As a fishing and horror film fanatic (two separate endeavors, I assure you), I can’t help but think during this Halloween season about films featuring sadistic anglers, horrific sharks, and torturous fishing trips. I’m also reminded of those film adaptations of classic literary works such as Moby Dick, The Old Man and the Sea, and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea that boast frightening creatures and narrate thrilling oceanic adventures. With Halloween rapidly approaching, I also can’t stop thinking about horror’s scariest beasts from the deep.
Which got me wondering…why is the ocean, and water in general, so damned scary?
Regardless of type – ocean, bay, river, lake, etc. – bodies of water contain depths, and within those depths lurk great mystery and surprise. If there’s something citizens of every nation are afraid of, it’s The Unknown In the Depths. Thousands of species of marine life lurk in deep waters, yet most people encounter only a miniscule percentage of those creatures. Worlds of life thrive unseen, unknown. Possessing power and darkness, those depths are a living abyss, which to conjure the famous Nietzsche quotation, when you try to see into it, it stares back at you.
Through its reflective and fluidic characteristics, water is an effective metaphor for dreams and our psychological states. Watching water helps soothe our spirits and places us in deeply meditative states, and the fluctuating tides and waves remind us of our minds’ ebb and flow. Lacking boundaries and tangible form, water, like a dream, defies shape, logic, and space. Water is therapy because when we watch it, we see ourselves.
Water’s impermanence is riveting. It can dry before our eyes and harden into ice, yet its diversity and abundance are overwhelming: water exists in three states of matter – solid, liquid, and gas – and approximately 75 percent of the Earth’s surface is water. It surrounds everyone and never discriminates, and subsequently, every culture on this planet has established words, rituals, traditions, and festivals to honor water’s sacred place in its experience.
The elemental, contradictory qualities of water are equally awe-inspiring: life started in the oceans, and nothing living can exist without water; however, as recent natural disasters have demonstrated, water, because of its sheer power and volume, can destroy and overwhelm entire cities, regions, states, and countries with floods, hurricanes, tidal waves, etc. Although water itself is universal, each body of water assumes its own identity, reflecting the geography, geology, climate, flora and fauna, and people of its respective place.
Also, water inspires our most primitive fears. Some people suffer from aqua-phobia, which is sometimes triggered by a fear of drowning. Of course, the critters lurking beneath the surface also stimulate our basest fears, and thanks to Steven Spielberg’s seminal Jaws and the water-monster movies it inspired, many associate our oceans and rivers with dangerous creatures including sharks, killer whales, squid, alligators, piranhas, anacondas, etc.
Thus, with my obsession for fishing and horror films fueling many of my decisions, the list below, which probes how horror has capitalized on the fear water and its dangerous critters possess, was inevitable. But first, a caveat: I didn’t include shark films since they warrant their own list and are too abundant, and too easy, to list here.
In fact, my top five “beasts from the deep” are technically not even fish. If we associate the ocean with fish, what about those creatures that dwell along the periphery? These beasts are marine outsiders; they represent exaggerated, enormous, and grotesque versions of water’s most exotic creatures. Although plenty of horror films focus on mutant or voracious fish besides sharks, these beasts demonstrate just how intimately connected Hollywood’s monsters are with our nightmares.
Typically in these stories, these creatures were unleashed because of our behavior, and each film suggests we have no idea what those salty depths, and our own selfish and destructive tendencies, may or may already have produced. In a sense, because these critters are not fish, they represent the abnormal mysteries lurking within The Deep.
It Came from Beneath the Sea
Honorable Mention: It Came from Beneath the Sea
With a clever plot, Ray Harryhausen’s impeccable stop-motion animation, and some memorable scenes, It Came from Beneath the Sea had to be considered for this list.
Due to the effects of hydrogen bomb testing, a gigantic octopus lurking in the Pacific’s crater-like depths is transformed into a radioactive monster and, since the testing depleted its food supplies, it heads toward the Oregon and California coasts to dine. This film was among the first to effectively marry the science fiction and horror genres.
Robert Gordon’s classic leaves indelible impressions: images of a giant octopus, animated by Harryhausen, destroying the Embarcadero section of San Francisco, and engulfing the Golden Gate Bridge with calculated movements rivals King Kong’s great New York City scenes. What is it about these beasts and their hatred for American cities? Their contempt for urban settings strikes a more serious socio-political tone, and combined with the film’s commentary about the potential environmental impacts of military weapons testing, they’ve a morality tale to tell.
