The old notification on medieval maps stating “Here there be monsters!” still applies within modern genre film. Many of our greatest, and more than a few of the worst genre films are set at sea. The Scariest Things has a guide for those of you who like a little salt water with your scares.
Some of the biggest and baddest monsters in all of cinema belong in this category. HUGE monstrosities, capable of leveling cities. This corner of the genre also covers some of best in science fiction-horror hybrids, with scientists and explorers uncovering the edges of the known world. The sea can also be one of the best ways to explore survival horror, a place of isolation far from the communication and pathways of modern civilization.
Please note… no freshwater river or lake monsters here. So, no Host. No Creature from the Black Lagoon, though you will see his salt-water cousins. No crocs, gators, or piranhas. This list is reserved for the pelagic and the benthic. Mysterious creatures that lurk in the deep sea. Carnivorous stalkers just off the coast, patrolling for swimmer sized snacks. Humanoids coming ashore at high tide on a moonless night. This roster also tells tales of survival, for those stranded at sea with a maniac to deal with, and the madness of isolation.
One thing you will notice is that I have expanded the genre a bit to include some science fiction and adventure films to the roster, so it’s mostly straight up horror, but some other films which have sea monsters in them which are certainly only scary adjacent. This is a particular sub-genre that bumps into the science fiction, adventure, and thriller sub-genres, so I figured, include them all!
For this dead list, we are going from worst to first. And there is some interesting irony in how this all mapped out. With that… the big dead list of scary stories from the vast ocean:
Oh, the shame of these movies. I broke my rule that I explained in the preamble, right out of the gate! I’m talking about sequels. Two god-awful sequels. You will see Jaws, of course much, much higher on the list, and it is because of the wonderful first film that these two inert sequels deserve the dishonor of being the rough equivalent of something dead that you find on the beach. Bad acting. Bad production values (despite big budgets), bad scripts. Just… Stinko!
This is a stand-in for all of the dumb dumb straight-to-streaming films from mockbuster distribution company, The Asylum, like Mega Shark vs. Crocosaurus, Mega Piranha, 6 Headed Shark Attack, Mega Shark vs. Mecha Shark,Planet of the Sharks, Ice Sharks, and the whole Sharknado Franchise. They are all awful on all levels but have achieved something of a cult status due to their preposterous nature. Sometimes, it’s like they’re not even trying.
OK, I did it AGAIN. I broke my promise not to include sequels, but this is a truly awful one. Roland Emmerich’s hot steaming pile of Godzilla droppings represents a pretty low bar for the big fella. The kaiju we know and love got reduced to being a giant iguana in a half-baked disaster movie. The low point for me was the inclusion of proxies for Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert in a knowing reaction that they were going to get humiliated by the press… and they were.
This is a famously awful film, with perhaps the worst rubber costume ever shown on the big screen. Stiff acting, a non-existant plot, and once again, a laughable rubber costume that you can’t ignore. If you do feel the urge to watch it, check out the Mystery Science Theater 3000 take on this all-time bad movie classic.
As much as we love Roger Corman, sometimes the ambitions can’t match the budget. The Skotak Brothers (Aliens), two notable effects specialists got a chance to do some impressive miniature and set designs on this film, and the brothers commented that they did this movie because they needed the money. Unfortunately, the mutant manta ray monsters are awfully designed, and the acting and script are laughable. There’s a reason why this movie has been largely forgotten.
Jamie Lee Curtis and Donald Sutherland will probably want to take this movie back. There was a bunch of movies like this that came out in the ’90s, and despite having more name recognized talent than Ghost Ship or Deep Rising, this movie just belly-flopped into the ocean. I dare you to make sense of the plot here.
This attempt to cash in on the current wave of shark-themed movies was the bilge bottom of the barrel for studio released shark movies of recent vintage. Sharks in a lagoon eating water skiers. Hmmm… where have we seen that before? That’s right. Jaws 3. Another AWFUL oceanic horror show. You might enjoy this if you turn your brain off.
