Animals are scary. Granted, animals that are terrifying can also be beautiful and fascinating at the same time. Part of how we deal with fear is to weave it into stories, and there have been plenty of stories about fearsome animals. In particular, films about the deadliest fauna are some of the most enjoyable. We’ve braved the wilderness and returned with seven creature features that pit humanity against Mother Nature’s meanest critters. We’ve omitted Jaws because we assume you’ve seen that one. If not, maybe you should familiarize yourself with it.
The Birds (1963)
Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds sets the bar pretty high for any animal attack movies to follow. It starts off with the attitude of a screwball comedy, with Hitch’s latest blonde bombshell Tippi Hedren and Rod Taylor’s chiseled chin meeting in a pet shop. The couple plays pranks around a set of love birds, culminating with Hedren chasing Taylor to his boyhood home in Bodega Bay, California.
But in the background, quite literally in one iconic scene in a schoolyard, the birds are gathering. Hitchcock plays with the mysterious nature of birds; why do they circle above in large groups? What are they thinking as they sit on their perches, staring at us? What could they possibly want? The townspeople of Bodega Bay have some theories, but Hitchcock wisely withholds any pat explanation.
When the carnage does come down from the skies, it’s delivered in a series of wonderful set pieces. Most of the birds are superimposed on the screen during the attacks, but the effect works well thanks to the sodium vapor process developed by famed animator Ub Iwerks at Disney Studios. This allows the creatures to be placed in the scenes in fine detail which heightens the realism.
The ultimate iconic image comes at the end of the film. The heroes slowly drive away, surrounded by a sea of birds on every inch of land. No explanation for the attacks given, no happy resolution provided. There could be nowhere safe from these avian aggressors. First, Bodega Bay. Next, it could be YOUR neighborhood. [William Hunter]
Kingdom of the Spiders (1977)
Kingdom of the Spiders is the granddaddy of arachnid infestation movies. This is one of the first of its kind to come hot off the cold war nuclear creature feature boom of the ’50s and ’60s. Kingdom of the Spiders took the mold that our country’s fear of the atomic age created and threw in all of the tropes associated with disaster movies to include Earthquake, The Andromeda Strain and others. The key to this film’s charm is obviously William Shatner. Shatner, tarantulas, and some of the finest B-movie actors from the mid-70s makes this one a must watch for fans of the era.
I loved Kingdom of the Spiders growing up. The film contained some of the craziest and most unsettling death scenes of any outbreak movie playing on basic cable in the early ’90s. Shatner is on fire here as Rack Hansen, a rough and tough vet who tends to the local farm community in rural Arizona. When Rack finds that animals are dying of mysterious reasons, he enlists the help of a beautiful science expert. She finds that the area is being overrun with deadly tarantulas and the rest of the movie is filled with multiple scenes of spider versus human mayhem. The ending is easily one of the most nihilistic you can imagine. It’s fantastic. [Andrew Hawkins]
The Swarm (1978)
By the late 70’s, ‘Master of Disaster’ producer/director Irwin Allen was running out of catastrophes to exploit. He had already capsized an ocean liner, lit a skyscraper on fire, covered a town in water, and burned up a forest. In 1978, he turned to the Arthur Herzog novel The Swarm for inspiration. The plot: killer African bees invade the U.S. and a team of scientists race to develop an antidote to their venom and eradicate the menace.
I guess the idea was to make an eco-thriller in the disaster-movie template that Allen himself had popularized. The problem is that he is so ham-fisted with the material and his actors that when people aren’t being hosed down with bees and flailing in slow-motion, things become as lethargic as a refrigerated Apis mellifera. It doesn’t help that the main character, entomologist Bradford Crane (Micheal Caine), is an insufferable know-it-all. The supposed bug expert does little more than chase love interest Katharine Ross between bee attacks and then sit around tallying the body count. A large part of this “epic” is also taken up with a lame romantic sub-plot between old-timers Fred MacMurray, Olivia de Havilland and Ben Johnson. By the time this tangent is mercifully resolved, with the bees forcing a model train down the side of a fake mountain, you’re cheering the insects.
Still, even a broken clock is right twice a day, and there are a couple of enjoyable parts in The Swarm. The scene of the picnicking family attacked by a storm of bees is pretty unsettling. I was scarred for life when I saw it as a youngster. Extracting some more honey out of the production: Henry Fonda as immunologist Dr. Krim has a touching bit where he injects himself with a mass antidote to test it, and the visuals of menacing clouds of bees forming in the skies are pretty effective.
