Body horror is usually discussed in tandem with directors like David Cronenberg, Clive Barker, and John Carpenter. Body horror is defined by the Collins Dictionary as “a horror film genre in which the main feature is the graphically depicted destruction or degeneration of a human body or bodies.” John Carpenter’s 1978 The Thing is a prime example, as an alien parasite takes over a group of human bodies. The parasite stretches, rips, and destroys the group one by one, rendering their bodies into something totally unrecognizable. Other examples are The Fly, Videodrome, and Alien.
But body horror doesn’t always have to be about such intense and graphic depictions of the ruined body. Yorgos Lanthimos depicts a different kind of body horror in his film, The Killing of a Sacred Deer. His body horror is more controlled – instead of bodies falling apart into bloody piles, the bodies of Bob (Sunny Suljic) and Kim (Raffey Cassidy) fall apart in a predicted and methodical way. The horror comes from the inevitably of this decay, the medical solutions used to try to solve the decay, and the brutality of its solution.
The Killing of a Sacred Deer opens on a beating human heart. The camera is peering inside a human being, revealing its inner workings as surgeons’ hands enter and exit the frame. What’s more body horror than surgeons reaching into body cavities to touch and cut up organs while a human being is still alive? There is usually a right way to perform surgery, a set of procedures to begin, perform, and end the process, despite any complications. This opening shot sets a visceral yet somehow sterile tone that permeates the rest of the film.
After the beating heart, The Killing of a Sacred Deer moves to a typical family with a peculiar problem. Colin Farrell plays Steven Murphy, a heart surgeon and recovering alcoholic, who is responsible for the death of Martin’s (Barry Keoghan) father. In attempts to rectify his father’s death, Steven takes Martin under his wing, getting him gifts and meeting him at a local diner. However, Martin reveals that these gifts and meals aren’t enough – Steven will have to kill one of his children, Bob or Kim, as payment for his actions and to restore balance. The longer he waits to kill one of his children, the sicker they become. Martin explains that there are three stages of bodily destruction before their inevitable deaths.
The first step is losing the ability to walk. Bob is unable to get out of bed, explaining that he can’t move his legs. We take our ability to walk for granted, so what is more terrifying than our body suddenly giving out on us, taking our mobility? Doctors perform test after test on Bob, scanning his body, prodding it with needles, echoing the earlier shot of the heart: This is medical, but it’s still an act of body horror as fluids are taken from the still-alive human body. In an almost comical act of denial, Steven hauls Bob out of bed and drags him down the hospital hallway, telling him he just needs to walk. If only it were that easy.
The second step is losing appetite. At this point, Kim is also hospitalized with her brother. Again, like walking, eating is something we take for granted; it’s a necessary and normal part of life. When it’s taken away, the body slowly falls apart, losing its ability to function and it appears skeletal, unnatural. In another act of denial, Steven brings donuts to Bob’s hospital bed, a sweet treat for his son. But instead of it being a comfort, Steven tries to shove a donut in Bob’s mouth and demands he eat the whole box in 5 minutes. As the mysterious illness progresses, both Kim and Bob are given feeding tubes, medically-implanted devices in their bodies that keep them alive. These devices are reminiscent of the strange mutations in Cronenberg’s Videodrome. While the mutations of Videodrome are grotesque, such as a VCR growing in someone’s stomach, they become extensions and additions of the human body, such as these feeding tubes. But these feeding tubes are, again, medical and therefore seen as necessary and important to the survival of the children. While yes, they serve an important purpose in the real world, but these tubes perpetuate the medical body horror present throughout the film.
The last step is bleeding from the eyes, which is the most stereotypical body horror aspect of the film. The previous two steps have potential medical explanations and tests that can be performed to rule out infection, disease, and other issues. However, there is no medical explanation of this profuse bleeding from Bob’s eyes. Steven can no longer deny what is happening to his children. Steven must now come to terms with the true horror of the situation and he must pay for his actions by taking the life of one of his children.
Lanthimos’ The Killing of a Sacred Film is an unsettling film that seems to defy one genre classification. But, in the mire of trying to define its genre, it squarely fits into the definition of body horror. From the loss of necessary human functions, the excess of medical testing done to Bob and Kim’s bodies, and the excessive bleeding from the eyes, Lanthimos is able to take the concept of body horror and twist it into something even more strange. His body horror is medical, sterile, predictable, which makes it all the more disgusting. He confronts our own expectations of both body horror and the medical processes typically used to save us. But when they can’t save us, they seem monstrous and destructive.