Pedro Almodóvar’s psychosexual thriller The Skin I Live In opens in theaters this Friday. Antonio Banderas stars as an obsessed, but brilliant, plastic surgeon who invents a synthetic skin that he uses for depraved means. If you’re familiar with Almodóvar’s work then you know this synopsis barely plumbs the depths of his intent. The striking and unsettling images used to promote the film have given us a taste of something darkly decadent and visceral — something not entirely body horror, but promises to “get under your skin.” Whether literally or figuratively, dozens of movies have explored this same notion. Click through for ten films that disturb our senses and promise to cut to the quick.
It’s hard not to see a little bit of Georges Franju’s Eyes Without a Face in Almodóvar’s The Skin I Live In — right down to the similar featureless mask used in both films. Franju’s Doctor Génessier is also an obsessed mad scientist archetype, who performs Grand Guignol-esque surgeries on his disfigured daughter. Skin being slowly peeled from the skull unsettles, and Franju’s poetic and atmospheric direction adds to the surrealistic nightmare.
Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan transforms artistic rivalry, creative sacrifice, and feminine anxiety into abject devastation. The pressure that prima ballerina Nina (Natalie Portman) feels to perform as the more sensual half of her stage persona, The Black Swan, is more than her fragile mind can bear — causing her internalizing, masochistic personality to rear its ugly head. The boundaries of Nina’s body and mind start to collapse and are made visible through her constant purging, picking, scratching, and more — her final dramatic transformation on stage the climax of her breakdown.
One woman develops a morbid and pathological fascination with her flesh after an accident. She continues to disfigure her body by cutting, cannibalizing, and grotesquely manipulating her skin. Marina de Van’s In My Skin (Dans ma peau) explores the existential alienation we often feel from our own bodies.
Alien horror — or, the “other” — is also explored in David Lynch’s cult masterpiece, Eraserhead. The repulsive, formless, oozing monstrosity that doubles for a baby in the movie — along with the decrepit industrial landscape and droning soundtrack — conjures strange uterine, corporeal anxiety and terror.
Christian Bale makes a shocking physical transformation in Brad Anderson’s The Machinist. His emaciated frame unnervingly matches his twisted subconscious and insomniac haze, where guilt and paranoia have literally consumed him.
The languid yet brutal bloodletting of Claire Denis’ Trouble Every Day toys with our most primal fears using hunger, sex, and flesh to taunt.
Performance artist and BDSM enthusiast Bob Flanagan — who you might remember as “that guy in NIN’s gruesome ‘Happiness in Slavery’ music video” — passed away from cystic fibrosis in 1996. The final years of his life were taped and compiled into the film SICK, directed by Kirby Dick. While Bob’s relationship with his Mistress/wife Rose was born of a sexual nature, Flanagan took his proclivities for sadistic treatment and used them to explore philosophical constructs surrounding his disease and mortality.
Perhaps leaving audiences with more questions than answers, Todd Hayne’s Safe posits that Carol White’s existential ennui manifests itself as paranoid, debilitating allergies and sensitivities. Safe shows the toxicity of the soul escaping through the choking, bleeding, and seizing body of its victim.
Dead Ringers (or pretty much any David Cronenberg movie)
“I’ve often thought that there should be beauty contests for the insides of bodies.” —Elliot Mantle
William Hurt’s first film finds him playing a scientist who tries to uncover the truth about human existence. One isolation tank and several psychotropic substances later, he’s regressed into a bizarre primordial creature. Take that for what you will.