I have always had both a profound fascination with and extreme fear of deep water. I trace this back to my childhood growing up along the Shenandoah River in Virginia. My family never thought twice about swimming in the river. But silently in my mind, I always had the “JAWS” fear. Could a shark or some other unknown beast be floating just below my dangling feet?!?
But I always kept it bottled up, as I was never the type to act afraid of anything- be it ticks, the leeches that infested parts of the river, or a massive shark that had somehow made its way upstream into fresh water and was now about to munch on my torso. Keep a stiff upper lip. But still….
Directly off my parents’ dock, it is about 12-feet deep, and the water is so murky that it is damn near impossible to see more than a few inches down. My family and friends swam in this daily during the summer, and it was not unusual to brush your foot against something- a submerged tree or even a fish- and then have a mental momentary freak out about what on earth could have touched your foot.
My fear and fascination of the water came to a head one idle summer morning. I was about to dive in and saw a mammoth light-colored oblong creature moving slowly just inches below the surface. It seemed to me circling the dock. All I could detect from peering through the murky water was that it was several feet in length, and it has visible teeth. I knew it had finally happened. A previously undiscovered monster had risen from the depths! I hollered for my Dad who was nearby.
I was petrified, almost frozen with fear. I had never seen a fish so big, let alone one with teeth swimming just beyond my own dock! My Dad explained that this was an Alligator Gar, and that though they grow quite large. They are scared of humans and will always swim away quickly if we were in the water. They are also fairly rare in our river and usually just hang out on the bottom where they grow to massive sizes. Dad said the monster fish was probably circling the dock to eat some of the smaller fish that gathered underneath to escaped the heat. He swam around for a few more minutes before silently vanishing back into the depths of the river.
I did not go into the water that day or the next. It took me several weeks before I could come to terms with the fact that I would be sharing a space with creatures that were so horrific and foreign. I eventually came to except it, or more of embrace the fear with equal parts fascination. I wanted to see more of these creatures, explore them, and dream up other unknown beast lurking just below the surface.
To this day, one of my favorite horror sub-genres is aquatic horrors, movies about unknown sea creatures or even films that are just set on the water. For me, the water is unknown, holding just as many possibilities as outer space.
Now probably 25 years after I saw the frightening beast circling our dock, when I visit my parents’ river home, I still sit on the dock just staring into the water, knowing full well that it is full of fish, snakes, leeches, and giant gar, but also wondering what else could be hiding in the murky depths.
Below I have listed my top 10 aquatic horror films. I did not include the literal mother of them all, JAWS, or the classic CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON. Those are obvious choices. I went with the kinds of films that push my own imagination, making me think twice about what lies undiscovered on the ocean floor.
LEVIATHAN (1989) (COVER PHOTO)
1989 could be called the year of the “Aquatic Horror” as THE ABYSS, DEEP STAR SIX, and LEVIATHAN were released back to back. Though THE ABYSS received the most critical acclaim, I always liked LEVIATHAN because it had far more monster action! The effects, which were done by the late great Stan Winston, range from a super creepy lamprey-looking snake monster to a giant rubbery fish beast who roams the underwater research station. This one does have some cheezy moments, but was fun in the 80s and is still enjoyable today. Plus, it has one of the greatest action hero lines ever- “Say ahhh, Motherfucker!”
CREEPSHOW 2 (1987)
I have long held the belief that the segment “The Raft” may be my ideal movie. Four college students swim out to a wooden raft only to discover a strange blob-like monster is nearby ready to eat them. They are trapped, and it slowly begins picking them off one by one. This is a perfect construction of plot, pacing, and tension.
DEEP RISING (1998)
Treat Williams battles giant Lovecraftian squid beasts that are attacking a cruise ship. It is full of mutant sea monsters, explosions, badass catch phrases and jet skis. The soundtrack is pretty awesome as well!
DEAD OF NIGHT aka LIGHTHOUSE (1999)
While most of my favorite aquatic horrors involve some oceanic creature, this one does not. It is actually a slasher film. A ship carrying prisoners, including a notorious serial killer known as “the headhunter”, crashes onto some jagged rocks. As the ship sinks, prisoners, wardens and crew all swim towards a small island with a single lighthouse on it to take coverage. But it soon becomes clear that the real danger is not the ocean or natural elements, but the serial killer who is slowly dispatching the survivors. Everyone must band together to fight this meticulous predator. Though a small and rather unknown film, it is stuffed full of wonderful tension and atmosphere!
SHE CREATURE (2001)
Also known as THE MERMAID CHRONICLES, SHE CREATURE was made by Roger Corman’s company for Cinemax. Set in 1900s Ireland, a crew of carnies capture a real mermaid and then set sail with intentions of smuggling her into the USA. But along the route, they realize the mermaid is quite sinister with far more power than they thought. I love this one because the mermaid is actually terrifying, making wonderful transitions between finned seductress and monster. The production design is gorgeous, and the boat feels incredibly claustrophobic. For more info on this one, check out my longer write-up here.
LAKE PLACID (1999)
Betty White, a snarky Oliver Platt, and a giant crocodile. I swear this movie was made just for me. I always viewed LAKE PLACID as a rather self-aware take on the “giant monster” sub-genre. But at the same time, it whole-heartedly embraces it as well. And the recent Scream Factory Blu-ray edition is just delightful.
Directed by Stuart Gordon, the movie blends several Lovecraftian stories together, beginning as “Shadow Over Innsmouth” and rolling into “Dagon”. Killer fish people and a weird sea cult! This is Lovecraft done right!
I don’t really believe in guilty pleasures (no need to feel guilty for enjoying a movie), but if I had one, this would likely be it. I love ANACONDA! I even love ANACONDAS: HUNT FOR THE BLOOD ORCHID! The movies have just the right formula of giant CG snakes, rivers, and exotic action to keep my brain reeling and intrigued.
This was meant to be Corman’s JAWS rip-off movie, but it has become iconic in its own right. Directed by horror vet Joe Dante, PIRANHA places the vicious carnivorous fish into an American fresh water stream where they attack a kids’ camp and boating resort. This was also one of the first writing gigs for the legendary John Sayles who later penned another of my favorite aquatic beast movies, ALLIGATOR.
THE HOST (2006)
It has been awhile since we’ve had a good giant sea monster movie. Thanks to South Korea for filling the void! Pollution in a river creates a giant mutant fish/amphibious thing that starts eating the locals. It captures a young girl, and her dysfunctional family must work together to fight the monster and bring her home. This is not just a great monster flick, but also a hilarious horror comedy!
TRIANGLE is a psychological horror about a group of friends who venture out of a boating day trip. A storm causes their boat to capsize, but luckily they spot an abandoned ocean liner and are able to board it. Once on the huge ghost ship, they realize something is amiss. Time is not working in a linear fashion and events may be repeating themselves. This one gets really trippy, but it is fascinating to see how all the events connect, overlap, and eventually circle back around. The ocean setting creates a feeling of total isolation, leaving them trapped in the situation with no possibility of escape.
And one more I have to mention:
While many of the giant monster movies on Syfy are not quite my taste, occasionally I will find one that pleasantly surprises me. Enter FRANKENFISH. Set in the Louisiana Bayou and based off the real life discover of Snakehead fish in North American rivers, the movie actually works, being both decently constructed and rather fun to watch. It is by no means a cannon of the sub-genre, but if you love aquatic monsters like I do, you will be happy to find this one.