The New Flesh: A Critical Analysis of 1980s Metamorphosis Cinema
By Alexander Kirschenbaum.
‘Am I different somehow? Is it live or is it Memorex?’
(Seth Brundle [Jeff Goldblum] in David Cronenberg’s The Fly )
For the purposes of this article, ‘metamorphosis cinema’ refers to a specific canon of 1980s-produced feature films that are about transitional physical states, about the grotesque and uncomfortable process of severe bodily transformation, and less focused on the pre- or post-transitioned bodies.
At its core, metamorphosis cinema is an exploration of the nature of the body and the flesh as self-actualizing entities, each film positing a potpourri of possible extrapolative physical states stemming from this premise (skin grafted over a metal exoskeleton, flesh fusing with television monitors and guns, bodies mixing genetic material together, lycanthropic or undead transmutations). Stylistically, these films showcased their bodily change elements through the lenses of disease and hyper-violence, grotesqueries newly possible in the decade that bred AIDS and the pinnacle of Cold War-induced nuclear paranoia. Metamorphosis cinema was only possible over a brief window of time. Politically, it was a reaction to the lax restrictions on filmed violence and sexuality imposed by the MPAA in the 1980s; technologically, it was the result of a breakthrough in the arena of special animatronic creature effects, specifically in terms of creative hydraulic rigging and the ascent of realistic sculpture as the dominant methodologies of the time.
For the purposes of this analysis, inclusion into the official canon of metamorphosis films carries a couple of prerequisites: the film must have been theatrically released between 1980 and 1989, and must feature inciting transformative incidents created with special hydraulic make-up effects. These films are reflective of a perfect storm of technology matching intent, resulting in a potpourri of affecting fantasy and horror films that could not have been made at any other time in film history. The official metamorphic cinema canon, then, consists of the following entries, separated by make-up artist: Rick Baker produced the brilliant transformation work in An American Werewolf in London (1981, directed by John Landis), for which he won the first make-up Oscar in history, and Videodrome (1983, directed by David Cronenberg); his apprentice Rob Bottin may have achieved transformative make-up immortality with his peerless work in The Thing (1982, directed by John Carpenter), and he also created the transitional make-ups in The Howling (1981, directed by Joe Dante) and Robocop (1987, directed by Paul Verhoeven ); Michael Hancock mutated William Hurt in Altered States (1980, directed by Ken Russell); Chris Walas contributed the best creatures in the subgenre with his critters in Gremlins (1984, Joe Dante’s second canon contribution) and won an Oscar for his make-ups in The Fly (1986, another Cronenberg entry into the canon); Stan Winston’s stellar make-ups and robot rigging in The Terminator (1984, directed by James Cameron); and finally, Bob Keen’s envelope-pushing work in Hellraiser (1987, directed by comics auteur Clive Barker).
Critics of the day could not comprehend metamorphosis cinema. Upon the initial release of what is perhaps the ultimate entry in the metamorphosis cinema canon, John Carpenter’s 1982 remake of The Thing, Vincent Canby noted in his New York Times review that it is ‘entertaining only if one’s needs are met by such sights as those of a head walking around on spiderlike legs … wormlike tentacles that emerge from the mouth of a severed head, or two or more burned bodies fused together to look like spareribs covered with barbecue sauce’ (Canby 1982). Of course, this all renders The Thing as something of a wet dream for metamorphosis cinephiles. And that is the point. Metamorphosis cinema is about the process of transformation, everything else is perfunctory. These transformational instances in metamorphosis films are notable for their fascination with the human body as an unstable element, one that is necessarily separate from the mental self, and from this foundational thesis they posit several potential applications for metamorphic function in cinema.
Chief among the extensions of metamorphic cinema is the body’s function as a hypersexual entity. In the world of the metamorphosis film, it is only through transformation that the body is able to transcend conventional sexuality and achieve its ultimate pleasure. In Hellraiser (1987), it is the sexual inquisitiveness of the sadomasochistic Frank Cotton (initially played by Sean Chapman) that yields his body’s brutal disassembly by the hell-raising Cenobite demons. He is taken to a netherworld, Hell, that imagines S&M devices taken to medieval torture-chamber extremes, an orgy of chains and hooks that spread and tear the flesh. The Cenobites themselves are a further extension of the S&M bodily pain-for-pleasure modus operandi: their bodies are grotesquely contorted, presumably at the hands of these sadomasochistic torture-cum-pleasure rigs, skin pulled in bizarre directions or held in place by a geometric dispersion of needles.
