What’s worse is when trusted domesticated animals turn on us. That’s a betrayal that cuts at the heart, as well as the throat. But let’s face it; when animals attack, it’s always a reminder that we’re not the kings of the world. We’re not in control of things, and you know, we never were. In fact, under the right circumstances, we’re nothing more than food...
This is where you cue the music for one of the many Bert I. Gordon giant insect films from the 1950s, or worse, one of the many “they used to be furry and cuddly, but now they are giant and horrible” movies from the 1970s. To call them formulaic B-movies is overstating the obvious. Still, there are some effective, creepy downright skin-crawling critter movies that will have you butt-walking back up your favorite chair. As with most of these older horror movies, you may have to work a little harder to suspend your disbelief.
5. Them! (1954)
Them! has the distinction of being one of the first “radiation-makes-things-bigger” movies and the first Giant Insect movie and I have to say, they got this one more right than not, and nothing that came along after it was quite as good. The plot is pretty basic: early atomic testing was done in New Mexico. Those tests resulted in irradiating a colony of giant ants in the desert. Mayhem ensues.
Why does this one work so well? For starters, director Gordon Douglas knew the first rule of monster movies—don’t show the monster until you absolutely have to. Instead, play this creepy, high-pitched squeal every time they are nearby, and have a shell-shocked little girl say “THEM!” in a horror-choked voice when asked to describe the monsters. Really effective stuff.
Of course, once the monsters do show up, it’s giant prop ants on wheels. Sigh. But the build-up is still very effective and the movie is quite entertaining in the way you think it ought to be: Serious with a side of schlock.
4. Razorback (1984)
Australia gets it done in ways we just can’t. Whether it’s gun control, dark beer, or Mad Max movies, you have to hand it to our mates from Down Under. That would include their plucky, punchy film industry, and this little overlooked shriekfest from the blood-soaked 1980s.
Join us on the outback as our intrepid band of regular people battle a giant-ass razorback hog. That’s it. That’s the movie. I know, simple and brilliant, right?
Well, there’s a little more than that. It’s cleverly filmed, and everyone does a great job of reacting to the giant hog head. Pigs are fast and mean, and so there’s no reason to think a cow-sized pig wouldn’t be faster and meaner than ever. We buy it because we know this.
Special effects? Come on, it’s an 80s flick. But the tension is good, and there are even a few jump scares. A diamond in the rough, to be sure.
Is there anything creepier than a cockroach, he asked rhetorically? Yes, in fact there is. Cockroaches that are supersized and can collectively band together to take on the vague shape of a human wearing a long coat that live in the New York subway tunnels and eat people. Exponentially more creepy by a factor of eleven.
Who’s to blame for that waking nightmare? My old friend Guillermo Del Toro, of course. There’s not many directors working that I like all of their films. Del Toro is one of those guys. He just gets spooky stuff, and he’s really good about hiding his influences and scaring the bejeezus out of you with them.
Most of the time, that is. There’s a lot of Cronenberg in this film, but honestly, I say, more people could take a page or two out of his book in the first place. The insects are handled like real things run amok, and when you watch the director’s cut of the film, some of the character interactions make more sense. If you ever ran out of the room after seeing a bug on the floor, this movie will send you into system shock.
2. Cujo (1983)
Boy, this one really bothers me. I didn’t like it when it first came out, and now I hate it as a dog owner. The idea that the family pet could turn on you is a lot more scary in the Internet Age, when the same “Stray Dog Kills Old Person” story can be forwarded around and around, so that you can literally see it a dozen times in a week, and if you’re not paying attention, you might think that there’s packs of stray dogs killing innocent people.
Nevertheless, this movie stars Dee Wallace, the most understated Scream Queen to ever bear the title, and her creepy little kid, and we have to care about them even as the family’s Saint Bernard succumbs to a case of good old fashioned rabies. The idea being, according to Stephen King, that anything can be a monster in the right circumstances. So we see big, loveable Cujo turn into this ginormous, ugly, rabid thing.
I still felt sorry for the dog. It wasn’t his fault. But I still wanted someone to do something during the attack scenes. That conflict is part of what makes this movie so intense for me. The scene where Cujo is trying to tear the car apart to get at the mother and child is a relentless, harrowing thing. Don’t watch this movie if you’re sensitive to animal violence.
1. The Birds (1963)
Cliché’ choice for number one? Pfft. Come on. There’s a reason why we call some movies “classics” and directors like Hitchcock “genius.” By the time this movie was made, there had been ten years’ worth of animal attacks movies, some giant and mutated, others not so much. Hitchcock had a clutch of bad examples to work against, and it’s because of the bad movies that this one is so good.
For starters, Hitchcock never tells you why this is happening. It just happens. Also, he never lets you off the hook. When the movie ends, it just...ends. There’s no resolution, save for the idea that the story is far from over. That’s really effective.
I know the special effects at the time were pretty good, but now they are as dated as anything else. It doesn’t make the movie any less effective, however, because of the performances he gets from his actors. Birds are kinda creepy, and the images in The Birds are so iconic, we still shudder to this very day when we see a bunch of grackles on an electric wire. That’s why this movie is number one with no apologies.
(Bonus!) Kingdom of the Spiders (1977)
This movie really belongs higher up on the list, but I could not pass up the chance to talk about Sheriff Shatner and his tarantula problem. The spider sequences are very creepy, unless you recognize that particular species of spider as the ones that don’t bite people. Then the movie just becomes a little silly.
The number of practical effects shots in the movie are impressive, as is the glory of William Shatner as the small time sheriff with a big ass spider problem. Clearly this role paved the way for his later turn as T.J. Hooker.And apparently, the money was good enough on this film that the actors let the bug wranglers put spiders all over their face. Blargh. I'm not sure what dollar amount you'd need to offer me to get me to do that, but I am positive it's more than scale, which is undoubtedly what some of these folks took away from the film.
Kingdom of the Spiders isn't bad enough to make fun of it, nor good enough to watch it un-ironically. My suggestion is this: put on your skinny jeans and your lumberjack shirts and watch the movie whilst drinking locally-brewed craft beer (or the cheap local swill, depending on your hipster polarity setting) and have a meta-discussion about Shatner's career. Be sure to mention Esperanto for the win.
This is one small part of a much larger series of articles, the entirety of which are listed below. Enjoy!
My Top 5 Mummy Movies
My Top 5 Favorite Frankenstein Movies
My Top 5 Favorite Creatures from the Deep Movies
My Top 5 Favorite Killer Doll Movies
My Top 5 Favorite Horror Anthology movies
My Top 5 Favorite Dracula Movies
My Top 5 Favorite Lovecraftian Movies
My Top 5 Favorite Haunted House Movies
My Top 5 Favorite Movie Maniac Movies
My Top 5 Favorite Killer/Creepy Kid Movies
My Top 5 Favorite Devils and Demons Movies
My Top 5 Favorite Ghost Story Movies
My Top 5 Favorite Monster From Space Movies
My Top 5 Favorite Zombie Movies
My Top 5 Favorite Vampire Movies
My Top 5 Favorite Werewolf Movies
My Top Five Scariest Scenes in Movies