We should always have a healthy fear and respect for nature, and especially for all the creatures great and small that inhabit this planet alongside us. But with all the abuse we heap on both them and the Earth, it would hardly be a surprise if they collectively decided one day that they had had enough of us. It’s no wonder that many sci-fi and horror films revolve around the idea of animals attacking humans — some of them corrupted by man-made poisons like radiation, some seeking revenge, and some, perhaps the most frightening, hunting us simply because we’re there.
There’s no better example of the latter than Steven Spielberg’s masterful Jaws, but we decided to look back at 20 movies — from A-list to Z-list — that put us in the animals’ sights (if you’re looking for a new variation on this theme, you might want to try Into the Grizzly Maze, a recent Alaska-set thriller out now on VOD in which James Marsden, Thomas Jane, Scott Glenn and Billy Bob Thornton are served up for a rampaging bear). Sink your claws into these…
There was a whole spate of films in the 1950s that dealt with the effects of atomic radiation on animals and insects, with most of the buggers mutated into giant, destructive monsters. These films served as a sort of precursor to the later “nature’s revenge” wave of movies, and perhaps the best of the batch is this thriller about giant ants. While it may sound silly on the surface, director Gordon Douglas and his cast (James Whitmore, James Arness, Edmund Gwenn) sell it with deadly seriousness and a terrifically suspenseful atmosphere. The special effects are also quite good for their time.
More on ants later…
The Birds (1963)
Alfred Hitchcock’s adaptation of the Daphne du Maurier short story is the only movie Hitch ever made that flirted with the supernatural. There’s no reason for the savage bird attacks that threaten the town of Bodega Bay, which makes them even more frightening. The attacks are staged with Hitch’s trademark economy and precision, while the ending ranks as one of the great ambiguous fadeouts of all time.
Like many of the films it influenced, The Birds ends on a note of profound unease.
The “animals attack” craze kicked off in earnest with this B-movie shocker, which finds the family of aging wealthy patriarch Jason Crockett (Ray Milland) under siege on his private island from snakes, lizards, and other fauna in addition to the title critters. Milland is typically cranky and foolishly stubborn, while the other actors don’t get a whole lot to do in terms of characterization. But the shimmering cinematography and eerily staged animal attacks provide a ton of atmosphere and a building sense of horror, since — like The Birds — there is only a perfunctory attempt at explaining the onslaught.
This one holds up.
Night of the Lepus (1972)
Just as Frogs elevated the animals-vs-humans formula, this notorious turkey nearly sunk it. When a rancher (Rory Calhoun) and scientist (Stuart Whitman) attempt to curb the local wild rabbit population through the use of hormones, they inadvertently make the bunnies grow to the size of small trucks. Soon the rabbits are running roughshod all over the local community, but the script is ludicrous, the special effects are too cheesy and we doubt even Guillermo Del Toro or James Wan could make fluffy bunnies scary.
Look for Star Trek’s Dr. McCoy, DeForest Kelley, in a role he took obviously after his Trek residuals had run dry.
The first man-vs-nature movie to not just make the A-list, but become one of the biggest blockbusters of all time and a critically acclaimed classic as well. Steven Spielberg’s second feature film is a must-see, with the movie’s infamously malfunctioning mechanical shark forcing Spielberg to show less of it — thus ramping up the suspense and terror.
Jaws’ mix of high adventure and horror, its top-notch cast and that unforgettable John Williams score are just three more of the elements that make this a masterpiece — proving that even a premise usually relegated to the drive-in circuit could become something extraordinary in the right hands.
The underrated director Jeff Lieberman (who also made the surreal Blue Sunshine and eerie Just Before Dawn) filmed this creepy little shocker in 24 days down in Georgia, utilizing some appropriately gross early makeup effects from future legend Rick Baker. A jolt of electricity from a fallen power line sends hordes of earthworms up to the surface, where they develop a taste for human flesh.
Worms are just icky to begin with, so this is a natural premise around which to build a horror movie — and Lieberman doesn’t disappoint in his attack sequences.
