It sure is a strange time to watch medical horror. The tensions underlying much of the horror genre are especially palpable when engaging with the creepy hospitals, contagion anxieties, and frightful institutions that are the trademarks of this medically-oriented subgenre. Is horror harmless fun, important cultural work, ghoulish grave-dancing, or all of the above? What is the point – and the ethical ramifications – of engaging with imagined versions of the calamities we are actually experiencing? As a partial answer, I offer these eight medical horror films (and two shorts!), which explore the many terrors, anxieties, and hopes that we associate with medicine.
JACOB’S LADDER (1990), dir. Adrian Lyne
A deserved classic of medical as well as psychological horror, Jacob’s Ladder remains keenly disturbing due to its effective use of twisted, impactful imagery, as well as its paradoxical realism. Tim Robbins plays Jacob Singer, a Vietnam vet with PTSD who navigates a haunted New York City populated by questionably human forms while fending off paranoia, slippages in reality, and a panoply of malevolent and ghastly doctors, hospitals, and other assorted institutions. There is much to fear, and Jacob’s increasingly plaintive protests against dehumanization and control feel wrenchingly grounded in reality, even if the manifestations of the malevolent social forces in question (war, violence, abuse) are fantastical.
Robbins is adept at portraying emotional vulnerability, which makes everything that happens to him that much more wrenching. In one horrifying sequence, he is wheeled in a gurney down the corridor of what first appears to be a run-down hospital, then an anachronistic and horrifying asylum, then a hellscape of blood and severed body parts (this sequence, among others, was a key inspiration for the Silent Hill franchise). In another, he is almost hit by a subway car and stares at the blank faces of the passengers speeding past him – a trick of the light, or a train of demons?
Whether or not Jacob’s Ladder sticks the ending is debatable: for my taste, it is too neat a conclusion given the cans of worms it opens. Nevertheless, it remains essential viewing, best enjoyed when one’s hold on reality is (if only momentarily) secure.
A CURE FOR WELLNESS (2016), dir. Gore Verbinski
In this smart-schlock 2016 medical Gothic drama, Dane DeHaan plays Lockhart, a young executive sent to retrieve a CEO from a mysterious sanatorium in the Swiss mountains. He should be worried to find that the director, Dr. Heinrich Volmer, is played by a scenery-chewing Jason Isaacs; it is not too long before the evil lurking underneath his beaming smile and white summer suit comes to the foreground. Lockhart is an unsympathetic protagonist, which is fine, except that he fails to develop any depth in response to his myriad sufferings (many of which include eels). It is glorious, though, to watch him wander the mint-green halls of the spa, steadily unearthing the depths of the secrets concealed behind its anachronistic Stepford façade.
The cinematography of the film is astounding, the dominant chlorine hue and pink pastels giving the modern sanatorium a medicinal 1950s feel. Frame after frame compels the viewer to stop and gape in admiration. It belongs in a better-conceived film that could tie together all the curious strands of storyline and aesthetics: water tanks full of bodies (peacefully relaxing or dead?), Gothic secrets involving medical experiments on Swiss villagers, and the alienation of service to capital. It suffers, too, from the obviousness of the comparison to Shutter Island, which is the sharper film of the two. What A Cure for Wellness lacks in conception, however, it makes up for in eels, and for that alone it is worth watching – future competitors for eel-based horror have a high bar to clear.
Cronenberg’s The Fly (1986) has been canonized as a classic of mad-science horror, but lesser-known medical twin thriller Dead Ringers deserves more attention. Jeremy Irons smoothly inhabits a challenging double role as twin brothers, Elliot and Beverly Mantle, both gynecologists. (Coincidentally, Irons starred in another 1998 film featuring a twin role – The Man in the Iron Mask, in which Leonardo DiCaprio is both King Louis and Philippe.)