It is Frank’s ex-girlfriend Julia’s (Clare Higgins) sexual dissatisfaction with her new husband, Frank’s brother Larry (Andrew Robinson), that leads her to aid the undead, fleshless corpse of Frank (Oliver Smith) in his effort to regenerate his physical form by feeding on the blood of others. Julia derives new, previously unimagined heights of reactivated, post-sexual pleasure from her crucial role in Frank’s homicidal bodily regeneration. The process of transformation through sadomasochistic sexual bodily modification is at the root of Frank and Julia’s pleasure, and speaks to the power of the body in alternative forms as a superior aphrodisiac. Employing effectively graphic make-ups designed by Bob Keen that freely straddle the line between the R and NC-17 rating, Hellraiser stands as a significant entry in the metamorphosis cinema canon.
Extremely painful physical transfiguration as a sexual activator is of particular fascination to David Cronenberg, whose Videodrome (1983) and The Fly (1986) both openly question the notion of the traditional human form as the ultimate conduit for maximal sexual pleasure. Videodrome’s primary focus is the transition made by the initially cynical television producer Max Renn (James Woods) from unrepentant sexual apathy to fully engaged, transcendental hypersexual body morphing. It is when Max first experiences Videodrome, a hypnotic series of plotless, brutal S&M videotapes, that he begins to warm to the notion of an extra-sexual life. The first sign of Max’s sexual awakening via bodily transfiguration happens during an intense lovemaking session with sadomasochistic radio personality Nicki Brand (Deborah Harry), where, while watching a Videodrome tape, Nicki burns the butt of Max’s cigarette against her breast. Of course, although this is sexually extraordinary, it is not bodily transformative. But it piques Max’s engagement in pleasure through extreme physical pain, all the while voyeuristically observing brief, anonymous S&M interplay through the lens of television.
The metamorphosis that ultimately comes to define Max Renn’s philosophical and ideological transformation may not even be quite real: he begins to hallucinate freely, and the viewer begins to lose the clarity of any kind of definitive perspective to distinguish between his hallucinations and his reality. Television becomes his new sexual and physical reality, as he begins to experience sexuality with Nicki only through viewing her image via the screen of the flickering television monitor, and his stomach develops a vaginal orifice to receive throbbing, pulsating videotapes. Conversely, by the picture’s end, Videodrome has begun to mutate and anthropomorphize the very television that it is broadcasting through, as it openly encourages Max’s suicide with a prescient video of him enacting it. Once the videotaped Max shoots himself fatally, the television itself explodes from the impact, splattering human entrails and fluids into the three-dimensional space beyond the monitor. Max and the television have begun to mix and match purposes, and the transformative fusion of man and transmitting machine comes full circle when Max fulfills the suicide prophetically predicted by his now deceased, recently organic television set. The film’s graphic special effects were the work of seven-time Oscar winner Rick Baker, who pioneered transformative animatronic effects with his werewolf transformations in An American Werewolf in London (1981).
Cronenberg further explores the notion of physically transformative fusion of seemingly disparate organisms as an enabler of sexual and homicidal impulse in The Fly (1986), where Jeff Goldblum’s Seth Brundle literally (albeit unwittingly) fuses his own genetic materials with a common housefly through a teleportation machine prototype. His transformation flows in something of a parabolic arc: even as he begins to sprout coarse insect hairs and his face turns greasy and porous, he develops the ability to adhere to walls and ceilings, super-human strength, and, most importantly, super-human sexual stamina.
He grows sexually restless, corralling strangers into trysts under the growing consternation of his live-in better half, Veronica Quaife (Geena Davis). As his transition into the human-fly fusion, sentimentally called ‘Brundlefly’ by Seth, accelerates, the transformative components of his de-humanization kick in. Brundle vomits corrosive enzymes onto his own hands, burning them off until they are little more than scarred stumps. Eventually these hollow out and sprout insect pincers. His skin develops bulbous, red scars and his hair falls out. With one gentle Geena Davis nudge, Goldblum’s human skin eventually completely cracks off of his body to reveal a new fly exoskeleton, replete with a pink humanoid flesh for skin. The special make-up and animatronic effects for The Fly were developed by Chris Walas, who had previously created the metamorphosing animatronic critters in Gremlins (1984).
