October is defined in Webster’s Dictionary as “31 days of horror.” Don’t bother looking it up; it’s true. Most people take that to mean highlighting one horror movie a day, but here at FSR, we’ve taken that up a spooky notch or nine by celebrating each day with a top ten list. This article about the best organ transplants in horror movies is part of our ongoing series 31 Days of Horror Lists.
Depending on what your definition of an “organ” is, organ transplant horror movies have been around for well over one hundred years.
One particular oldie that didn’t make this list is 1924’s The Hands of Orlac, which tells of a concert pianist who receives a double hand transplant only to learn his donor was a convicted murderer. As is so often the case, Orlac starts to believe the hands have a homicidal mind of their own. And simmering in self-doubt and paranoia, Orlac quickly finds himself a stranger in his own body, a hostage to a captor who seemingly refuses to let go of his discarded parts.
While Orlac’s tale ends improbably happy, his tragic tale is well-known to the genre crowd. Indeed, despite their superficially disposable B-movie premise, organ transplant horror movies are nothing to wave a severed head at. Positioned at the intersection of body horror and identity horror, this is a subgenre with some serious thematic heft behind it. So even when things might get a little silly (and they invariably do), organ transplant horror is still one of the crunchier and longest-serving subgenres out there.
So let’s cut to the chase (and cut off that demonic arm while we’re at it), and take a look at the top ten best horror films heavy on organ transplants as ranked by Rob Hunter, Chris Coffel, Brad Gullickson, Jacob Trussell, and yours truly.
10. The Eye (2002)
You can barely trust your own eyes … let alone somebody else’s. Originally released in 2002 before being remade (poorly) three times, this Hong Kong/Singaporean co-production follows Wong Kar Mun (Angelica Lee), a blind violinist who receives a cornea transplant that restores her sight at a terrible price. Indeed, Mun’s gratitude begins to curdle when she starts seeing strange shadowy entities who appear to forewarn death and disaster. With her new doctor friend/love interest in tow, Mun decides to learn more about her eyes’ donor and whether or not they too experienced these ghostly apparitions. Atmospheric and tightly paced, The Eye is a genuinely creepy little tale about seeing life from a different, spectral perspective. (Meg Shields)
9. Brain Dead (1990)
Is Brain Dead a good movie? No. Do the vast majority of people accidentally watch it because they were looking for Peter Jackson’s 1992 film of the same name? Yes. But here’s the thing: must movies be good? Also, full disclosure: whether or not this film is actually about organ transplants is a bit debatable. But counterpoint: this film’s plot has a needless nesting realities and brain surgery scenes that imply that two characters have swapped and/or are sharing the same brain.
Confused? Good, that’s the Brain Dead experience. Also, for all of you who wished that the two Bills (Pullman and Paxton) were in a movie together, is this what you wanted? A movie about a brain surgeon losing his marbles after getting embroiled in a corporation-sanctioned lobotomy plot? Oh, it was? Well then. Thank you for manifesting this enjoyable disaster of an organ-themed film. (Meg Shields)
8. Body Bags (1993)
Brent Matthews has it all: a loving pregnant wife, a thriving baseball career, and a working right eye. Then, on a dark and stormy night, Brent loses his dominant peeper in a freak car accident. There’s good news, though, an experimental procedure that can potentially restore Brent’s vision. Surely there’s no catch. Then again, if this list proves anything, it’s that doctors should really stop transplanting the body parts of necrophiliac serial killers. It never works out! Mark Hamill as a possessed Ned Flanders is a sight to behold. Okay, poor choice of words, but the point is that “Eye” is the highlight of Body Bags’ horror omnibus, a well-known possession tale executed with camp and pathos aplomb. Also, who let Roger Corman practice medicine? That feels like a bad idea. (Meg Shields)
7. Repo! The Genetic Opera (2008)
“It’s a thankless job,” croons Repo Man Nathan Wallace (Anthony Head), “but somebody’s got to do it.” The thankless job in question, as the film’s name implies, is the repossession of rented-out organs from folks who can’t pay their bills. Throughout the course of the song, we see Nathan performing his duties in all their gory glory. However, as it progresses, we see the thanklessness wash over his face. The recognition of the capitalistic horror of his job creeps into his expression and his voice as he completes the task at hand.