The main reason this one didn’t make my Top 5 is because of its timing: with three films released prior to It Came from Beneath the Sea, this one jumped on the bandwagon…it didn’t start it.
Dive further with me, down, down into the deep, dark waters …
Getting the Creeps from the Deep-2
The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms
Creeps from the Deep #5 – The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms
Another Ray Harryhausen stop-motion animation classic, let’s face it: the title of this one alone warrants a place on this list. Based on Ray Bradbury’s short story, “The Fog Horn”, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms was a seminal film that, along with King Kong, kicked off the creature-feature hysteria of the 1950s.
Again, we have commentary about the environmental impacts of military weapons testing (sense a theme here?), and again, we have a major American city, New York, attacked by a giant dinosaur, a Rhedosaurus, but only after it has already devastated numerous pit stops along the East Coast.
However, The Beast offers interesting twists: frozen in the Arctic Circle, the testing thawed it, and its blood is contaminated with a prehistoric germ that pollutes American streets and infects American citizens. This certainly was one of the first effective examples of bioterrorism.
Harryhausen, a long-time protégé of Willis O’Brien, who had crafted the stop-motion animation effects in King Kong, established the much-needed lineage and credibility between that classic and the new crop of 1950s creature features about to be unleashed. Since the beast was not a fish or typical marine creature, it also established the ocean as a mysterious world brimming with danger: who knows what can crawl out of that primordial soup and wreak havoc on us terrestrials?
Add to that two memorable scenes: the beast destroying a lighthouse, and later, terrorizing an amusement park, and you have the perfect template. The film’s box office success sealed the deal: giant monster flicks were here to stay, especially when they emerge from the sea!
Orca: The Killer Whale
Creeps from the Deep #4 – Orca: The Killer Whale
OK, relax and bear with me. Laugh now, but I actually like this film. Sure, it lamely capitalized on the Jaws phenomenon, as did many other films released in Spielberg’s shadow, but Orca: The Killer Whale carries eccentric, provocative themes. (For a more complete analysis, visit my review of it at Classic-Horror.com ).
Any filmmaker who dares to photograph the abortion of a killer whale fetus, and in the late 1970s, dares to metaphorically assault the image of a great white, wins my respect for raw courage. Director Michael Anderson accomplished both early in Orca: The Killer Whale.
Unlike the great white in Jaws, this killer whale knows no boundaries and destroys an entire town. In or out of the water, you’re not safe. While the shark in Jaws is a relative mystery, Charlotte Rampling, who plays Rachel Bedford, an attractive, wise marine biology professor, celebrates this unique cetacean and its ethological complexities in great detail. The film does a good job of adding a woman’s perspective to the tragedies and exploring the similarities we share with marine giants, namely our penchant for vengeance and predatory instincts.
Jaws wraps its loose ends nicely into yet another Spielbergian happy ending. Conversely, Orca: The Killer Whale embraces complexity: as Captain Nolan, the killer whale’s hunter, dies, we’re reminded how important the film’s treatment of animal rights and environmentalism is. At times, the footage of killer whales makes Orca: The Killer Whale seem more like a documentary than anything else. Played by Richard Harris, Nolan is an effective counterpoint to Richard Shaw’s Quint.
Nolan chases the whale because it’s too similar to him; Quint chases the shark for bounty and to eliminate an evil antagonist. These nuances make Orca: The Killer Whale a more powerful meditation about the relationship between humans and nature than the simplified black/white-good/evil dichotomies in Jaws. Spielberg’s film may be a more popular horror movie for the masses, but Orca: The Killer Whale is a treat for anyone interested in learning about our kindred spirits in the ocean.
Creeps from the Deep #3 – The Host
I’m not sure how to categorize The Host because the following genres apply: comedy, creature-feature, science fiction, horror, eco-horror, family drama, post-apocalyptic, and psychological thriller. Throw in some commentary about the Olympics, bioterrorism, the US military and its occupation of South Korea, and urban and environmental politics in that country, and you have quite a stew. But that’s part of the film’s appeal: The Host dumps you on a relentless roller coaster that will make you sob, snicker, scrutinize, and shutter.
