120 Essential Horror Scenes Part 1: Transformations
It starts with a cry of pain. Then a look of terror or ecstasy. And then the body starts to change. Hair grows from the knuckles. Maybe the eyes turn black. Sometimes fangs sprout. Before you know it, the person in front of you isn’t a person anymore. The Transformation can be the most horrific moment in a horror film because it’s where the internal becomes external. No more false faces. No more hiding. And depending on how fearsome the new being is, no more running as well.
An American Werewolf in London (1981)- London wolf calling
It starts out so innocently. Knowing that a full moon is approaching, David Kessler (David Naughton) locks himself in the home of nurse Alex Price (Jenny Agutter) in order to be able to transform into a werewolf peacefully, not killing any innocent people and proving that he doesn’t have to commit suicide in order to ensure the safety of London residents. Suddenly, the pain kicks in, and director John Landis has rarely been more successful at balancing both the horror and comedy elements. The comedy isn’t exactly subtle; the entire gruesome scene is scored by the calming lounge-pop of the ironically titled “Blue Moon.” The sudden rush of grotesqueness all but makes the comedy indistinguishable from the horror. The transformation itself remains one of the most spectacular moments in horror cinema due to how much ground it broke before CGI. Rick Baker, who created the make-up effects for the film, ended up winning the inaugural Academy Award for special make-up effects, an honor that very likely came into being just to recognize the significant achievement of this scene. (Alistair Ryder)
District 9 (2009)- Man to prawn
District 9 shuns the conventional at every turn: it’s a mockumentary only when it suits the narrative, an aliens-on-Earth tale in which the arrival itself is 28-year-old backstory, and the rare CGI-filled spectacle whose story and characterization eclipse the effects. But the bodily transformation that drives much of the plot may be the most unexpected thing about it. A bigoted, bureaucratic pinhead with a shadowy military-industrial outfit, Wikus van de Merwe (Sharlto Copely) is tasked with relocating the “prawns,” alien refugees from the ship stuck in the sky over Johannesburg, who’ve outgrown the slums of District 9. A chance encounter with an alien chemical starts to slowly, inexorably turn Wikus into the very species he sees as inferior. It begins with a trickle of black ichor from his nose and some lost fingernails. At the hospital, the bandages are removed from his wounded arm to reveal that it’s no longer his hand. His superiors, who need a hybrid like him to operate seized alien weapons, pursue Wikus, hoping to capture him before he can turn completely. The mutation alarms and sickens Wikus, terrifies his wife and co-workers, and makes him desperate for contact as he watches his humanity slip away. But it also makes him the unexpected target of a Nigerian warlord and becomes a useful tool in saving his own life and that of his alien ally. Ironically it’s also keeping him alive, as it’s the only thing preventing his company from killing him. Finally, the mutation forces Wikus to understand the prawns as never before, as he’s left to ponder his fate in the film’s open-ended finale. Unlike the single freak-out scene of most movie transformations, Wikus’ metamorphosis is an ever-present shadow character that affects the story at every turn. (M. Robert Grunwald)
The Fly (1986)- The insect awakens
Seth Brundle’s (Jeff Goldblum) transformation into the titular fly isn’t fast. David Cronenberg revels in letting Seth’s physical prowess degenerate into something horrifying right in front of the audience’s eyes. Pieces of flesh and limbs start dropping off of Seth and then his hubris hits him. For all of the gore that shocks viewers of The Fly almost 30 years later, it is instead the psychological transformation that truly frightens. Seth is terrifyingly aware of his mind’s weaknesses as he turns almost entirely into a man-sized insect. Worse yet is Veronica’s involvement (Geena Davis) in Seth’s experiment gone awry. The chemistry they shared is heartbreakingly real, which makes her difficulties to rein in her disgust at his appearance all the more palpable. Torture porn only hints at the real discomfort created by David Cronenberg. The director leads us down the primrose path while the results of Seth’s groundbreaking discovery seem to be going well right before delivering the tragic gut-check. The startling make-up process has not aged since the film’s release in 1986 and only feels more real today in a world of digital fakery. The Fly is certainly not Mr. Cronenberg’s most stomach-turning transformation in his filmography, yet it is his most crushing. Audiences never really fell in love with James Woods before his demise in Videodrome, but Seth and Veronica excel at keeping humanity present in the horror to follow. “I am an insect who dreamt I was a man and loved it. But now the dream is over… and the insect is awake.” (Colin Biggs)
The Howling (1981)- The big bad wolf
1981 was a big year in werewolf cinema with Joe Dante’s The Howling, John Landis’ An American Werewolf in London and Michael Wadleigh’s Wolfen all tearing their way into theatres within months of each other. When looking at this trio of feral films, two things become very clear: Wolfen isn’t really a werewolf movie, and The Howling and American Werewolf contain landmark transformation sequences.