A Roger Corman blue plate special! Pure ’50s behemoth monster fare. The crab creature is kinda fun to look at, but the film has terrible pacing and too many characters. An awesome movie poster but a rather boring giant monster movie. See ahead for better behemoth fare.
The movie spends a good bit of time actually setting up a plot that has the British acting crews committedly throwing themselves into a plot that closely mimics the superior The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms. This movie is exhibit A where sometimes you really do need to show your monster, as there are a series of cop-out shots of the Behemoth only from the screaming human perspective. This may have been to try and preserve the movie budget, but when you see the monster, it appears to be as inert as a rubber ducky rising out of the Thames. A hugely disappointing looking monster. Crab Monsters actually has a better-looking monster, but this movie actually had a solid, if perfunctory story. The monster however is rather awkward, an animatronic puppet who lurches around a bit. From a science perspective, it sounds half-convincing, at least.
Whatever fond memories you may have for this cheesy R-rated exploitation flick, it hasn’t aged well. It’s a worn-out idea, and wasn’t executed very well. The monster suits are Rob Bottin creations, and they looked great until the actors had to move around in them, stiffly and blindly fumbling around. This movie was incredibly misogynistic as well, with multiple monster rape scenes. These scenes though are not particularly explicit or horrifying in execution… there’s only so much you can do in a rubber suit, and it makes for something awkward and goofy. The rapey-ness of the story is particularly surprising given it was directed by a woman. (Barbara Peeters)
Dino DeLaurentis movie may have been capitalizing on the popularity of Jaws. Or, he could have been trying to create his own Melville tale. He failed at both. With a cast incuding Richard Harris, Charlotte Ramplin, and Bo Derek, you would expect to have more fun, but it turns out that the ham-fisted save the whales bent to it muddies the message a bit. You definitely are rooting for the whale, and not the humans here.
Not a bad WWII submarine flick, as the action is pretty well accomplished. It is unfortunately also a ghost movie and an undercooked one at that. Bruce Greenwood is effective as a captain hiding some important secrets, but this is one of those sausage party movies that tries to force a female scientist into the movie to provide a romantic hook. That really didn’t work. Also interesting is this has Zach Galifinakis in an early non-comic role.
As much as people like to point to 1987, and the glut of deep see horror movies, there was another run of surface water horror movies in the late ’90s, with Ghost Ship, Deep Blue Sea, Virus, and Deep Rising. Like all of the other movies of its ilk, Deep Rising had a cast full of expendable red shirts, a Kurt Russell lite hero in Treat Williams, and a sexy female co-lead in Famke Janssen. The digital monster effects now look very dated, and the movie ha a pretty standard-issue salvage mission theme. It’s fun but rather lightweight and forgettable in the end.
Probably most notable for being a PG movie that features the stunning Jacqueline Bisset in a braless wet tee shirt for the whole movie. So, we’re off to a decent start. But this murder thriller tried to piggyback on to the success of Jaws and pitched it as having a monstrous element to it, but it really didn’t. It is marginally successful at pulling off the murder thriller aspect. It does look fantastic, as the underwater camera work is nicely done. And, there is Ms. Bisset, who is quite lovely.
This is a light and gory monster invasion movie, remininiscent of films like Arachnophobia, Blood Beach, or Return of the Living Dead, but using the most unlikely of monsters: Horseshoe crabs (which are, by the way, completely harmless). There is something prehistorically fascinating and strange about these ancient critters, and when subjected to… you guessed it… atomic radiation, these crabs become bloodthirsty mutants. Roger Corman would be proud of an effort like this. It’s quite fun if you are willing to turn your brain off.
Amphibious zombie Nazi invade a tropical island! Yep, it’s a pretty preposterous plot. The movie features Brooke Adams as the plucky protagonist, John Carradine as the salty captain, and Peter Cushing, who would also star in a movie far, far away in 1977, phones it in as a former SS Commandant. The Nazi zombies are a bit unusual in their killing method as they prefer to drown their victims rather than eat them. Blub! Blub! Rather fun and intense for a PG rated B-movie.
