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12 Horror Movies Featuring Gnarly People-To-Animal Transformations

Updated September 23, 2021 1.5k votes 280 voters 24.7k views12 items

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To say that we have a fascination with therianthropy, or shape-shifting, is a colossal understatement: The first depiction of a human transforming into an animal dates back 15,000 years to a Paleolithic pictograph found on the wall of a cave in France. There's something about the idea of a human taking on animal-like features and abilities that we find both attractive and repulsive, yet nonetheless fascinating. Our need to tell transformation horror stories has inspired myths, legends, classic literature, and motion pictures, whose talented directors, cinematographers, and special effects artists work together to bring to life on screen the transmogrification of the flesh in all its terrifying glory.

In this list, we've gathered the creepiest, goriest, most grotesque people-to-animal transformations in movies that do not involve that old standby of anamorphism, the werewolf (or his spiritual cousin, the dogman). The transformations were created primarily before CGI technology through the use of practical effects to turn humans in these movies into everything from bugs to snakes to sheep. Sometimes, there's a moral lesson to be learned or a metaphor behind these transformations, but more often than not, they are simply designed to shock, terrify, or nauseate the viewer.

  • This 2014 horror-comedy is a genre twofer, offering both zombies and human-to-animal transformations, as well as an homage to the style of "animals attack" and slasher movies of the '70s and '80s. The plot finds three young college girls vacationing at a cabin near a dam inhabited by toxic zombie beavers.

    During a visit from their boyfriends, Jenn (Lexi Atkins) is bitten by one of the beavers and becomes infected. In typical retro-horror fashion, Jenn's transformation into a beaver-like zombie is triggered by an intimate encounter. As Jenn straddles her friend, Mary (Rachel Melvin), her front teeth rupture in a gush of blood and foamy saliva as her new, giant beaver teeth erupt from her gums. Her face distends into a rodent-like snout and her skin becomes mottled with black spider veins. The transformation is disturbing because it is so unexpected, as is what she does with her new chompers to her boyfriend's manhood.

    In keeping with the retro plot and tone, co-writer and director Jordan Rubin utilized old-school practical effects, with mixed results. The animatronics ended up looking too cute and cuddly, no matter how much blood they were spattered with. But the practical makeup and prosthetic effects for Jenn's zombeaver transformation (and the other transformations in the movie) were well done and provide a tactile feel missing from many modern horror movie transformations that rely on CGI.

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  • Anyone who watches director Paul Schrader's (American Gigolo) transformation thriller gets a lot more than they are bargaining for when Irena Gallier (German model-turned-actress Nastassja Kinski) first turns into a black panther. Loosely based on the 1942 film of the same name, Cat People revolves around the modern-day descendants of a primitive tribe of shape-shifters who transform into big cats when they become aroused. 

    Irena, visiting New Orleans to reconnect with her estranged brother, Paul (Malcolm McDowell), discovers her werecat heritage, but rejects it - and her brother's advances. Paul explains to her that if she copulates with anyone outside of their tribe, she will transform into a big cat and remain that way until she takes the life of a human. She flees from her brother and shacks up with Oliver (John Heard) instead. Ignoring her brother's warning, she gives in to her urges with Oliver, who promptly falls asleep.

    Irena immediately begins to breathe erratically and then claws at the sheets as her face contorts into a vaguely feline form. Her eyebrows protrude, her nose broadens, and her pupils become slits. Then, she begins whimpering as her bones crack and contort beneath her taut skin. Finally, the emerging feline snout distorts her face so much that it stretches and tears and a black panther head bursts from within. The entire transformation sequence lasts only 30 seconds, but special makeup effects designer Tom Burman does such an excellent job that it will linger on in your mind long after you see it.

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  • With such a ridiculous title, it would be easy to overlook this 1973 horror movie by director Bernard L. Kowalski. But with its use of snakes as weapons and its disturbing human-to-snake transformation sequences, it stands out from the veritable pack of "animals attack" movies that were popular in the early '70s. Before he would become famous as Starbuck on Battlestar Gallactica and Face on The A-Team, Dirk Benedict gave an excellent performance as desperate college student David Blake, the assistant to a herpetologist who is slowly turning him into a King Cobra.

    Dr. Carl Stone (Strother Martin), convinced that humans are too fragile to survive an ecological disaster, devotes his knowledge of herpetology to discovering a way to give humans reptilian attributes. Since it was well before the days of genetic engineering and gene manipulation, Dr. Stone hoped to accomplish this by devising a serum based on snake venom that would turn people into snakes, but allow them to keep their human intelligence. Dr. Stoner begins injecting David with the serum, all the while telling his young assistant that the injections are anti-venoms meant for his protection.

    The serum causes radical changes to David, which slowly develop over the course of the movie: He loses weight; his skin becomes flakey, sheds, and eventually turns green and scaly; and his features begin to resemble those of a snake. Without the benefit of modern special effects techniques to make the prosthetics look more realistic, the transformation would be almost laughable to all but the most extreme ophidiophobes. Benedict, however, gives an outstanding performance as a man in agony who feels his very humanity slipping away.

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  • Photo: MGM

    George Lucas created a new magical force and all manner of interesting alien species, creatures, and androids for Star Wars, but he saved human-to-animal transformations for his lesser-known creation, Willow. There are no Jedi wizards capable of manipulating minds and seeing the future in Willow, but there are sorcerers and sorceresses, including one capable of turning humans into animals.

    While attempting to rescue the baby Elora Danan from being sacrificed, the mercenary Madmartigan and his allied army are enchanted by the evil Queen Bavmorda (Jean Marsh). After simply saying, "You are pigs," Madmartigan and the others begin to transform, their faces throbbing into snouts, their teeth distending into tusks, and their fingers fusing together. After violently shaking, the transformations are complete and pigs emerge from the clothes their human forms once wore.

    Lucasfilm's Industrial Light & Magic created new morphing techniques for some of the other effects sequences, but good old-fashioned special makeup effects and prosthetics were used for the close-up pig transformation sequences. In combination with the "siege" lighting of the scene and the cacophony of human groans mixed with porcine squeals and grunts, the pig transformation scene in Willow is just about as horrifying as you can get in a PG movie.

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