Ultimately, it could be that the idea of swarming bees as an existential threat could just never work as a movie. There is at least one other good thing to come out of this sticky mess: the fact that the financial failure of the film helped put a stake through the heart of the ’70s cycle of disaster flicks. That takes the sting out of The Swarm. [William Hunter]
Man, you gotta love Anaconda. It’s bad, but you gotta love it. Walt Conti’s animatronic snakes really are the stars of this film, because none of the humans in the film (excluding Ice Cube) are any good. Jon Voight’s awful performance is the stuff of legend, channeling a hispanic Christopher Walken and leering at everything and everyone like he’s about to sneeze but he’s really unhappy about it.
Jonathan Hyde is awful too, playing a pompous low rent riff on David Attenborough. Look, I know this might not sound particularly appetizing. But keep in mind that the film is only 89 minutes long. Breezy doesn’t even begin to describe this movie’s pacing. It’s downright gusty, and the film’s gum wrapper plot is nearly blown away. The movie’s over before you can hate it. If it’s memorable snake attacks you want, Anaconda has ’em. That, and you get to see what Owen Wilson’s face looks like through the belly skin of a giant snake. It’s delightful. [Travis Newton]
Deep Blue Sea (1999)
There are few directors out there who know how to craft well-made schlock. Renny Harlin is one of them; A Nightmare on Elm Street 4, Die Hard 2, Cliffhanger, and the second best shark movie ever made, Deep Blue Sea. Yes, this pre-millennium summer movie (how I miss 1999) can lay claim to being better than any of the sequels to Jaws. A lofty claim? Here’s my evidence.
Nick Fury, The Punisher, Victoria Hand, and LL Cool J (along with other chum, er, actors) are trapped in a research facility that’s out in the middle of the ocean. What’s being researched? The cure for Alzheimer’s disease. Of course, the source of this wonder drug is the genetically enhanced brains of a trio of mako sharks. The experiments have made them smarter than the average shark, and they proceed to destroy the facility in order to escape. Needless to say, some folks get chomped along the way.
From the slick production — Walt Conti strikes again with the best animatronic sharks ever put to film — to the “we’re having tons of fun” attitude, Deep Blue Sea delivers genuine popcorn enjoyment as opposed to the ironic appreciation of a Sharknado or any other Syfy Channel-esque product. Deep Blue Sea is grade-A cheese that has only gotten better with age. And the film’s rap theme song by LL Cool J is even better. [Drew Dietsch]
Snakes on a Plane (2006)
Like many of the movies on this list, Snakes on a Plane is by no means a cinematic masterpiece. It’s a ridiculous, often ludicrous movie that started as a minor release film before turning into an hour and forty-five minutes of internet memes. The film was originally supposed to be a true thriller, but after Samuel L. Jackson signed on and the internet caught wind of production, things took a pretty drastic turn toward campy cheesy fun. The movie even underwent re-shoots to bring the rating up from a PG-13 to an R, keeping in line with other B-movie titles. The hype on the internet meant that fans expected Samuel L. Jackson to drop F-bombs left and right, and that violence and nudity would be expected. Jackson himself was responsible for keeping the movie’s title, as New Line had changed it to Pacific Air Flight 121 and he wanted them to change it back. “That’s the only reason I took the job: I read the title,” he told an interviewer in 2006.
The film features more than 450 real snakes, along with some pretty awful CGI snakes. The plot revolves around Yakuza guys trying to kill a murder witness flying to California from Hawaii by releasing crates of venomous snakes in the hold of a plane. Samuel L. Jackson is one of the two FBI agents protecting the surfer bro who happened to stumble upon a murder in progress, and by the end of the film he has simply “had it with these motherf***ing snakes on this motherf***ing plane”! Snakes on a Plane panders to its audience but does it right. It’s fun, gratuitous in every way, and it never takes itself too seriously. It’s a movie with a bipolar chihuahua, a germaphobic rapper, Samuel L. Jackson playing Samuel L. Jackson, and snakes on a plane. What’s not to love? [Danielle Ryan]
The Grey (2011)
The Grey is an exhausting, unrelenting film about how nature can chew up anyone, no matter how prepared they are. And that’s before the wolves even come in the picture. Joe Carnahan’s film doesn’t hold any punches with the furry bad guys. These are smart and unforgiving creatures, circling around our heroes like vultures and waiting for the right moment to strike. And when they do strike, they strike hard. The Grey is about a lot of things but at its core, it’s really about how no amount of strength, know-how, or passion can give you the upper hand on Mother Nature and her beasts. Because they are always tougher than you. And they have teeth. [Brandon Marcus]