slices apart every zombie in sight. By the end of the scene, the entire living room is drenching in so much blood that the actor is literally slipping and falling as he tries to make his way out of the house. After annihilating every demon, Lionel’s mother erupts into a gigantic beast that pulls him back into her womb. He must then fight his way back out, separating the umbilical cord once and for all.
The New Zealand indie zombie flick features some of the best stomach-churning visuals and gag-inducing effects ever put to celluloid, and when released in North America, it came supplied with vomit bags. Peter Jackson should take pride in knowing that his film has the prestigious honor of being the bloodiest ever made! Yes, guts fly, heads rolls, and blood spills, but amidst all the carnage, Braindead is really just a sweet story of innocent love set against a tale of oppression. (Ricky D)
Hannibal (2001) – Dinner for three
After nearly two hours of trumping its predecessor in the cringe factor, Hannibal delivers its piece de resistance. Dr. Hannibal Lecter entertains morphine-addled Clarice Starling and Justice Department slimeball Paul Krendler in the formal dining room of Krendler’s lake house. Soft classical piano music, now practically Lecter’s theme song, plays as the good doctor, in his best suit, stands tableside, preparing the evening’s appetizer. He then blithely cuts away the top of Krendler’s head, carves out a chunk of the exposed brain, sautés it, and feeds it to the oblivious G-man. Lecter’s assurance to Clarice that the brain itself feels no pain makes the scene no less excruciating to watch. Like in the best horror moments, there’s humor of the If-I-don’t-laugh-I’ll-scream variety as Krendler, who remains conscious throughout, basks in the delicious aroma. His attempt to join in the conversation and dish his usual sophomoric insults is a feeble one against the anesthetic and his dwindling motor functions.
While we’ve heard about and even seen some of Lecter’s evil to this point, this scene brings it to a new skin-crawling level. The doctor is most in his element in situations that contrast the elegance of his surroundings with the barbarity of his act. The dinner party formality is also a calculation: though the clock ticks and Clarice fumbles through attempts to thwart Lecter while the authorities close in, there’s absolutely no rush. We’re going to endure every jaw-dropping moment. The audacious punch line comes right before the credits roll–Lecter offers a child seated next to him on an airplane some leftover Krendler gray matter: “It is important,” he tells the boy, “to always trying new things.” Wicked, funny, and horrifying; it’s vintage Lecter. (M. Robert Grunwald)
Hellraiser (1987)- A soul torn apart
In 1987, horror author and filmmaker Clive Barker gave fans one of the most nightmarish, discomforting films seen in a long time. Hellraiser is a horror movie that gets under one’s skin, no pun intended. In this glaringly violent adaptation of his own novella, Barker tells the story of two unfortunate people, teenager Kristy Cotton (Ashley Laurence) and her evil uncle Frank (Sean Chapman). The catch is that Frank has found a passage to a realm the human mind can barely comprehend, a place where pain and pleasure become one, where the disfigured Cenobites, led by Pinhead (Doug Bradley), concoct new forms of sadomasochism.
There is an abundance of perplexing, mind numbing imagery in the original Hellraiser. Its very concept opens up a Pandora’s box of vile machinations that will haunt one’s mind for a long time to come. That said, Barker and company save the best (or worst) for last, once uncle Frank has finally rekindled with his human form and is ready to do away with poor Kristy, the latter of whom has found herself caught between the evil of her uncle and the perceived evil of the Cenobites. As Frank is about to pounce on Kristy in the dim attic where his newly nascent body has been gestating the past few weeks, he is suddenly attacked by Pinhead and his minions. It turns out Kristy devised a plan by which Frank would pay the ultimate price at the hands of the ultimate punishers. Boy does he ever. When Pinhead’s magical chains shoot out from the darkness and hook onto the skin of Frank’s hands, chest, and face, slowly stretching it until he becomes unrecognizable, the viewer is finally aware of just what sort of pain the Cenobites enjoy inflicting on their victims. As Frank is literally torn to pieces after a final taunt (“And Jesus wept.”), some may be ready to erase the film from their memory whereas others may just applaud Barker’s audacity. (Edgar Chaput)
Martyrs (2008)- Ascension via suffering
