Why fear the sea? The same reason to see menace in the deep, dark unknown of space or the dense and dizzying claustrophobia of the forest: because it’s really hard to see what’s in there.
That leaves us to our imagination, and when is that ever a good idea? Here, then, are some of the most imaginative ways horror filmmakers terrorized us with tales of what lies beneath.
5. Godzilla (Gojira) (1954)
Up from the depths, 30 stories high, breathing fire…you know the rest. Surely we had to have a Fifties science run amok beastie on this list, and while there was some stiff competition, nothing really bests Godzilla.
As Japan struggled to re-emerge from the 1945 bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, director Ishiro Honda unleashed that dreaded kaiju—followed quickly by a tidal wave of creature features focused on scientists whose ungodly work creates global cataclysm.
Far more pointed and insightful than its American bastardization or any of the sequels or reboots to follow, the 1954 Japanese original mirrored the desperate, helpless impotence of a global population in the face of very real, apocalyptic danger. Sure, that danger breathed fire and came in a rubber suit, but history shows again and again how nature points out the folly of man.
4. Open Water (2003)
Jaws wasn’t cinema’s only powerful shark horror. In 2003, young filmmaker Chris Kentis’s first foray into terror is unerringly realistic and, therefore, deeply disturbing.
From the true events that inspired it to one unreasonably recognizable married couple, from superbly accurate dialog to actual sharks, Open Water’s greatest strength is its unsettling authenticity. Every element benefits from Chris Kentis’s control of the project. Writer, director, cinematographer and editor, Kentis clarifies his conception for this relentless film, and it is devastating.
A couple on vacation (Blanchard Ryan and Daniel Travis) books a trip on a crowded, touristy scuba boat. Once in the water, they swim off on their own – they’re really a little too accomplished to hang with the tourists. And then, when they emerge from the depths, they realize the boat is gone. It’s just empty water in every direction.
Now, sharks aren’t an immediate threat, right? I mean, tourist scuba boats don’t just drop you off in shark infested waters. But the longer you drift, the later it gets, who knows what will happen?
3. The Lure (2015)
Here’s a great Eastern European take on reimagined Eastern European fairy tales, like Norway’s Thale (2012) and Czech Republic’s Little Otik (2000).
Gold (Michalina Olszanska) and Silver (Marta Mazurek) are not your typical movie mermaids, and director Agnieszka Smoczynska’s feature debut The Lure is not your typical – well, anything.
The musical fable offers a vivid mix of fairy tale, socio-political commentary, whimsy and throat tearing. But it’s not as ill-fitting a combination as you might think.
The Little Mermaid is actually a heartbreaking story. Not Disney’s crustacean song-stravaganza, but Hans Christian Andersen’s bleak meditation on the catastrophic consequences of sacrificing who you are for someone undeserving. It’s a cautionary tale for young girls, really, and Lure writer Robert Bolesto remains true to that theme.
The biggest differences between Bolesto’s story and Andersen’s: 80s synth pop, striptease and teeth. At its heart, The Lure is a story about Poland – its self-determination and identity in the Eighties. That’s where Andersen’s work is so poignantly fitting.
2. The Host (2006)
Visionary director Joon-ho Bong’s film opens in a military lab hospital in 2000. A clearly insane American doctor, repulsed by the dust coating formaldehyde bottles, orders a Korean subordinate to empty it all into the sink. Soon the contents of hundreds of bottles of formaldehyde find its way through the Korean sewer system and into the Han River. This event – allegedly based on fact – eventually leads, not surprisingly, to some pretty gamey drinking water. And also a 25 foot cross between Alien and a giant squid.
Said monster – let’s call him Steve Buscemi (the beast’s actual on-set nickname) – exits the river one bright afternoon in 2006 to run amuck in a very impressive outdoor-chaos-and-bloodshed scene. A dimwitted foodstand clerk witnesses his daughter’s abduction by the beast, and the stage is set.
What follows, rather than a military attack on a marauding Steve Buscemi, is actually one small, unhappy, bickering family’s quest to find and save the little girl. Their journey takes them to poorly organized quarantines, botched security check points, misguided military/Red Cross posts, and through Seoul’s sewer system, all leading to a climactic battle even more impressive than the earlier scene of afternoon chaos.
1. Jaws (1975)
What else – honestly?
Twentysomething Steven Spielberg’s game-changer boasts many things, among them one of the greatest threesomes in cinematic history. The interplay among the grizzled and possibly insane sea captain Quint (Robert Shaw), the wealthy young upstart marine biologist Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) and the decent lawman/endearing everyman Brody (Roy Scheider) helps the film transcend horror to become simply a great movie.
Perhaps the first summer blockbuster, Jaws inspired the desire to be scared silly. And in doing so it outgrossed all other movies of its time. You couldn’t deny you were seeing something amazing – no clichés, all adventure and thrills and shocking confidence from a young director announcing himself as a presence.
Spielberg achieved one of those rare cinematic feats: he bettered the source material. Though Peter Benchley’s nautical novel attracted droves of fans, Spielberg streamlined the text and surpassed its climax to craft a sleek terror tale.
It’s John Williams’s iconic score; it’s Bill Butler’s camera, capturing all the majesty and the terror, but never too much of the shark; it’s Spielberg’s cinematic eye. The film’s second pivotal threesome works, together with very fine performances, to mine for a primal terror of the unknown, of the natural order of predator and prey.
Jaws is the high water mark for animal terror. Likely it always will be.