Ever since we first took our steps out of the water, we immediately looked back over our shoulder and wondered what that splashing sound was. I was a member of the Jaws generation, one of the more influential horror films in modern cinema. Not just in terms of resetting and expanding what actually scares us by making use of the water as the metaphor for The Great Unknown, but also in managing to keep me out of swimming in a lake until I was a teenager. Even then, I stayed in motion constantly, kicking my feet as if my life depended on it—which it undoubtedly did.
What about the water is so terrifying to us? Is it the idea that it can instantly kill us? The fact that it slows us down and provides a hazard for us that the predators can cheerfully ignore? Personally, I think there’s something primal, if not primeval, about what lives in the crushing depths. We know we don’t belong in the water any more, and they do. It’s their domain, and we’re just trying to survive—badly.
Fair warning about this category. There is a sharp, steep drop off in quality. Most of the movies in this category are gawd-awful, and I can prove it with math. Most of the time, making an aquatic monster movie is an excuse to put girls in bikinis and run them around, screaming in terror. Look at the poster above for a better example of what these flicks are usually selling. There are exceptions, though. When these movies are good, they are very good. When they are bad, they generate gravity and collapse in upon themselves, like dying suns.
My list is culled out according to how effective the horror is, coupled with the original nature of the story, and overall quality. This is one of the few times when your mileage definitely won’t vary from mine very much.
5. Grabbers (2012)
On a remote corner of a remote part of Ireland, a fisherman catches something in his net and brings it ashore. Ten minutes into the film, the tentacles come out, along with some nasty teeth, and after that, the movie is off-road and heading for trouble as these cthuloid-tumbleweed monsters set about the business of egg-laying and eating the villagers.
This Johnny-Come-Lately film from Ireland gets points for nerve, if nothing else. Keep the monsters in the dark? Nope, let’s get ‘em right out in the open. Thankfully, they are cool monsters to look at, and pretty frightening, on top of it all. Many of the usual clichés are bounced on their head as the locals try to fend off the grabbers and one another. Throw an alcoholic cop and his green partner into the mix, and this movie ends up being a surprising turn on the same-old, same-old. Fair warning: if you (forgive me) grab this off of Netflix, DO NOT read the description, as it gives away a very cool and interesting plot point.
4. Creature From the Black Lagoon (1954)
Scientists looking for another offshoot of the missing link track fossil evidence back to a remote inland cove, or a lagoon, if you will. There they squabble over the brunette, while she goes swimming and draws the attention of...something below.
This movie is a strange hybrid. More popular than a cult classic, but always playing second fiddle to the rest of the Universal Monsters, the Creature is the last of the famous trademarked band of monsters and as a result, sometimes gets second fiddle status. Too bad, too, because it’s an inarguable classic, influential on a number of filmmakers, including one of the guys listed below, and actually holds up as a cracking good monster movie.
The suit is, well, a suit, but it’s a good suit, and the mask is one of the best monster designs ever. Throw in some killer underwater photography and swimming stunts, the fetching Julia Adams in a swimsuit and it’s easy to see how The Creature From the Black Lagoon has lasted as long as it has.
3. Piranha (1978)
The first major movie from Joe Dante trades heavily on the foundation laid by Jaws three years earlier, namely the thing under the water you can’t see. Only, the difference is, instead of one big-ass shark, it’s a lot of little bitey fish, and instead of salt water, it’s fresh water, and instead of being serious and scary, there’s a lot of things that make you chuckle.
That’s all well and good. I mean, weaponized piranha are bad enough, but the additional freak out of these things being in fresh water meant that I didn’t go swimming in a pool, with crystal clear water, never mind murky lake water, for months afterward. The whole idea that you don’t see it coming until something has chewed off your leg is just too horrible to think about.
Dante’s turn on the subject matter is fresh, as is John Sayle’s script, and fledgling effects guy Rob Bottin’s gore is nice and red. Watch it for the laughs, and pretend it doesn’t bother you when the fish swarm in the lake.
2. Deep Rising (1998)
Speaking of camp value, you can’t get much better than this genre-bender. A luxury ocean liner with a full crew is suddenly hijacked by pirates on the high seas. It’s a fool-proof plan, except for where the disabling of the boat took place...over the deepest, darkest part of the ocean...you follow me?
This slick water-borne caper suddenly becomes Jurassic Park on a boat as massive tentacles with super intelligence swish through the ankle-deep water and pull pirates and guests to their doom. The CGI wasn’t quite up to snuff, but the movie is nice and tense and takes itself seriously, even if you won’t. Treat Williams and Famke Janssen chew scenery nicely, along with Wes Studi and the rest of the pirate crew.
The monster at the end isn’t anything found in nature, but it’s a lot of spinning, thrashing fun trying to figure out how this is all going to shake out. A solid B-grade monster movie with a great twist ending.
1. Jaws (1975)
Of course, this would be number one. Steven Spielberg’s second greatest movie remains a major influence on the entire cinematic world, from invention of the “Summer Blockbuster” to crafting a film that set Greenpeace back 25 years. Jaws is now a part of the pop culture lexicon, having way outshined its fictional counterpart, the excellent potboiler novel by Peter Benchley.
The story is simplicity itself. A big ass shark has made its way down the coastline and winds up hanging out in one of the most populated beaches in the area, during its single busiest time of the year. Public safety is trumped by corporate greed, and people start dying. It’s up to the sheriff, a marine biologist, and a lunatic on a fishing trawler to save them all.
Tons of great quotes, and some surprising suspenseful moments abound, especially if you ever read any of the behind-the-scenes stories about the mechanical shark (nicknamed “Bruce” because he was the Boss of the production from start to finish) and its refusal to work, to cooperate, to behave when asked. Don’t watch this movie during the Summer, or when you’re on vacation, as you’ll second-guess ever swimming in the ocean again.
This is one small part of a much larger series of articles, the entirety of which are listed below. Enjoy!