Elliot and Beverly are intimate and codependent; they often pretend to be each other, and this arrangement allows confident, suave Elliot to reap the career fruits of his brother’s gynecological genius while supplying gun-shy Beverly with duped women pre-seduced by Elliot. Beverly’s affable demeanor gives him cover for his deep-seated misogyny, as does his authority as a doctor (being white, male, posh, and Jeremy Irons also helps), but this façade recedes as Beverly’s obsession mounts, and eventually both brothers’ pathologies are unearthed, to devastating effect.
Twin male gynecologists with poor ethics surrounding consent are a perfect vehicle for Cronenberg’s obsessive focus on the violence of curiosity. In an early scene, Elliot subs in for Beverly in the middle of a pelvic exam on actress Claire Niveau (played by Geneviève Bujold) without telling his patient – thus casually committing sexual assault. It turns out that she is intersex and has an unusual, “fabulously rare” uterus; this excites Elliot, whose appreciation for the body (“I always thought there should be beauty contests for the insides of bodies. You know, best spleen”) uncomfortably parallels Humbert Humbert’s desire to turn Dolores “inside out” in Lolita. (Another strange parallel: seven years after Jacob’s Ladder, Adrian Lyne released an adaptation of Lolita with Irons as Humbert – one that seems to be based more on Humbert’s fevered imagination than on the novel itself.)
Men’s appreciation of women’s bodies can coexist with misogyny, clearly. As the movie proceeds, both brothers unravel grotesquely and eventually have only each other’s dangerous company; even in this strange intimacy, however, there is no salvation for them.
Dead Ringers is as apt an exploration of medical misogyny as it is challenging to watch for anyone who has had their autonomy violated by an OBGYN or sexual health provider; this formula begs to be subverted, and we might be in luck – apparently an Amazon TV series (Rachel Weisz set to headline and executive produce and Alice Birch to write) is in the works. Hopefully, the reimagined Dead Ringers can broaden its scope, as sexual and reproductive health has in recent years been increasingly acknowledged as a site of profound medical trauma for many populations, including Black women and other women of color and intersex and trans people. The formula is a deadly one, and it could be killer with a broadened scope.
After Chapitre 3 (2021), dir. Brandon Cronenberg
Brandon Cronenberg, son of David Cronenberg, recently garnered acclaim for his new release, Possessor (2020), a bleak mind-twisting thriller about a body-jumping assassin (Andrea Riseborough, haunting our indie screens since 2018’s Mandy). Skepticism about indie horror as a family business is warranted, but it turns out that Brandon Cronenberg is a very, very good director – so we can only hope that his recent success will draw some attention to his debut film After Chapitre 3 Streaming VF, an equally bleak transhumanist medical drama.
Antiviral is set in the near future where celebrity culture has merged with emerging biotech markets, spawning companies that sell vat-grown celebrity steaks and skin grafts to discerning customers. Caleb Landry Jones plays Syd March, an employee of a firm that sells celebrities’ diseases cultured directly from their bodies, promising an intimate (bordering on obscene) connection with your idols. As Syd becomes embroiled in escalating schemes around stolen proprietary viral strains, he himself gets progressively sicker. Antiviral is audacious in the queasiness of its tone, never straightforwardly enjoyable but always entrancing. A convincingly ill and thoroughly alienated Syd staggers his way through desaturated, overbright interiors (every room evoking a hospital) where the only bright colors are found in blood and glossy celebrity photos.
For all his edginess, David Cronenberg is sometimes limited by a misanthropic pessimism that seems to block him from exploring the possibilities of his own wonderfully fevered imagination. Why not actually let the characters explore the possibilities of their hubris before smiting them? This is where Antiviral stands out: cynical in its portrayal of lonely people desperately seeking something, anything, it leaves open the possibility that the straws they clutch at might grant them some measure of peace, as Syd, initially a skeptical grifter, starts to fall for the pitch himself. In large part, this is due to just how desperately lonely the world of Antiviral is: by the time you’ve endured this inhuman world for the length of the film, you might get on board too.