Part-amphibian, part-fish, the creature is a mutant organism spawned after an American scientist, working for the US military, dumps formaldehyde into the Han River. With strange front limbs resembling stubby legs, it survives on land and water. With at least one tentacle and other tail-like appendages, it defies, like the movie itself, easy classification. Most importantly, its size is not monolithic; it terrorizes through action, not appearances.
Since we see it throughout, we’re forced to develop a relationship with it, particularly through uncomfortable close ups of its grotesque head and mouth. It’s disgusting, full of stealth, and a difficult beast to bring down. In one of the film’s most disturbing visuals, we see its lair in the city’s sewer system, where it hides captives, and watch it contribute more victims’ bones and remains in one of horror’s most unsettling upchucks (notwithstanding the pea soup scene in The Exorcist).
Nevertheless, this film shines because of how this family responds to the trauma of having this beast kidnap their youngest member. Their relentless pursuit of the girl is heroic, and notwithstanding the bickering among siblings and occasionally irreverent jabs at the father, both of which produce some hearty laughs, the family unites in a manner rarely seen in creature-feature films. Characters should not be this developed and complex in such a campy picture.
Godzilla, King of the Monsters!
Creeps from the Deep #2 – Godzilla, King of the Monsters!
Many people forget that the first Godzilla movie, released in 1954, begins with a unique focus on local fishermen. A fishing boat sinks, search parties investigate, and when natives of Odo Island experience a massive decline in their catches, they blame the disasters on Godzilla, a legendary sea monster. More provocatively, many also forget that Godzilla himself, although a mutant reptile that mostly appears and fights on land, actually emerged from the ocean’s depths.
Godzilla, King of the Monsters! launched one of the most impressive franchises in film history, and not surprisingly, the film and its popular beast emerged in Japan, an island nation whose culture is defined by its relationship to water. Fish, fishermen, fishing boats, and other sea creatures abound throughout the franchise. The original Japanese term for Godzilla, gojira, is a portmanteau that combines the Japanese words gorira, meaning “gorilla,” and kujira, meaning “whale”.
Although many Godzilla films reveal themes related to US-Japanese relations and the devastating impact of the hydrogen bombs on Japan and atomic weaponry in general, virtually every film reveals native people and their reactions to phenomenon, good and bad, emanating from the ocean. Not coincidentally, many of the beasts Godzilla fights are also sea creatures including Ebirah, a giant lobster-like creature; Mothra, a giant moth whose egg is cast ashore after a typhoon wreaks havoc; Megalon, the god of the underwater civilization Seatopia; and giant sea louse in The Return of Godzilla, to name a few. I dare you to find a more formidable beast from the deep than this rowdy, rubber-suited icon.
Creature from the Black Lagoon
Creeps from the Deep #1 – Creature from the Black Lagoon
Universal’s 1954 classic set the stage for all “beasts from the deep” films for three reasons: its legendary monster’s veracity; its exquisite underwater photography (which still holds water today); and its provocative spin on the beauty and the beast legend.
According to producer William Alland, the Gillman was designed to scare audiences and solicit their sympathy because it resembled a fish that looked human, not a human that looked fish-like. As a monster first, human second, its superior stealth, strength, and amphibious attributes, combined with its excellent swimming, made it a monster never seen or experienced before on celluloid.
That it wrestled with emotions – love, jealousy, anger – warmed by the sexy Julia Adams was even more unusual and, frankly, touching. Monsters from the deep weren’t supposed to have character (and many of them still don’t).
However, since the Gillman shines most brightly underwater, none of these remarkable attributes meant much without William Snyder and Charles Welbourne’s superb underwater photography, which was shot in Wakulla Springs in Tallahassee, Florida. The details of Gillman’s underwater adventures are legendary due to the duo’s moving camera shots, which give the film’s underwater scenes a sense of fluidity and pace that captures its surreal verisimilitude.
Gillman spies on Adams and her splashing legs, and at one point, plays with them. The creature hides behind underwater vegetation amidst an aquatic set design that appeared out of this world. While many 1950s horror and science fiction flicks were focusing on monsters literally from other planets, this Earthly lagoon was frightening because it looked alien and produced an alien but was, nevertheless, of this planet.
No reasonable soul can watch this film and not understand why Spielberg is sometimes accused of plagiarism. Several shots from Jaws were clearly inspired by, or robbed from, Jack Arnold’s classic.
So there you have it. My five greatest “beasts from the deep” horror films. I’m just thankful Halloween isn’t celebrated in July, when my family and I are usually found at the beach.