Hollywood seems hell-bent on reminding us that, given the slightest opportunity, nature will murder the shit out of us.
While there were a handful of killer animal films in the ’60s and early ’70s—such as The Birds, the truly awful Frogs and Willard—the arrival of Jaws in 1975 is what really kicked off the trend. After that film became the biggest thing in the world, just about any animal you can imagine got to star in its own film. So, Iet’s run through some of my favorites.
Alligator (1984) Directed by Lewis Teague
The urban legend about baby gators getting flushed down the toilet is a good setup for a creature feature, and this movie takes that concept and runs with it. The murderous reptile at the center of this film lives in the sewer system of Chicago and has grown massive from feasting on lab rats injected with growth hormones.
I’m not sure if the film’s portrayal of the sewers of Chicago as a massive, labyrinthian series of tunnels wider than the streets above them is accurate, but it gives us several scenes of hapless individuals wandering around in there until they get torn to shreds by the titular creature, so it all works out.
Alligator is a really fun b-movie with a lot of great performances, puppetry and smart usage of miniature sets to make the scenes with a live gator seem more imposing. The plot follows a pretty similar cadence to that of Jaws, as the authorities refuse to believe our working-class heroes until it’s too late. Unlike the Spielberg film, we get a great scene during the climax of the alligator wandering into the wealthy part of town and eating uptight rich people, which is exactly what I want out of a killer animal film. Unfortunately, it’s really difficult to get ahold of these days. Alligator isn’t available for streaming anywhere and the only DVD copies on Amazon are imported discs that are apparently a rip of the VHS version of the film. If you come across the movie in a bargain bin or garage sale, I highly recommend it.
Of Unknown Origin (1983) Directed by George P. Cosmatos
The trailer for this horror film starring G.O.A.T. actor Peter Weller suggests that there’s something supernatural going on in the protagonist’s house. There’s not—it’s a rat.
The villain is a larger-than-average, but not giant, rat. Still, the movie makes its presence as menacing as possible, and the setting of a single uptown New York house is a really refreshing, claustrophobic change of pace from the open cities and resort towns you usually get in these sorts of films. The rat isn’t necessarily a villainous, murderous presence until the protagonist, Bart Hughes, decides to devote himself to getting rid of it. The vast majority of the film is Bart waging a one-man war against this relatively smart, very hard-to-kill rodent, and his descent into madness while attempting to kill it is a good, fun use of Weller’s acting chops.
It’s definitely on the smaller scale as far as these movies go. Usually, if there are small animals killing people the movie either goes for the “they’re giant now” option or makes it about a swarm of the creatures. That said, the chaos that ensues gets pretty intense. Bart nearly destroys his entire house in his quest for rat murder.
This one got saved from VHS obscurity by Scream Factory, which released a Blu-ray version of the film last year. It’s also available to rent on Amazon Prime.
Razorback (1984), Directed by Russell Mulcahey
This is where we get weird, folks. Mulcahey, best known for directing the masterpiece Highlander, went back to his home country of Australia to film this movie about a killer boar the size of a truck. Aside from a handful of opening shots set in “New York”—which is almost certainly Sydney—the movie takes place entirely in the outback. Razorback seems hell-bent on making sure you never ever come to Australia, as it presents the country as a borderline apocalyptic wasteland inhabited by homicidal maniacs and pigs that want to eat you alive.
The best thing about the film is that it’s approximately 250% weirder than a movie about a giant boar needs to be. The film quickly decides that the animal at the center isn’t enough to keep the interest of audiences, so it introduces Benny and Dicko, two diseased-looking brothers who run some kind of factory that exclusively produces gore and viscera, and who also happen to be rapists, sadists and murderers. They live in a literal hole in the ground, seemingly dressing themselves in random scraps of clothing you’d find in a dumpster and are exclusively there to make life much harder for our poor, harried heroes.
On top of the villains of the human and animal kind, the movie has an incredibly wild visual style that makes it look like no other killer animal movie out there. Bright, unnaturally colored lighting spills up out of the floor and ceilings, and surrealist matte paintings occasionally take over the background.
The editing is frequently frenetic and unpredictable, lending itself to a movie that genuinely sets you on edge. Not because of its not-very-good horror chops, but because you have no idea how the next scene will look. Even if you’re not a horror movie person, I’d suggest you check the film out, as there are not many films out there that look like it. This movie hasn’t received a high-def release, which is a shame because it’d probably look gorgeous on Blu-ray, but you can get it on DVD or rent it from Amazon.
Anaconda (1997), Directed by Luis Llosa
If you made a Mount Rushmore for terrible movie performances, Jon Voight’s greasy, lumpy, ponytailed head from Anaconda would be in George Washington’s place. This movie is pretty legendary in some circles. You’ve got a mix of laughable puppetry, atrocious early CGI, nonsensical plotting and one of the all-time greatest accents in a film. I have no fucking idea what nationality Jon Voight is going for in his portrayal of villainous snake-trafficker Paul Serone, but it takes residence somewhere near the halfway point between Strong Bad from Homestar Runner and Wilford Brimley’s New Orleans accent in Hard Target. This movie is an absolute blast if you’re watching it in a group.
The plot, such as it is, is this—Jennifer Lopez is commanding a boat trip down the Amazon for a nature documentary. The bad news is that she and her crew run into Voight, who almost instantly takes over the boat and holds the crew hostage as players in his ridiculous hunt for the mighty Anaconda. The good news is that Ice Cube is also there, and he’s delightful as ever. Every single fact this movie tells you about the leading snake is completely wrong (a staple of bad killer animal flicks—even Razorback claims that Razorback Boars don’t have a nervous system, which…is suspect). The opening crawl claims Anacondas are worshipped by indigenous tribes all along the Amazon, often grow up to 40 feet long and love murdering so much they’ll regurgitate their prey so they can eat it again—nothing on earth fucking does this. Between its very strange ideas of what snakes are/can do, a mind-boggling performance from Jon Voight, and a really fun scene of Owen Wilson getting murdered, the movie’s an absolute riot. You can get it on Blu-Ray or rent it from Amazon.
Runners-up include Renny Harlin’s idiotic, delightful mess Deep Blue Sea, and the early Jaws cash-in Orca. According to the film, the orca is the only other animal that kills for revenge. That’s almost certainly not true, but that movie is a hell of a lot of fun. I’m not entirely sure what it is about the human brain that makes it so when we see pretty much any animal, we automatically wonder “what if this was killing me?” Maybe it’s some weird cro-magnon fight-or-flight response burned in from the days when everything could actually kill us, or maybe it’s the same part of the brain that makes us envision an insane Final Destination 2 traffic accident any time we see a log truck (or is that just me?). Either way, there’s plenty more animal carnage to be found out there in the world of cinema.