In this showdown between makeup effects legends Rob Bottin and Rick Baker, which scene is the best? Baker won an Oscar for his effects work on American Werewolf and passionate arguments exist on both sides, but the superior transformation occurs in the less goofy and far more effective The Howling.
Both scenes take up the same amount of screen time but are very different from one another. David Naughton’s American Werewolf character experiences a solitary transformation that feels slower-paced, but The Howling’s Robert Picardo, as murderer Eddie Quist, undergoes a seemingly more fast-paced, more visceral, and far more unsettling change. Unlike Naughton’s reluctance to change into an animal, Picardo absolutely relishes his transformation. As he reveals his true nature to a terrified potential victim, his face pulsates and his body expands courtesy of Bottin’s wizardry. No one can deny Baker’s brilliance in his field, but the Oscar went to the wrong person in this case. (Terek Puckett)
In a Glass Cage (1986)- Rena becomes the caretaker
If there was ever a film to find a way into the dark part of your soul, Augusti Villaronga’s In a Glass Cage is that film. A somber, chilling meditation on corruption, Cage exists not as an exploitation picture but as a conduit between what the viewer can tolerate and what he or she is willing to witness in order to access that dark part of their soul they keep dormant. Set in Spain years after World War II, former Nazi doctor Klaus (Gunter Meisner) has been confined to an iron lung after a failed suicide attempt. A nurse is hired to care for him: Angelo (David Sust), an offbeat young impostor who happens to be one of the doctor’s former sexual abuse victims. It’s a tidy setup for what is a complex horror bait and switch. Who do we root for? The monster who wants to atone or the victim who wants revenge? Caught in the middle is Rena, Klaus’s teen daughter who falls for Angelo’s charms, then runs in terror from him, only to find her way back to him. Returning to her father’s trashed manor (ridden with Holocaust imagery of chicken wire and small bonfires at this point), Rena is obscured in silhouette like a demon, only to step into the cast of expressionistic blue light as something new. Her hair is compact and tied back, her soft features rendered boyish, and her gate is anticipatory instead of tentative. “Thank you, Angelo,” she whispers to her new charge. Whether this is sympathy for the new monster or revenge for the old one is left unanswered. The viewer has joined Rena into the dark part of the soul. (Shane Ramirez)
Pinocchio (1940)- “They never come back as…boys!”
Leave it to Disney to create one of the most indelible film transformations and scar our childhoods in the process. The tale of a wooden puppet dreaming of becoming a real boy lives up to the macabre Disney brand established by Bambi, Snow White, and Fantasia. The impressionable Pinocchio is tricked into journeying to Pleasure Island, an amusement park where young boys can indulge in the naughtiest of pass times: gambling, drinking, and smoking. Of course, there is a catch–the magical island literally changes the boys into jackasses as a price for their fun. While tossing back some brews and puffing on some Cubans, Pinocchio’s buddy, Lampwick, sprouts ears, and a tail and belts out a screech. There’s nothing he can do as his hands morph into hoofs, and he begins crawling on all fours. Our wooden surrogate watches in horror as this once brash, confident boy is reduced to a honking animal. The child’s helpless cries mixed with the donkey’s wily screams create an auditory assault for poor children expecting a simple animated adventure. Much more than a cautionary scene on the dangers of sin, it’s a vivid lesson in how animation can imagine the horrific with surreal accuracy. This is the stuff of childhood nightmares. (Shane Ramirez)
Slither (2006)- Grant gets gory
There are many great monster transformations in cinematic history. Lon Chaney in The Wolf Man. Jeff Goldblum in The Fly. Charles Hallahan in The Thing. The issue here is that many of our favorite transformation films aren’t that new. It’s tough to look over the past ten years and really spot a man-to-monster flick that can hold its own weight with many of the past greats. Keep in mind that what makes these particular films great, is the moment of change. The scene where man literally becomes the monster. A frantic man witnessing fur miraculously forming around his ankles. A scientist peeling back his fingernails exposing pus and fear. A car dealer explaining his change in denial as an allergic reaction to a bee sting. What all these transformations have in common, is that the initial change starts small and quickly spirals out of control. For Grant (Michael Rooker) in James Gunn’s Slither, it just happens a bit quicker with the heightened scare of alien offspring. Unlike Lon Chaney’s slow and rather enchanting metamorphosis that captures the escapism of the early 1940s, the 2006 modern-day classic certainly captures the era’s hyper-stimulation evolving from a face-paced world. Everything is exaggerated. It’s not just one parasite threatening the Earth, but hundreds multiplying at alarming rates. What makes Slither great, especially the transformation scene, is that it’s a testament of its time. James Gunn is boldly stepping his foot down, proclaiming that the modern-day horror genre needs a monster film reflecting its moment in time. That film is no other than Slither. (Christopher Clemente)
