Supernatural horror transformations are among some of the most terrifying sequences in the horror genre. It can be hard to look away from the visceral squick factor at one person’s terrifying transformation into something otherworldly and monstrous.
In AMC’s NOS4A2, Zachary Quinto stars as Charlie Manx, a different kind of vampire, who is well over a century old. Manx’s peculiar power is tied to his 1938 Rolls-Royce Wraith, a sinister car with its own dark agenda. When Manx chauffeurs children in his black Wraith to Christmasland, an otherworldly amusement park that exists on the edges of reality, Manx’s supernatural power allows him to use his car to siphon off the children’s innocence in order to become immortal. This leaves the children as twisted, bloodthirsty demon-like creatures who are trapped in Christmasland forever. Of course, if Manx goes too long without bringing a new guest to his inscape — or if anything happens to his beloved car — his true age is revealed in a gruesome transformation sequence that takes Manx’s body through a lifetime of bodily aging in seconds.
At the 2019 Comic-Con panel, Zachary Quinto gave fans an inside scoop on how important Manx’s special effects makeup is to the role, and how the creative team takes Quinto through five different levels of makeup effects phases for this NOS4A2 villain. “The least extensive makeup takes about 45 minutes to an hour, while the most extensive makeup takes four hours,” Quinto explained. Watch the full video here:
Not only is the special effects transformation makeup a slog to get on, but getting it off is just as gruesome. “When he takes it off, you have to imagine the dad in Poltergeist, picking chunks out of his face in front of the mirror,” jokes NOS4A2 author Joe Hill at the 2019 Comic-Con panel. Quinto laughs in agreement.
Zachary Quinto’s transformation in NOS4A2 is part of a long legacy of a particular kind of body horror that touches on the nagging fear that you could lose total control of your physical being. Supernatural transformations are an indelible part of the horror genre, and many times the transformation sequences are so terrifying they stick with you far beyond the closing credits of the movie.
In AMC’s docuseries Eli Roth’s History of Horror (returning this fall for Season 2), horror director Eli Roth interviews masters of horror for a chilling exploration of how the genre has evolved on screen, and its impact on society. In this master class interview with horror icon Stephen King (and father of NOS4A2 author, Joe Hill), Roth asks: “What is it about reading scary books, telling scary stories, that we just love?”
King has a surprising answer: “It’s safe. It’s a safe thing, it’s a safe place to go.”
“We don’t really like to be scared in real life, but in a movie, we have a chance to be afraid and to externalize the fears that we have,” explains King. “We get to experience fear, that roller coaster thing. We’re scared to death, but at the same time, we know we’re safe, so it’s a chance to explore emotions in safety that we don’t get a chance to,” King adds.
Supernatural transformations speak to the one fear humans can all relate to: that our bodies are slowly aging and changing beyond our control, and there isn’t anything we can do about it. Sure, we may not be changing into monsters, werewolves, or aliens, but despite our best efforts, no one can stop the onslaught of cell death, declining health, and withering vitality. Your idea of who you are becomes misaligned with what you see in the mirror starts — slowly, at first, and then one day, all at once. And really, what’s more horrifying than that?
Here’s a list of some of the most terrifying supernatural transformations in film. They’re sure to leave viewers with lasting nightmare fuel, and hopefully a newfound appreciation for the work of special effects artists who help create these gut-churning scenes.
The Fly (1986; directed by David Cronenberg)
One of the most iconic body horror transformations is that of Jeff Goldblum in David Cronenberg’s 1986 reimagining of The Fly. Goldblum’s character, Seth Brundle, is an eccentric scientist who is devoted to cracking the secret of instant teleportation. When he uses himself as a test subject in one of his “tele-pods,” he doesn’t notice that a small housefly entered the pod with him. I think you can see where this is going. Over the course of the film, Brundle’s body is slowly consumed with the fusing DNA of the fly until he becomes a deformed, insectoid monstrosity. The makeup and special effects used for Goldblum’s transformation from handsome scientist to “Brundlefly” disaster were so highly regarded, the film earned Cronenberg his only Oscar win for the makeup team overseen by Chris Walas and Stephan Dupuis.
Slither (2006; directed by James Gunn)
Most will hear James Gunn’s name and think of his recent slate of family-friendly comic book blockbusters. He’s recently directed Guardians of the Galaxy, and executive produced Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame. But his filmmaking career began with Troma Entertainment, an indie production company specializing in low budget horror films. Gunn worked closely with mentor Lloyd Kaufman, the co-founder of Troma — and delightful guest on AMC’s Comic Book Men — to learn the ins and outs of feature filmmaking. Gunn made his directorial debut in 2006 with Slither, a science-fiction horror comedy that made the ranks of Rotten Tomatoes’ 50 Best Reviewed Horror Movies. Starring Nathan Fillion, Elizabeth Banks, The Walking Dead‘s Michael Rooker, and more, Slither follows the gruesome fallout of an alien parasite that infects a small community. The movie is full of squicky mutations, but Michael Rooker’s descent from devoted husband to tentacled slug monstrosity is the one to watch in this cult classic.