As far as body horror films that aspire to loftier heights of arthouse credibility go, Martyrs is an abject failure. As the apex of the New French Extreme Cinema and a relic of the bygone torture porn era, Pascal Laugier’s 99-minute exercise in audience punishment is an unforgettable success. What starts as a sordid revenge tale transforms at the halfway mark into an examination of existential suffering. A victim of prolonged torture some fifteen years earlier, Lucie (Mylène Jampanoï) slaughters the family responsible and succumbs to her demons by killing herself. Her friend Anna (Morjana Alaoui) is left alone to clean up the mess and discovers the source of Lucie’s torment: a shadowy organization obsessed with creating “martyrs,” victims of relentless abuse who supposedly enter a transcendent state beyond pain and witness the afterlife. Cue the bleakest montage in cinema history, as Anna endures days of physical abuse and nasty pea soup for sustenance. It all leads to the piece de resistance of the film (and a scene Laugier will never top, let’s be honest): poor Anna is flayed alive. Her frail body, stripped of its skin save her face, is chained and left under hot lamps, where she is displayed like a living human body exhibit. Credit must be given to the special effects team, who breaks Hellraiser’s (1987) twenty-year reign on jaw-dropping muscle texture makeup. And sure, let’s give credit to Laugier, whose fucked up vision is realized in all its despair. The entirety of Martyrs is pretty much an excuse to get to one of the most disheartening and deplorable payoffs in cinema. The moment is certainly more transcendent for Anna than the audience. She appears to reach something like Nirvana. We just suffer. (Shane Ramirez)
Ravenous (1999)- Cannibal smackdown
Cinema history is vast, spanning decades and decades. Horror history is too. Yet name one other cannibal on cannibal fight scene beyond the exquisite final battle in Ravenous. It’s hard to do, perhaps because so few movies have ever been able to justify it. Vampire vs. werewolf? Done. Zombie vs. shark? Yup. Giant lizard vs. giant ape? Of course. They practically invented movies for that showdown. But cannibal on cannibal? At least until Hannibal graced our TV screens, there was only one: the bloody fight between the cowardly Boyd (Guy Pearce) and the perpetually hungry Ives (Robert Carlyle). Based on the Algonquian wendigo myth that a man gains the strength of any man he eats, Ravenous pits these two “men” against each other at a desolate Appalachian Mountain fort. Rejuvenated after eating flesh, Boyd goes after Ives with a saber, then a pitchfork, then an axe, then a log, and finally gets the upper hand via a well-placed bear trap that takes out both of them. Director Antonia Bird, who was a last-minute replacement no less, displays great glee in seeing these foolish boys tear each other to pieces. The purposefully exaggerated sound effects mixed with Michael Nyman and Damon Albarn’s dissonant rhythms help to create a cacophony of witty violence. This is the type of scene where one man hobbles with a sai blade sticking out of his back like it’s nothing, and the other admits his defeat by groaning, “That was really sneaky.” As much a commentary on America’s violent reach exceeding its bloody grasp as it is a giddy mishmash of tones, Ravenous is good dirty fun. (Shane Ramirez)
Se7en (1995)- Sloth
David Fincher’s Se7en follows a psychopath who tortures his victims by way of each cardinal sin, providing ample scenes of suffering, none more striking than the Sloth victim. The most interesting part of Fincher’s masterpiece is the element of intrigue. With each sin counted off, the audience is just as captivated as they are mortified by what’s to come next. The set pieces are filled with grotesque gloom and dread, setting the horrific tone with help from some superb production design and creativity. At the apartment of a possible suspect, detectives Mills (Brad Pitt) and Somerset (Morgan Freeman) come upon Christmas tree air fresheners hanging from the ceiling like bread crumbs leading to the answers they’ve been looking for. When the characters enter the final room of this little maze, we understand that the fresheners are meant purely to mask the stench of the next victim. This seemingly deceased man is gaunt and grey, tied to his bed, and covered in legions. Uncovered Polaroids reveal his transformation from a healthy acquitted pedophile to a shriveled husk of a human being. “You got what you deserved,” whispers one SWAT member to the corpse–a “corpse” that gasps and sputters to life. Se7en tantalizes our imagination and senses to their utmost capacity, making it one of the most effective horror films in cinematic history. (Christopher Clemente)
Suspiria (1977)- Paint it red
A widely discussed aspect of the shower scene in Hitchcock’s Psycho is that the audience never sees the knife blade penetrate the flesh of Janet Leigh’s character during that famous combination of edits. Suspiria’s first murder sequence is not for horror fans seeking that type of restraint. Director Dario Argento makes sure the audience sees a knife blade penetrate not only the flesh of a victim but also her still-beating heart, as the weapon is thrust into an open chest wound in gruesome close-up. A second victim, attempting to help, falls prey to a lethal shower of shattered glass.
This jaw-dropping scene occurs against gorgeous architectural design and accompanied by Goblin’s thundering musical score and remains one of Argento’s most memorable sequences. As all fans of Italian horror cinema know, murders scenes are what Argento is best known for, having created classic bravura deaths in many of his Giallo films, including standout killings in Deep Red (1975), Tenebre (1982) and Phenomena (1985).
Suspiria is not Argento’s best film–Deep Red holds that distinction–but the double murder scene is a masterpiece of on-screen carnage. (Terek Puckett)