The emotional storytelling in a song like “Thankless Job” is what separates Repo! from other horror musicals, which typically lean into the inherent camp at the core of this genre mashup. To be fair, what director Darren Lynn Bousman and creators Darren Smith and Terrance Zdunich made is campy but also earnestly told, giving this strangely marvelous blend of horror, opera, and musical theater a flavor uniquely its own. (Jacob Trussell)
6. Mad Love (1935)
Stephen can’t understand it. His hands seem possessed. They’re always throwing knives at the most inopportune times. When a mysterious note arrives, promising to tell all about his new mitts, Stephen goes sleuthing for answers. With a blade gripped tightly, of course. There are many reasons to love Mad Love. Cinematographer Gregg Toland cut his teeth on it (or sharpened his eye on it) before moving on to Citizen Kane. It’s also the American debut of the iconic Peter Lorre. However, its most must-watch feature is when Rollo exposes his severed head, secured on his body by a wondrous metallic brace. The reveal is nightmarish, accentuated by a Joker-like cackle to end all cackles. Whatever cinematic head transplants that come after this one, none can match it. Ghoulish. (Brad Gullickson)
5. Coma (1978)
I’m not saying that I have a sleeper cell activation phrase. But if I did, it might as well be a “Michael Douglas conspiracy thriller about organ harvesting.” Written and directed by Michael Crichton (adapting his own novel of the same name), Coma begins with a deliciously morbid mystery: why are so many perfectly healthy people dying during routine surgeries? And why do all of these so-called accidents seem to be happening in the same operating room at Boston Memorial Hospital?
While our intrepid heroine Susan (Geneviève Bujold) attempts to unravel the mystery, the powers that be grow more and more uneasy as she inches closer to the horrifying truth: the hospital is intentionally rendering healthy patients brain dead and selling their guts to the highest bidder. Infusing paranoia with plausibility, Coma is legitimately one of the most terrifying thrillers to emerge out of the 1970s. It’s a good reminder to keep your personal physician close and your internal organs even closer. (Meg Shields)
4. Rabid (1977)
Perhaps the grooviest movie ever funded by the Canadian government, Rabid tells the story of Rose (Marilyn Chambers), the most normal-named person in a David Cronenberg movie. After our heroine and her boyfriend are in a near-fatal motorcycle accident, Rose enters the care of an experimental plastic surgeon who proceeds to graft spooky, stem-cell skin samples to the parts of Rose that need fixing. When Rose awakens from her coma, there’s good news (her body accepted the grafts!) and bad news (her body mutated, and now she’s a vampire with a retractable arm-pit straw!). To be fair, this is a very accurate reflection of the Canadian healthcare system. And before you can say, “Wow, that arm-pit straw sure does look like a peni-” Rose has created an undead army of maniacs who proceed to terrorize Montreal. Surgery really is the new sex, huh David? (Meg Shields)
3. Eyes Without a Face (1960)
A father’s love knows no bounds. And by bounds, I, of course, mean unauthorized heterografts, which is to say, non-consensually peeling one person’s face off and stitching it onto another person’s raw, fleshy visage. Widely considered to be a touchstone of both body horror and French extremity (two sides of the same gore-flecked coin, if we’re being honest), Georges Franju’s 1960 classic still manages to shock, repulse, and sicken despite its age. The film follows the tragic (and stomach-churning) story of Dr. Génessier (Pierre Brasseur), a surgeon obsessed with finding a compatible “donor” for his daughter Christiane, who was disfigured in a car accident. Haunting and horrifying in equal measure, Eyes Without a Face is easily the most poetic film about a tormented father trying to make amends with his captive daughter by ripping strangers’ faces off. (Meg Shields)
2. Tammy and the T-Rex (1994)
Is there a more romantic love story than Tammy and the T-Rex? After Tammy’s (Denise Richards) boyfriend Michael (Paul Walker) is left comatose, his brain is transplanted into an animatronic Tyrannosaurus Rex. Once in control of his new dinosaur body, Michael escapes and goes on a bloody rampage. Despite his new look, Tammy still loves him because, as the famous saying goes, “Love is where the brain is.” Tammy and the T-Rex is a bonkers movie that exists simply because someone called up director Stewart Raffill and said, “Hey, I got this giant robotic T-rex for the next two weeks. Want to make a movie?” Ah, the magic of cinema! (Chris Coffel)
1. Frankenhooker (1990)
I know what you’re thinking. If Frank Henenlotter’s Frankenhooker counts for an organ swap list, where’s Frankenstein? It’s a fair question, but one I answer with my own… does Frankenstein feature a pile of extra boobs just lying around? A brain with an eyeball kept alive in a fish tank? A drug called “super crack” that explodes sex workers and sends their innards and outers flying across the room in a shower of sparks and blood? No, no, it doesn’t. Henenlotter’s brilliant slice of comedic horror makes the most of its influences while finding an abundance of life of its own with big laughs, hilarious performances, and more loose body parts than any ten adaptations of Mary Shelley’s classic. (Rob Hunter)
Heart fluttering? Eyes straining? Lungs wheezing? Sounds like you need to have a look at our archive of 31 Days of Horror Lists.