An American Werewolf in London (1981; directed by John Landis)
In an extended interview with director John Landis in AMC’s Eli Roth’s History of Horror Master Class, Landis recalls that his script for An American Werewolf in London was widely loved and circulated, but no one wanted to make it. “They all said exactly the same thing,” Landis remembers, “either this is too funny to be scary, or this is too scary to be funny.” After being shelved for over a decade, An American Werewolf in London was eventually made into one of the most widely acclaimed horror movies of all time. The film follows the story of two New Yorkers backpacking through England, who are eventually attacked by a werewolf. One of them, David Kessler (David Naughton), is bitten. As the night of the full moon approaches, the question lingers: will David transform into a werewolf? Spoiler: yes, obviously. In what is one of the most iconic rapid horror transformation sequences of all time, David’s body completely and painfully morphs into a monster. The sequence was a series of revolutionary special effects for the time. The film won the first ever Academy Award for Best Makeup, and Entertainment Weekly referred to special effects designer Rick Baker’s transformational makeup as the true star of the film.
Ginger Snaps (2000; directed by John Fawcett)
Ginger Snaps is another werewolf movie, but with quite a few diversions from the typical lycan-tropes. In Eli Roth’s “Deep Cuts” editorial series on AMC.com, in which the director lists film recommendations for horror aficionados, Roth lists Ginger Snaps as part of a deeper dive into the “Killer Creature” genre of horror. Roth says of the film: “Two death-obsessed teenaged sisters are attacked by a werewolf; one of the sisters is infected. Thus begins a tale of sex, murder, and high school redeemed by strong female characters, and very Canadian black humor.” With its two strong female leads, witty satire around puberty, and a deeply gruesome supernatural transformation sequence, it’s little wonder that Ginger Snaps has developed a devoted cult following.
Akira (1988; directed by Katsuhiro Otomo)
Don’t let the animated style fool you. The 1988 Japanese anime Akira is widely regarded as one of the most influential films of all time, not only paving the way for the accessibility and popularity of Japanese animation, but also as a direct influence on some of the biggest science fiction stories in Hollywood, video games, and beyond. The landmark film is set in a post-apocalyptic “Neo-Tokyo” and follows members of a biker gang, namely Shōtarō Kaneda and Tetsuo Shima. When Tetsuo suffers a motorcycle accident with an escaped government science experiment, he starts to develop radical telekinetic powers. Unfortunately, these powers come with devastating physiological and psychological side effects, and Tetsuo eventually transforms into an uncontrollable gigantic mass of bodily tissue that results in his girlfriend being crushed to death in the folds of his unceasingly growing flesh. Trust me: the two-dimensionality of it does not make it any less gnarly.
Demons (1985; directed by Lamberto Bava)
Lamberto Bava’s Demons is another recommendation by Eli Roth, this one from his Deep Cuts installment on Possession movies. Roth describes the film thusly: “A motley crew of punks, preps and other types get the surprise of their lives when the midnight movie they’re watching turns audience members into murderous demons. Will anyone make it out of the theater alive? Great cinematography, makeup effects, and music distinguish this fun demonic romp.” The mutation of happy class-skipping teenagers to demons with pus shooting out of their faces is gag-worthy, but if you’re here, you might be into that sort of thing. Roth lists Demons 2 as even better than the original, owing to it being “more fun, surreal, and crazy than the original, and it has a killer post-punk soundtrack, including songs by The Smiths, The Cult, The Art of Noise, and Dead Can Dance.”
The Thing (1982; directed by John Carpenter)
John Carpenter’s The Thing is a milestone in technical achievement in film, still shocking audiences today with its terrifying transformation sequences as the titular Thing mutates from one creature to another. The most surprising… thing about The Thing is how little audiences responded to it when it was first released in 1982. Truly ahead of its time, The Thing has since influenced numerous films and television series, as well as directors like Guillermo del Toro, J.J. Abrams, Quentin Tarantino, Edgar Wright, and so many more. The film follows a team of scientists in Antarctica who discover an alien creature that absorbs and perfectly replicates its host. This causes a chaotic spiral of violence and distrust among the team as they desperately try to find the Thing among them.
Click here to see the latest episodes of supernatural horror NOS4A2 available now on amc.com and the AMC app for mobile and devices. Check out the on-air schedule here for more encore viewings and upcoming episodes of NOS4A2 on AMC.
For more Q&As with the NOS4A2 cast and creators, check out this interview with Zachary Quinto, who plays Charlie Manx. Quinto talks jumping right into the action of Season 2, revealing the layers of the villainous vampire’s backstory and more. And don’t miss this Q&A with author Joe Hill, who teases the bigger world of Season 2, plus shares details about his unusual writing practice, how the NOS4A2 set is like stepping into his own inscape, and more.
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