The Food of the Gods (1976)
Poor H.G. Wells; after being treated so well with the excellent film versions of The War of the Worlds and The Time Machine, two of his lesser-known works got clunkier handling in the late ‘70s. This one starred former evangelist Marjoe Gortner in a story about a mysterious substance that oozes out of the ground, enlarging the chickens, wasps, worms and especially rats that eat it.
Directed by Bert I. Gordon (The Amazing Colossal Man), the picture suffers from lame special effects, including some wonky rear projection and clearly fake mechanical rodents and birds. There’s a tinge of horror in one or two scenes and a decent twist ending, but otherwise Food is not very nourishing, even on the “so bad it’s good” scale.
Empire of the Ants (1977)
Bert I. Gordon is at it again with his second Wells adaptation, but the father of science fiction gets just a touch more respect here – even if that is faint praise. For one thing, the awful Marjoe Gortner is gone and we get a vivacious and campy Joan Collins instead — a big improvement right there over The Food of the Gods. This time it’s ants that grow into giant monsters, thanks to toxic waste, and begin to develop enough intelligence to begin organizing themselves while using pheromones to put human beings under their control.
This somewhat interesting idea, however, is once again buried under Gordon’s rickety effects and clumsy staging.
The Pack (1977)
You knew dogs had to come into this at some point, right? This is the original “dogs gone wild” movie, paving the way for Cujo (1983), The Breed (2006), and the more recent, allegorical White God. The story here is simple — a small community is terrorized by a pack of feral dogs — and director Robert Clouse doesn’t have much style but manages to wring some raw fear and tension out of a well-worn siege situation.
Joe Don Baker is the lead actor but the movie really belongs to the canines themselves, who certainly seem mean as hell in their big scenes.
Day of the Animals (1977)
Director William Girdler was one of the shabbier filmmakers working during the ‘70s, churning out exploitation flicks with titles like Three on a Meathook and Asylum of Satan. After he scored with the Jaws knockoff Grizzly in 1976, he followed up with this cheapie about a hiking party that comes under attack when the depletion of the ozone layer (whatever) makes every animal in the wilderness extremely cranky. Even crankier is Leslie Nielsen, who plays a bullying member of the expedition exposed to the same radiation, which makes him get mean and take off his shirt.
This is low-grade filmmaking to be sure, but not without its creepier moments.
Kingdom of the Spiders (1977)
A post-Star Trek William Shatner stars as veterinarian “Rack” Hansen, whose small rural town of Camp Verde, Arizona comes under attack from an invasion of angry tarantulas in this cult classic. Pesticides are to blame (a common theme in the environmentally aware ‘70s) for the spiders’ going after first animals and then humans, but the workings of the plot are really not that important: what everyone remembers is those ghastly hordes of real spiders crawling over bodies alive and dead. The Shat chews whatever scenery is left behind by the arachnids, but the truth is that nearly 40 years later, this holds up as one of the best of its kind.
I like it better than the big studio take on the same basic story that came out 13 years later…
Long Weekend (1978)
A couple (John Hargreaves and Briony Behets) looking to repair their seriously damaged marriage take off for a weekend of camping on an isolated beach — but their incredibly callous disregard for nature as they litter, accidentally set fires and even kill a kangaroo with their car eventually leads the wilderness to strike back hard. This little-seen Australian cult film has an eerie, tense vibe from the beginning, with the strain between the man and woman (Hargreaves and Behets are both terrific) almost seeming to stir the hostile attacks later on.
There’s subtext galore in the film, which also works quite effectively as a creepy, offbeat thriller.
The Swarm (1978)
We’re not including Irwin Allen’s notorious bomb for its quality; in fact, it’s probably the worst film in this entire list (and we have some solid contenders). No, The Swarm gets a berth here because it’s the ultimate “monster bee” movie, a subgenre which has never really fared well. Whether it’s The Deadly Bees, Killer Bees or this clunker, bees seem to be the one creature that can’t get a half-decent movie made about them. The Swarm suffers from the same cheesy effects and lousy scripting and directing as every other “bee” movie, and packs in a lot of slumming stars to boot.
