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.
- Photo: 20th Century Fox
Authors like George Langelaan were warning of the dangers of genetic engineering decades before the science turned from fiction to fact. As the technology entered its fifth decade in use, renowned scientists penned an open letter offering dire warnings about its impact on humanity. Instead, they should have suggested lawmakers screen David Cronenberg's 1986 remake of The Fly, because it demonstrates how horribly wrong recombining DNA can go in graphic detail.
When eccentric scientist Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum) foolishly tests his experimental teleportation pod ("telepod") on himself during a drunken rage, he fails to notice that a housefly has entered the telepod along with him. Upon activating the device, Brundle's body is broken down on a subatomic level and reassembled in a second telepod, along with that of the fly.
At first, the benefits of fly DNA are wonderful - increased strength, reflexes, and vigor - but Seth soon begins to exhibit irrational thought and mania as his body takes on fly characteristics. In a truly horrifying sequence, Seth grows thick, bristly hairs on his body, his skin becomes mottled and tumorous, and he starts regurgitating fly vomit to digest his food. As the transformation progresses, his "Brundlefly" appearance goes from gross to absolutely revolting as his skin and body parts begin to slough off in chunks to reveal his hideously misshapen new "man-sect" form.
Cronenberg's vision, considered by many to be his most perfect film, contains layers and layers of personal, social, and philosophical metaphors, but it's the Academy Award-winning makeup effects by Chris Walas that are unforgettable. With only cable- and rod-controlled puppets and foam latex prosthetics, Walas and his team created one of the most horrifying transformation sequences ever depicted on film.21033Tummy-turning turn?
Tusk (2014)Photo: A24
Known primarily for his stoner comedies, filmmaker Kevin Smith took his second stab at horror in this bizarre 2014 release that featured a disturbing transformation of a human into a walrus. There's no mystical curse or mad scientist here, only a crazed ex-sailor doing a hack job on any unsuspecting victims who get snared in his net.
While following up on a flyer promising interesting stories, podcaster Wallace Bryton (Justin Long) encounters seaman Howard Howe (Michael Parks), now retried and seemingly confined to a wheelchair. Howard gives Wallace a cup of tainted tea and regales him with the story of how he was saved from a shipwreck by a walrus he named "Mr. Tusk."
When Wallace awakens, he finds that Howard has amputated one of his legs. Howard, guilt-wracked over having eaten Mr. Tusk, explains that he plans to transform Wallace into his old friend and savior. Slowly and nauseatingly, Howard hacks away at Wallace, replacing bit-by-bit his amputated limbs with the skin and sinew of prior prey and his own modified body parts, including a pair of tusks made from his own tibia bones.
The transformation process is a bloody, ghastly mess that culminates in Wallace being grafted into a prosthetic walrus suit - created for the movie by special effects wizard Robert Kurtzman (Predator, Army of Darkness) - that is part Frankenstein's monster, part Leatherface, a nightmare in marine mammal form. As bad as it is to watch, Wallace's transmogrification becomes all the more horrifying when the new Mr. Tusk's final fate is revealed at the end of the movie.18925Tummy-turning turn?
- Photo: New Line Cinema
There's more than a little cheesy camp in this 1991 adaptation of the popular Japanese manga of the same name, but it still manages to provide audiences with one particularly nightmarish sequence that finds Luke Skywalker himself, Mark Hamill, transforming from a man into a cockroach.
The movie centers around Sean Baker (Jack Armstrong), a young martial arts student who happens upon a piece of alien tech stolen from the Chronos corporation. Baker discovers the "Guyver" is actually a suit of symbiotic biomechanical body armor that grants superhuman abilities. Chronos is attempting to turn humans into mutant creatures called Zoanoids and uses the Guyver armor to battle the Zoanoids and shut down the operation.
In the process, CIA agent Max Reed (Hamill) is captured and experimented on to turn him into a cockroach-like Zoanoid. He falls to the ground and his limbs transform into insect-like appendages and then, in a particularly disgusting scene, an insect proboscis thrusts from his mouth and his head stretches away from his body on the end of a stalk-like neck. When the process is nearly complete, all that remains of the man that was once Max Reed is his forehead and his piercing blue eyes.
Though he is given top billing and appears on the movie poster and DVD cover, Hamill is actually a supporting character in this theatrical mess. Nevertheless, his Zoanoid transformation stands out as one of the most disturbing human-to-bug transformations on film, thanks to the practical effects created by special effects gurus Steve Wang and Screaming Mad George.9519Tummy-turning turn?
- Photo: New Line Cinema
By the fourth Nightmare movie, Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund) is no longer an urban legend, but a very real spectral slayer feared by the denizens of Springwood, Ohio. Freddy continues his rampage empowered by belief in him, targeting each of his prey with more and more elaborate nightmare scenarios.
For disbelieving tough girl Debbie Stevens (Brooke Theiss), whose only fear is bugs, Freddy constructs a nightmare for her in which she turns into a cockroach inside a roach motel. When the dream begins, Debbie is preparing to bench press when Freddy appears to "spot" her. Instead, he says, "No pain, no gain," and forces the bar down, causing her forearms to rupture and fall off at the elbows. Black insect legs sprout in their place. Debbie screams and tries to run, but falls and gets stuck facedown in the glue on the floor of the trap. As she writhes and screams in agony, the skin of her face rips away to reveal the slimy head of a cockroach. When her transformation is complete, Debbie has become just like the cockroach she squashed earlier in the movie, and she goes out in the same manner.
The experimental prop and prosthetic techniques employed be effects artist Screaming Mad George were groundbreaking at the time and made the girl-to-bug transformation terrifyingly realistic. Dream Master took home the win for Best Special Effects at the Catalan International Film Festival, and it still manages to horrify more than three decades later.10138Tummy-turning turn?