Taxiderima (2006)- Suicide
Taxidermia is a tough watch, but director Gyorgy Palfi has assured its cult status thanks to its many disturbing scenes of sex, violence, and body horror. The film is a perverted family saga split up into three chapters, each one symbolizing Hungarian history before, during, and after communist rule. It’s a film full of bizarre images: a man ejaculating into fire; a 360 degree pan of athletes vomiting into a trough; an obese and immobile Jabba-the-Hut-looking bloke who feeds on kittens; and a beautifully shot scene of a rotating wooden tub that turns into a coffin and then a cradle. There are too many WTF moments to write about at length in this series—yet the final self-taxidermy scene is well worth mentioning.
Balatony Lajaska (the main character of the third act) has devised a plan to escape this cruel world. After stuffing his father and his cats, Lajaska steps into an elaborate contraption in the basement of the taxidermy shop and begins to taxidermy himself while still alive. He injects himself with painkillers and preservatives, then removes his internal organs. His suicide, which is meant to end the family bloodline, ironically becomes a realized work of body art —and brings the events of the film full circle. Not recommended for those with a weak stomach, Palfi doesn’t shy away from close-ups of needles penetrating skin, organs being removed, tissue being sliced off, and large flaps of skin being sewn together. Visually striking, provocative, and with a truly shocking finale that will linger in your mind for years to come, this bizarre cross-generational saga is the type of film you need to see to believe. (Ricky D)
Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1989)- Man becomes machine
The 1989 Japanese cyberpunk film, Tetsuo: The Iron Man, by cult-film director Shinya Tsukamoto combines Eraserhead’s monochrome industrial landscapes with David Cronenberg’s obsession with body horror. Tetsuo is the film that established Tsukamoto internationally and earned him his worldwide cult following. Shot on 16 mm on a shoestring budget, this underground-experimental pic is unquestionably a feat of imagination with its creative imagery, homoerotic, nutty visuals, frenetic stop-motion, sharp editing, and strong industrial musical score. Tetsuo: The Iron Man has reached legendary cult status among a wide body of viewers and for good reason. The most famous scene in its brisk 64 minutes sees a salaryman transform into a horrific cyborg monstrosity–complete with an enlarged drill-bit for a penis. Imagine the transformation from The Fly only with large metal wiring and piping sprouting out of every orifice of his body. Tetsuo: The Iron Man is completely surreal and off-kilter, evoking an industrial flux between mankind and modern-day technology. It is quite unlike any sci-fi/horror film you’ll ever see. (Ricky D)
The Thing (1982)- Chest defibrillation gone wrong
John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982) is renowned for its special effects, and the chest defibrillation scene is one of the best examples for the standard it set. Antarctic research base member Vance Norris has apparently suffered a heart attack amidst the chaos of the ‘Thing’ attempting to take over the base, and Dr. Cooper frantically tries to revive him using a chest defibrillator. But when Cooper tries to shock him back to life, Norris’ stomach opens up into a gaping mouth that bites off his arms.
The camera slowly zooms in on Norris’s trembling body, as the shocked crew members can only help but watch. Multiple green, slimy tentacles wriggle their way out of his body, until something explodes upward. The camera pans up to display a horribly grotesque monster, which bobs its elongated neck and releases a terrifying roar. MacReady (Kurt Russell) blasts it with his flamethrower, but Norris’s head stretches outward until it removes itself from the body, revealing even further how much the Thing has changed him. When his head finally slides down to the floor, it whips out an extremely long tongue to pull itself into hiding, and then spontaneously grows antennae and spidery legs.