Brundle, in the latter stages of his development before he loses the ability to speak, becomes deeply committed to cultivating the ‘ultimate family’, by fusing himself, Veronica, and their as-yet-unborn son in a three-pod transportation. His final human obsession (and first post-human one) is simultaneously the foundation of his newly heightened sexual and physical realities – his teleportation device. Genetic collusion has so transfigured his very cognitive and perceptive abilities that his entire life has literally mutated to cater to the perpetuation of metamorphosis: he documents his transformation, is at once fascinated and repelled by it, and ultimately struggles to continue the process with his ‘ultimate family’ scheme. In an ironic twist, Seth’s final, fatal transformation is with his teleportation device itself, but his organic body cannot withstand the grafting of machine parts into its flesh, and Veronica is induced into mercy-killing her lover by shotgun.
Both of Cronenberg’s films are notable for their protagonists’ total loss of physical and psychological perspective, as Max Renn’s new reality becomes his psychosexual trysts with his VHS tapes and Seth Brundle’s modified ethos becomes advocating a horrifically literal family fusion. Transformation overwhelms their ideological, sexual and physical states, totally upending everything else in their lives. Cronenberg’s obsession is with the metamorphosis and the transitions it affects, as all other plot strands or more civilized human pursuits are subjugated in favor of these fixations on what Videodrome tells Max to call ‘the new flesh’.
Beyond the sexual sadomasochistic inclinations explored by metamorphosis films, a supplemental element that stands as a relatively natural extension of the subgenre is the metamorphosis serving to cast its transformers as the embodiment of the Other. In what is probably the ultimate metamorphic film in this admittedly selective canon, the John Carpenter remake of The Thing (1982), where Rick Baker apprentice Rob Bottin fully blossomed in his own right with some truly mind-numbing creature designs, transformation becomes the literal method for identification of The Other among a rag-tag team of scientists and air force personnel. Their Antarctic research outpost is under siege throughout the film, prey to the whims of a murderous shape-shifting alien life force that kills and mimics its targets, and is able to spread its influence through physical contact. Every being it kills, it assimilates into its own genetic essence.
It is clear to the viewer – and to our eyes and ears in the piece, R.J. MacReady (Kurt Russell) – that the Thing has inhabited the person of certain outpost occupants early on. Developing a means of determining and separating the infected from the rest of the team becomes a necessity for survival. Ultimately, from these efforts MacReady and his team realize that this struggle to draw out the Thing necessitates they invoke transformation.
Transformation becomes the driving catalyst for all the film’s action. The first transformation – preceding the team’s quest to invoke transformation – comes as a surprise to the research team, as what they perceive to be a sled dog is caged with the team’s dogs. As the dogs growl and stir, the new addition sheds its skin, its head splitting into a kind of gored petal distribution as taut bloody tentacles spout out of the general cranial area and draw in the sled dogs. As it strangles and slaughters its legitimate canine counterparts, the crew finally discovers the Thing, mid-transformation. It is adapting the sled dogs’ features amidst its own spinning tentacles and its contorted body, so its discovery by the research team is mid-process, thus reinforcing to the viewer the notion of the creature’s transitory state.
The Thing’s most fascinating transformation happens during a scene of investigation as MacReady driven to the brink of madness by the horrific prior encounters with the Thing’s practices, takes blood samples from each remaining research team member. Whenever the Thing’s body parts are divided, he has deduced, they become freestanding, autonomously functioning organisms. In an earlier scene, this had in fact happened, as the Thing’s stomach cavity had sprouted sharp teeth to sever an unfortunate doctor’s hands, while its head separated from the body proper, sprouted spider legs, and distanced itself physically from the limb-severing stomach. Thus, MacReady suggests that any organism-masquerading-as-blood sample will, when confronted with a hot wire, be forced to react as a separate and defensively inclined autonomous organism. MacReady is inducing transformation to unmask the Other, the outlying imitator in the group of research outlet compatriots.
At the film’s climax, MacReady is confronted by the ‘Blair monster’, an amalgam of all the prior transformative shapes that the Thing has assumed over the duration of the film. The ‘Blair monster’ was the name awarded to it by Bottin and his make-up team for the mutated doctor (Wilford Brimley) whose body serves as its structural foundation, and off of which its surplus feature sprout. It is a towering mass of toothy snapping canine jaws and split cranial cavities and flailing arms and legs (human, dog, and spider), and it is only onscreen for five separate shots totaling 30 seconds of screen time. Regardless, it sears an indelible scar in the memory.