Even leading man Michael Caine won’t watch this one again.
Both versions of Piranha — Joe Dante’s original and the remake helmed 32 years later by Alexandre Aja — do exactly what they set out to: provide 90 minutes of gore-and-flesh drenched monster exploitation fare with a self-aware wink and, in the case of the Dante film, an unceasing stream of homages to previous horror movies. And both succeed, a tribute to the focus of the material and the talents of both directors.
Choose either, or both, and you’ll have a good time as that nasty school of piranha rips those summer campers/spring breakers apart.
A giant mutated bear is on the loose in this environmental thriller from the great John Frankenheimer, although this is not one of the director’s shining moments. While the sentiment is noble (the script was by The Omen writer David Seltzer), it’s delivered in thudding, heavy-handed fashion, and both the creatures and the scenes of them hunting and killing humans prove cheap-looking and laughable.
The cast is literally lost in the woods in this stinker, which was also buried at the box office that same summer by the message-free Alien.
Piranha screenwriter John Sayles (before he became an acclaimed indie film auteur) ventured back into “animals attack” territory with this twist on the old urban legend about baby alligators being flushed down toilets after becoming untenable as pets and growing into full-sized menaces in the sewers of New York. Sayles and director Lewis Teague run with that premise, tweaking the clichés of the genre along the way even as they pay tribute to ancestors like Them! with a hunt through the city’s subterranean tunnels.
It’s cheap, fast and fun, and the original standard-bearer for a sub-sub-genre that also spawned Crocodile, Lake Placidand Rogue.
Deadly Eyes (1982)
Based very loosely on the somewhat overripe novel The Rats by British horror author James Herbert, this Canadian production centers on a plague of jumbo rodents — beefed up after munching on steroid-infused grain — who begin eating and mutilating their way through Toronto. Shot by director Robert Clouse in that cheesy ‘80s style, complete with puppets, animatronics and even dogs in costumes playing the rats, Deadly Eyes is gory, silly fun that you just can’t take that seriously even when the rats do things like drag a baby right out of its high chair.
For more rat-connected hijinks, also check out Graveyard Shift, Willard, and Of Unknown Origin.
Basically a watered-down Kingdom of the Spiders on a major studio budget (it was produced by Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment), Arachnophobia plays down its horror elements and ramps up the comedy — making it a safe, more mainstream audience-friendly version of the grittier “animals attack” films of the ‘70s. Jeff Daniels plays the new town doctor in a small California community that finds itself plagued by a nasty new strain of spider.
The movie (the directorial debut of longtime Spielberg producer Frank Marshall) is fun, moderately entertaining and well-made, but lacks the ickiness of the more exploitational films it’s descended from.
Black Sheep (2006)
Yes, someone got around to making a movie about…killer sheep. Not just any killer sheep, but genetically infected ones who develop a taste for human flesh. New Zealand director/writer Jonathan King is clearly influenced here by the early work of fellow New Zealander Peter Jackson, striving for the same kind of sense of insanity that Jackson achieved in Bad Taste and Dead Alive. He does capture it occasionally (wait for the human/sheep mutations), even if the madcap tone of Black Sheep seem familiar and a little contrived.
The Ruins (2008)
Our look at “nature’s revenge” movies has been largely comprised of movies about rampaging animals, but we’ll end with a weird shocker about a malevolent, possibly sentient form of plant life. A group of backpackers on vacation in Mexico find the ruin of a Mayan temple that’s not on any map and are cornered there by local natives, who threaten to kill anyone that steps off the temple. They soon learn that the strange vines covering the edifice are alive and eager to devour them.
Based on the horrific novel by Scott Smith (A Simple Plan), The Ruins is suspenseful, bleak and effective, taking what could be a laughable premise and making it grimly frightening.