What’s great about this scene, aside from the amazing effects work, is that it further muddles the audience’s ideas about what the Thing really is and how it’s supposed to look. Until this point in the film, we had seen the Thing in the form of some horribly monstrous canine and Bennings, who nearly appeared fully human aside from a pair of large, misshapen hands. When we see Norris turn, the film throws us for another loop. We never have a beat on the Thing’s general appearance, further increasing the mystery of this alien creature, and the suspense of how it will manifest itself in ensuing scenes. (William Penix)
Videodrome (1983)- Long live the new flesh
Part paranoid thriller, part premonition about how video technology would come to dominate our lifestyles, part grotesque, body horror nightmare, Videodrome is among David Cronenberg’s most fondly remembered efforts. ‘Fondly’ might not be the correct term, mind you. Perhaps ‘haunting’ or ‘skin-crawling’ are more accurate ways to describe what most people who have seen the movie feel when its title is uttered. James Wood’s Max Renn helps make big decisions at an underground Toronto-based television station that offers graphic sexual content to its viewers. When he stumbles on a strange frequency that features eerily convincing snuff porn, his descent into a world of physiological and psychological madness commences, what with a bizarre entity that comes to be known as Videodrome (hence the film’s title), vying to take over the airways and possibly the world.
While lauded for its prescient themes of media controlling people and heavily influencing what choices they make, another factor for its high ranking among horror aficionados is the prosthetic work of Rick Baker. The further the protagonist explores the sources of Videodrome, the more he ventures into a fantastical and horrifying state by which the evil station takes over his mind and body. In essence, he becomes something of a soldier, and his bodily functions are thus transformed. Two scenes stand out. In order to receive massages or stash his firearm, his abdomen is provided with a wide slit that strangely resembles female genitalia. This is one among several completely out of this world moments in the movie when Max’s body is no longer his own. Another occurs later on during his first assassination assignment. He extracts his firearm from the aforementioned stomach vagina, only to see it slowly becomes part of his right hand and arm as it connects wires and screws to his skin and veins. Both instances are disgusting, visceral, and simply unforgettable, highlighting the terrible mess Max has gotten himself into and shedding some light on just how good prosthetic effects can be when such artists are given the reigns to create new nightmares. Long live the new flesh indeed. (Edgar Chaput)
Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988)- Drawn to be bad
For much of Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Christopher Lloyd’s Judge Doom played like less effete, more menacing Peter Lorre to Bob Hoskins’ Marlowe-esque Eddie Valiant. Lloyd has always found his niche in being a kind of weird character actor. His voice vacillates in roles between the galumphy goof and the more archetypal threatening villain. But despite the attempt at dichotomizing elocution, he’s always sounded like he belonged in a world that was built up by skeletons or demons or something like that. And so, Judge Doom is the corrupt, dangerous, vindictive and powder hungry judge of Toontown District Superior Court, hellbent on capturing the eponymous Roger Rabbit.
He makes strides across the screen, the motion purposeful and striking fear in everyone. Everyone except Valiant. There’s something not right about Judge Doom: why would a man,who could stand to profit from Toontown itself, devise The Dip, the Kryptonite for toons, the one thing that will kill them? Pulling from Chinatown, a freeway.
And just as Judge Doom is flattened by a steamroller, seemingly defeated, he inflates himself, revealed to be the toon that killed Eddie’s brother Teddy. Lloyd’s monochromatic and purposefully one-note performance is amped to the other end of the spectrum, with eyes bulging, suddenly all-powerful, and voice altered. This shift in performance–and the utilization of that performance–is unnerving. Judge Doom was previously seen as cold and unmoving, but the manic nature of the true Judge Doom is arguably even more frightening. It’s a form of unleashing a monster, a transformation that feels reminiscent of when the ticking time bomb goes off. You’re already uncertain and wary about its “calmness”, and then it explodes. Lloyd’s baritone voice changes to a horrible high pitch, like the worst clown ever, as he screams, “Remember me, Eddie?!” Alter ego or not, he still has destruction on his mind. (Kyle Turner)
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published under our old brand Sound On Sight.