The ‘Blair monster’ never realizes its true, final form; instead it remains a frozen, unresolved transformation. However, like all transformations in metamorphosis cinema, its existence is ultimately, and necessarily, fleeting, its life tempered by a fatal dynamite stick blast to one of its several stomachs.
The Thing regards its characters’ constant search for the Other as something of an elemental MacGuffin. It is ultimately not so imperative that the identity of the Thing is (inevitably) discovered, rather the focus is the means and nature of its discovery. The characters stand as thinly outlined horror-movie archetypes, albeit with cooler beards than are typically permitted; who is or is not affected outside of MacReady is less fascinating than how the Thing is physically exposed in any given situation. Again, the process of the metamorphosis is the focus of the film, as is the case in all metamorphic cinema. Everything surrounding the event of the change is invariably extraneous. The transformation stands, in all of these pictures, as the hook upon which all integral textual and sub-textual plot and theme threads are hung. It is the exposure of the Other, and it is the inciter of sexual and extra-sensory physical awakening.
Finally, metamorphosis films serve to signify the power struggle with technology that has been threatening to establish itself on a bodily level in literature since the invention of the PC. This technological transformation shading has manifested itself best in two signature ’80s metamorphic moments, Robocop (1987) and The Terminator (1984), two filmic instances where live human tissue has been grafted over a mechanical robotic endoskeleton, creating an ultra-human half-breed, with five times the physical strength and one fifth of the emotional capacity. These films are marked not so much by a singular transformation scene as by a systemic, rudimentary breakdown of the illusion of the robotic and human elements cooperatively inhabiting the same body. Over the course of each film, physical altercations with antagonizing bodies force both the Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) and Robocop (Peter Weller), initially visually treated as being impenetrably human (in the case of the Terminator) and robotic (Robocop), respectively, to expose their new, dual realities, as ineluctably flawed fusions of man and machine.
In The Terminator, the humanoid ‘cyborg’ programmed to assassinate Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), mother to the future savior of humanity in an industrial future apocalypse, is initially depicted by Arnold Schwarzenegger as a militaristically disciplined hell-soldier who coolly obliterates any and all comers that stand between him and his programmed mission. In the film, the viewer harbors a guarded ambivalence over the nature of the Terminator’s actual physical reality; whether or not he is a humanoid murdering machine is the subject of some debate betwixt Connor, the LAPD and the man who has allegedly been sent back in time to protect her, future-world soldier Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn).
Invariably, of course, Kyle Reese is revealed to be much more than a raving psychopath, and the Terminator’s true nature is similarly exposed. Both realities are indicated through the Terminator’s physical unveiling. While it is, by necessity, a transformation, from flesh to steel, from human to machine, the process of the unveiling itself is rooted in the process of the Terminator’s human façade as it gradually fades away. The first instance where the Terminator’s humanity is questioned occurs upon his bullet-induced collapse through a plate-glass window in TechNoir, now a very, very dated club in downtown LA. He rises to his feet, wholly unscathed, and the first seeds of doubt are planted. It is not until his car is set aflame, however, that the physical transition begins. His eyebrows are singed off, his face sports slight abrasions, and clumps of hair fall out. But all this still falls loosely under the generic blanket of ‘human injury’, however unlikely the Terminator’s relatively infallible carriage may be.
Following this, the Terminator breaks into a rank hotel room to treat his wounds. Here, Stan Winston’s gory hydraulic make-up effects finally get a chance to show their mettle. The Terminator reveals its complete lack of human sensational feeling as it carves out its organic eyeball, drawing real blood, and rips the flesh off its forearm, revealing a glistening, albeit gored, metallic endoskeleton beneath. Suddenly, the evidence is undeniable, and the Terminator’s true self is visible, if not wholly present, in his apartment.