PROFESSOR DOWELL’S TESTAMENT (1984), dir. Leonid Menaker
Soviet film production left little space for horror, but elements of it started showing through in the late 1970s and 1980s, most prominently in science fiction. Professor Dowell’s Testament, based on a novel by science fiction author Alexander Belyaev, is horrific more in its implications than its watching experience, but it easily matches any other entry on this list in strength and eeriness of concept.
Professor Dowell (Olgerts Kroders) is a scientist who dies while working on a formula for a life-giving compound that would make whole-body transplantation a possibility. Revived based on instructions in his will by his unscrupulous assistant Dr. Korn (Igor Vasiliev), he lives as a disembodied head in a lab. The film uses this simple conceit to great effect, simply but effectively laying out the ethical and metaphysical conflicts inherent in pushing the limits of death. We see Dowell first through video footage, then memorialized in a statue depicting his head only (a nice touch), then finally in head-with-wires form. Kroders’ performance grounds the potentially preposterous situation in a sense of gravitas, as he mournfully intones dire warnings to other would-be Frankensteins.
The film’s action sequences hold up poorly and feel awkwardly grafted on (pun intended) to a coolly meditative and genuinely troubling examination of bioethics. Every lab scene, however, feels fresh, in large part because the existential dilemmas persist to this day. The relationship between Korn and Dowell is openly adversarial, raising issues of disability and agency: Korn keeps the professor cut off from allies, concealing the assistive technology which allows Dowell to communicate, while Dowell withholds the formula, knowing that Korn will never achieve it himself.
Dowell is grimly philosophical and resigned, repenting of what he sees as his prior folly: “He was a fearful person, that professor.” An identity crisis lies in wait, meanwhile, for an unwitting cabaret performer (Natalya Sayko) who serves as a guinea pig after an accident, waking up with someone else’s body connected to her neck as “Eve”; ecstatic at first to have a new body, she soon realizes that her value to Korn constrains her freedom. “Poor thing,” Dowell’s head tells her; he would certainly agree with Jud of Stephen King’s Pet Sematary that “sometimes, dead is better,” but Testament leaves us to wrestle with the question ourselves.
PATHOLOGY (2008), dir. Marc Schölermann
Representing the jovially self-indulgent end of the medical horror spectrum is Pathology, a sardonic morgue thriller that would, if not for its comical resistance to acknowledging the simmering sexual tension between the two leads, also be an excellent horror romance. We would have to wait five years until the Hannibal TV series to once again watch such a profuse abundance of dialogues between men staring longingly at each other while complimenting each other’s murders. (Apropos of nothing, the term “queerbaiting” was coined in the early 2010s.)
Milo Ventimiglia stars as Ted Grey, an ambitious golden-boy doctor with a dark side; the standout performer, however, is Michael Weston, enlivening the role of twisted murder surgeon Dr. Jake Gallo with an affect hovering between bemusement, flirtation, and malice, bringing life especially to most of the film’s better-than-they-should-be punchlines (“A bleeding heart. I cut one of those in half this morning.”) He leads a pathology crime ring with some fellow resident frat bro types who stage elaborate murders for each other to solve over drugs and booze in the morgue. As he and newbie Ted get closer (Ted surprisingly game to join a murder cult), he descends into raw violence (“You’re losing it, Dr. Gallo!”) which leads to the pathology residents’ inevitable and satisfying showdown.
The film could have done more with the morgue setting (Re-Animator, also on this list, also features morgue scenes, but uses them more inventively), but what it skimps on in creepy corridors it ably delivers in dissection gore, portrayed in a straightforward but often abstractly beautiful way (although non-fans of gore are less likely to share that impression).
John de Lancie (Breaking Bad, Star Trek: The Next Generation) appears to do some of the philosophical heavy lifting (“The pathologist is offered a window to god”), sickly surgical lights light up dreary greenish rooms of bloody, giggling pathology residents, and Drs. Gallo and Grey rhapsodize at each other breathlessly (“I have composed a poem sublime, and you are my critic, you are my only critic, Teddy”) – the whole thing is silly, oddly affecting and, for some at least, profoundly enjoyable.