People have an irreverent relationship with nature, although we fear it. That’s because even if we damage it, nature cannot be controlled; please refer to Ian Malcolm. But that fear is embedded in our DNA, from ages past. We’ve done our very best to avoid our natural predators, at all times. So, it’s no wonder that we have such a fascination with them.
There’s a long history of movies with killer animals, and the majority of them are poorly made. However, animals are both notoriously primal and everyday things. We coexist, and when we test our relationship with animals, we often underestimate them. Here are the ten best killer animal movies, just in time for Crawl and Shark Week.
10 Piranha 3D
Just three years after Jaws became the first blockbuster, the original Piranha wanted to cash in on its success. The 1978 Piranha was actually directed by Joe Dante, who would go on to make genuine classics like Gremlins and The Howling.
However, Piranha 3D leans even harder into the elements that made the original work. It is sheer, unadulterated exploitation of nudity and blood. It has a summer bash attitude and terrific gore effects. The first time the piranhas make a meal of a crowd, you will absolutely be convinced that this is your new guilty pleasure. Keep an eye out for fun cameos from Christopher Lloyd, Ving Rhames, and even Richard Dreyfuss!
9 Deep Blue Sea
This hilariously silly movie took everything great about Anaconda’s 90’s cheese, and ran away with it. However, it has a much better pace, with plenty of inventive shark action and subverted expectations. Just by its concept alone, the film has abandoned all logic, so don’t come looking for that.
The absolutely bonkers finale even manages to crank up the bizarre cheese. Still, Deep Blue Sea sits comfortably between the outright, intentional schlock of Sharknado and genuine B-movie fun. It also boasts an all-star cast, and for some reason, LL Cool J.
8 Monkey Shines
If a film like Congo weren’t so dated, it would steal this position. Which is unfortunate, because Crichton’s novel is actually pretty effective. However, Monkey Shines uses an actual animal, to act on the impulses of a newly disabled man.
Directed by George Romero, no less, this movie really takes its time to stress the difficulties of the quadriplegic protagonist. The relationship problems feel organic, and the performances are solid. It’s really disheartening seeing the main character’s life fall apart. And when the monkey begins to strike, it is hardly as silly as it sounds. The suspense is genuine, despite the conceptual weakness of its sci-fi reasoning.
7 Willard (2003)
Rats. They aren’t friendly chefs in this one. Willard is actually a remake of an equally chilling 1970’s film. However, this one features stronger performances and effects. Crispin Glover’s protagonist is surprisingly sympathetic, with a severely ill mother and fumbling affection for a co-worker. He also has the worst boss imaginable—R. Lee Ermey himself. He can humiliate anyone in the most incredible way possible.
Willard has a truly intriguing relationship with the rats he befriends, and the resulting misdeeds are carried out with fantastic direction. This, in spite of a PG-13 rating, which is definitely rare.
The film adaptation doesn’t do any better of a job at making those tangential subplots from the Stephen King novel make any kind of sense. Honestly, how is that commercialism subtext related to the dog? However, the rabies concept is certainly plausible enough, and Cujo himself is terrifying. A woman that’s cheating on her loving husband gets some pretty stark punishment.
Once Cujo gets her trapped in a broken car with her child, halfway through, the movie is unstoppable. Aside from the killer dog, the protagonist must also contend with extreme heat. The sense of claustrophobia is really potent, and when Cujo attacks, the scenes are visceral and raw entertainment.
Most people are already scared of spiders, and with good reason. This movie leans on the silly side, but the arachnid threats themselves are actually pretty disconcerting. The spiders and tarantulas are convincing, and those swarms at the end are the stuff of nightmares. Still, there’s a tidy balance of comedy and death—better than most animal-attack films can muster.
Jeff Daniels plays a fun every man, and that cameo from John Goodman is fantastic. The movie is careful to give him his very own musical cue. Only PG-13, this is a fun movie for Halloween. It still has kills and partial nudity but pulls back for younger audiences. Given how many awful spider-attack movies there are, this one easily stands out.
4 The Grey
Liam Neeson was a touchy subject recently, but the man was Oskar Schindler, and he always brings terrific gravitas. Headlining this snowy tale of a plane crash, Neeson plays a sympathetic anti-hero.
He is damaged, and ultimately confronts his will to live when his plane crash puts him face to face with a pack of wolves. The attacks come quickly, and fiercely. With incredible direction and nuanced performances, this is not a story about killer wolves. That’s what helps distinguish this movie from the majority of this sub-genre. The protagonist was in a tale of survival before his plane ever crashed.
Easily some of the most convincing CGI for a crocodile that you’ll see anywhere. This movie features some great scenery of Australia, and Radha Mitchell brings plenty of charm as the tour guide. Although this film takes the story very seriously, some humor is interjected here and there. But the survival elements are definitely fun, even if the plot wanders into a few clichés. It’s the smaller moments that bring this film together.
But the pacing is brisk, and the gore is staggering. Just by its tone alone, this movie blows even the best schlock away. Yes, even Lake Placid.
There’s a lot of explaining to do, for this being second. We’ll get there. But this could easily top anyone’s list of killer animal stories. Sophisticated direction, an unforgettable John Williams score, and a superb cast all come together to make—literally—a perfect movie.
Unlike most animal horror films, this story is set in the real world. Jaws is structurally flawless, with a great balance of humor and drama. The menace remains unseen, keeping the movie from dating poorly. But by the time you see the great white, you are visually rewarded. The protagonist overcomes his fear of water; Quint is ultimately undone by his own tragic history with sharks. Jaws is convincing with its plausibility and its uncharacteristically monstrous shark, all at once. This Spielberg classic is essential entertainment for anyone who just loves good storytelling.
1 The Birds
Few effects were used for the birds themselves, so the animal horror remains convincing enough, even today. The Birds is filled with intriguing themes, impeccable performances, and terrifying silence. It’s a story about trapped people. A mother, who cannot let her son Mitch go. Melanie, who cannot grow up. And Annie, who remains in Bodega Bay only for her storied friendship with Mitch. But none of them can see these cages, visually reinforced by missing eyes and broken glasses. It takes the bird attacks to shake the characters loose. The cause of said attacks remains a mystery, and the ending is hauntingly open-ended.
Without a single piece of music, Hitchcock frightens us with bloody death. He explores parental relationships and unlikely romance. Best of all, our fear is driven by an otherwise commonplace thing. Birds are everywhere, so we take no notice of them. After watching this movie, you will.