The final transitory state passes, permanently, in the film’s penultimate action sequence, as once again a stick of dynamite (a very popular utility piece in the 1980s, apparently) is used to draw the Terminator’s true self out. It arrives from the wreckage of a burning semi, full-wrought in iron and steel, the human flesh burned clean from its robot body, its eyes a hellish red ember. Like only The Thing and Robocop among the established canon of metamorphosis cinema, the Terminator’s metamorphic moment is extended over the duration of the film, not to maximize the effect of the change, but rather to service its thematic through-line: that the power struggle between humanity and the violent technology it creates is a laborious conflict, with no positive end in sight. Just as the Terminator’s face was lost in fragments, so too is humanity’s sense of control over the technology it creates. This is the prime point of the piece.
Another future world-as-ominous-harbinger-for-humanity parable, Robocop, applies the same slow-build transformation method to its proceedings. Detroit officer Alex Murphy (Weller) undergoes the first break in his physical state early on, when crook Clarence Boddicker (Kurtwood Smith) and his cronies ruthlessly gun him down, severing his arm from his body in the process. Rob Bottin’s intricate special effects rigging work is graphic and effective here without being melodramatic, a commendable achievement in a mildly sadistic film. A standard-issue evil corporation, Omni Consumer Products, draft Murphy’s freshly mutilated corpse for initiation into its cyborg police officer program, under the supervision of coke-addled junior executive Bob Morton (Miguel Ferrer). Directors of photography Sol Negrin and Jost Vacano employ wide-angle lenses and alternating high- and low-angle framing, in tandem with panning lights, to create a relentless, murky atmosphere that lends itself to Murphy’s initial transition, as a series of plastic pneumatic tubes and needles are shoved into his gored body by a rolling slew of doctors, in addition to a reviving ‘jaws of life’ shock to the chest. There is an excess of blood. Murphy’s final human memory, the sight of Boddicker and his goons blasting him to death, fades to blackness. And suddenly, Murphy’s perspective is thrown behind the lens of a buzzing computer monitor, as Morton inspects the Robocop while his engineers make a series of modifications, unseen by the viewer, to his person.
Finally, as the Robocop prototype is met with a sea of applause by Morton to a group of OCP executives, his new physical reality is revealed: the only human component still visible is the fleshy area covering his lower jaw and mouth, everything else is encased in a titanium metal suit, the helmet and chest are rendered in sleek, smoothly sculpted tones, while the arms and legs are sharper and consist of more individual metal pieces. This marks Murphy’s other extreme physical state, the point in the film where he is at his most robotic, as he is little more than a fleshy hard drive, his deceased brain drilled through with an array of computational wiring, his body encased in steel. He is numbed, physically and cognitively, to the human element of his reality.
Over the course of the film, Murphy will gradually warm to that element of his cyborg nature, and that will manifest itself physically by the film’s resolution, as he routinely begins to confront opponents with his facemask off, revealing the lingering humanity of Alex Murphy, albeit enmeshed in computer wire and a metal shell of a body. This shifting dynamic between man and machine denotes the crux of Robocop’s most important conflict, the film’s ‘plot’ proper nothing more than an ancillary, superficial three-way conflict between Robocop, his creators at OCP, and Clarence Boddicker’s ruthless crime ring. Once again, the transmogrification process and its thematic resonances subvert the more traditional modalities of the film surrounding it, any strains of genre-fulfillment or any intentions towards such being ultimately less integral to director Verhoeven’s actual priorities. It is the means of metamorphosis that instill the film with its true power, not its flimsy critique of corporate bureaucracy, and Paul Verhoeven and Rob Bottin are intrinsically aware of this. That is what makes Robocop an essential addition to the canon of metamorphosis cinema.
In all of the films that occupy the metamorphic cinema canon, from Hellraiser to The Terminator, there is a transitory nature to the process of metamorphosis, an element of temporal limitation, that lends an urgency and an intensity to the transformation. Metamorphosis cinema works best because the transformations are by their very nature fleeting, transitional physical states. They do not linger in physical space but, when constructed effectively, they lodge themselves permanently in the brain of the viewer.
Hence, metamorphosis films of this nature can never happen again. Even the impending remakes and sequels to several of these films have no hope of matching the original qualities of the metamorphosis cinema canon. These films all externalized transformative bodily phobias to tap into the reigning socio-cultural, technological, and aesthetic zeitgeist of their era, and for that they are special.
Alexander Kirschenbaum is a recent Northwestern University Radio/TV/Film graduate currently working as production assistant, storyboard artist and low-budget freelance music video director.
Canby, Vincent (1982) ‘“The Thing,” Horror and Science Fiction’, The New York Times Online, June 25. Accessed May 3, 2011.