Most films are about transformation in some way. We have to get characters from Point A to Point B, and to make it interesting, they’d better change somehow. But with this list I’m not talking about transforming your Sweet-But-Selfish Guy Next Door into the Sweet-But-Selfless Guy Next Door who gets the girl. In this list, the guy next door is more likely to turn into a blood-thirsty beast who could rip your throat out at the first sign of the full moon.
Tomorrow’s release of Underworld: Rise of the Lycans has reminded us that there’s a whole host of magical beings, beasts and monsters that characters can turn into, and we love them all. So I present to you The Ten Best Transformation Movies.
10. Transformers (2007)
Look! It’s even got the word ‘transform’ in the title. Despite my complete lack of love for this movie, its plot or its stale characters, I will admit that what Michael Bay does best is focus on machines that are more than meets the eye. The CGI was solid, and the audience was rewarding for sitting through the garden scene by watching some cars flip out into giant fucking robots.
9. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)
The original film version directed by Don Siegel achieves an incredible feat in displaying a basic human fear: that our bodies are not our own. That without our notice or permission we could change into something else, something inhuman. It plays on paranoia – showcasing the fear that the world is changing around you, and there’s nothing you can do to stop it. Although the transformation form human to alien is always subtle – no need for a huge FX budget – it is always unnerving.
8. Ginger Snaps 2: Unleashed (2004)
Even more so than the first, this film uses the change from human to werewolf as a frightening metaphor for growing up. This is never more obvious than the group-masturbation fantasy scene that results in the pun/sight gag of Brigitte removing her hand from her pants to see the wolf hair covering her palms. The scene is incredibly jarring and eludes to the inevitability of violent change. Although she spends most of the movie trying to avoid the transformation, she eventually comes face to face with the werewolf hunting her – giving audience’s the gore pay off they deserve.
7. Night of the Living Dead (1968)
Oh, Zombies. I could have chosen just about any zombie flick, but I decided to go with the original genre explosion created by George Romero in the late 60s. The transformation theme is obvious with humans changing into brain-hungry somnambulists. What puts it over the top is its message for social change that lies beneath the subtext. There’s nothing more blood-chilling than surviving a relentless horde tearing through your farmhouse only to realize that hatred, bigotry, and racism are the real killers.
6. Interview with the Vampire (1994)
Similar to zombie flicks (or werewolf flicks for that matter) I could have gone with just about any vampire movie, but Interview deals so directly with the long process of the change from human to undead killing machine. It shows the transformation of Louis at the hands of Lestat as well as the bothersome change of Claudia, the little girl staying by her dead mother’s corpse’s side. It then goes on to show how the effects of that change over a lifetime. Through use of make-up, it shows a drastic change from healthy vamp to the near undeath of Lestat after he goes without blood for years. All vampire stories deal with transformation, but none so pointedly as this.
5. Big Fish (2003)
Getting away from monsters just slightly, Big Fish is one long tall tale that eventually results in an old man’s ultimate transformation. A natural storyteller becomes what he was always meant to be – a very big fish. The metaphor for death is a particularly moving one that works in concert with exactly how Edward Bloom lived. Along the way, we see little girls transform into witches and Amos Calloway, the circus owner, turn into a werewolf (bonus!) who’s desperate to play fetch.
4. Howl’s Moving Castle (2004)
An all-you-can-eat buffet of transformations. Sofi is changed in the beginning of the film into an old woman, Howl changes form at will – opting usually for a giant blackbird-dragon that battles freelance in the war – the Witch of the Waste changes from gorgeous dame to a blob of flesh melting in over itself, the Fire Spirit transforms into a star, and even the scarecrow that befriends Sofi near the beginning changes. As fans know, Miyazaki is big on transforming characters into animals, spirits and monsters just as he’s big on taking simple fairy tales and turning them into complex works of art.
3. Videodrome (1983)
Back from our short fantasy reprieve, we dip back into the world of horror. Or is it science fiction? The genre-bending cautionary tale from Cronenberg is a triumph of the odd. If nothing else, the scene where Max Renn grows what appears to be a stomach-vagina big enough to lose his arm in is enough to have this film near the top of the list. Luckily, Cronenberg doesn’t stop there – transforming Max from a simple sleaze ball into a living television. All the while turning the audience into unwitting voyeurs.
2. The Fly (1986)
An updated look at the nightmare Franz Kafka gave to Gregor Samsa, Cronenberg (again!) uses the entire run time to change Dr. Brundle into a human fly. There’s at least a dozen incarnations of the stages of transformation, and every time, his body is more and more grotesque. Even in his own words, Brundle claims he’s “working on something that will change the whole world and mankind itself.” Obviously Cronenberg, who makes a cameo as a gynecologist, was obsessed with change and how far it could go. Turns out, in the case of Dr. Brundle, it goes as far as impregnating his girlfriend Veronica with larvae in a birth scene that – to this day – I can barely watch without losing it.
1. An American Werewolf in London (1981)
Feel free to accuse me of having werewolves on the brain, but for my money, there’s no better transformation flick than John Landis’s masterpiece of change. Is it because of the basic theme of uncontrollable urges present within the mythos? Sure. Is it because Landis is a fantastic storyteller? Definitely. But most of all, overarching themes and metaphors aside, this movie transcends because of one scene. When David Kessler first shifts from man into beast, for the first time in history, filmmakers showed the complete, unadulterated transformation. It wasn’t like the old days where a few shadows moved, a beast emerged from off screen, or stop-motion took six phases to throw on some hair and spirit gum. Through the genius of legend Rick Baker’s special make-up effects, Landis was able to show the agony of what it means to have your flesh ripped apart by something emerging from inside you.
Honorable Mentions: Scanners, The Serpent and the Rainbow, Spirited Away, and The Stepford Wives.