Ghost Ship features one of the very best cold openings to a movie with the complete massacre of a cruise ship’s passengers and crew with a fateful snap of a cable, setting up the haunting that is the Ghost Ship. That’s one hell of a premise! It’s also without a doubt, the best part of the movie. The remainder of the movie is a fairly standard haunted house, featuring a talented B-list cast of Julianna Margulies, Gabriel Byrne, Ron Eldard, and Karl Urban. It’s pure popcorn fare, but worth a watch for the opening sequence alone.
This film is a worst-case scenario survival tale at its most basic. What happens if the cage you went to go watching great white sharks snapped off and went to the bottom of the ocean? Well, you’re pretty much screwed. Make for the surface in chum filled water full of hungry carnivores, or… drown. Take your pick. The great premise holds the film together despite a multitude of bad logistical considerations. This film struck a nerve and ended up being pretty successful in the theaters, and was a minor surprise. It spawned a hugely inferior sequel involving cave diving which ratcheted up the stupid meter several notches. Our own Mike Campbell rather liked the sequel, though.
Big, spectacular, and rather stupid. The Meg does look fantastic, and the megalodon makes Jaws look like a red snapper by comparison. It is, of course, terrible science, but who really cares, when what you REALLY want to see is Jason Statham punch a shark. You get your wish. There is shark punching happening. The film is fun, but sadly, held back by the desire to make it PG-13 and accessible to the massive Chinese market. One of the benefits of playing to the Chines market was the inclusion of Bing Bing Li even if she struggled with the English script a bit. It all worked out in the end as this movie ended up making $530,523,000 at the Box Office, definitely punching above its weight class.
Harbinger Down is a pretty credible homage to John Carpenter’sThe Thing. A downed Soviet lunar lander plummets towards Siberia, bringing along with it something sinister. Decades later a scientific team has chartered a crabbing boat out of Prince George, Alaska, finds the downed spacecraft encapsulated in a block of ice. The cosmonaut is still frozen in place in his flight suit. Unseen to the crew is a metamorphosing creature hidden in the capsule that absorbs living tissue and can go into a liquid form. You have to applaud this Kickstarter effort by director and FX specialist Alec Gillis for the movie’s fantastic practical effects. Perhaps because it follows the beats of The Thing and The Blob you have a pretty good sense of who’s gonna get it, and when, so it is a bit of a predictable film. A lot of fun for fans of creature features.
Note to Crab Monsters… this is how to properly do a watery behemoth. It starts and ends with the master, Ray Harryhausen. The Rhedosaurus (completely fictional dinosaur) is a fantastic looking creature, and in my book is some of Ray’s very best work. This, Them, and Godzilla are the gold standard for ’50s giant stompy monsters. It would rank higher on this particular list if it were more of an ocean-going sea monster, but the name is right there in the title, 20,000 Fathoms. Also, it is a bit of a threadbare plot, but that tends to fade from memory when considering the wonderful effects.
Flip a coin between this movie and the next one on the list. They came out in the same year, and they deserve to be side by side on this list. Leviathan has slightly better acting, with Peter Weller, Richard Crenna, Daniel Stern, Amanda Pays and Ernie Hudson. Both of these movies took big cues from Alien and Aliens. Both movies had impressive sets and practical effects. Leviathan was a mutation gone awry, and this pays homage to The Thing, with its body horror. This film is directed by George Cosmatos, whose son, Panos, is making waves of his own with films like Mandy and Beyond the Black Rainbow.
Of the pairing of Deepstar Six and Leviathan, I find that this movie has the more interesting monster, a prehistoric crustacean that makes a much bigger and better introduction, so it’s Deepstar Six for the win! This film is a Sean S. Cunningham (Friday the 13th) direction, and for my money is a superior film to his Camp Crystal Lake outing. The cast came out of the TV World, with Taurean Black, Greg Evigan, Nia Peeples, Nancy Everhard, Miguel Ferrer, and Matt McCoy featured. For most of these actors this would be their ImDB “most known” movie. The film was a minor flop as it barely made back its budget of $8 million. Cunningham can take solace that it fared better than Leviathan at the Box Office, but both of these movies got overshadowed by the much bigger budget of the Abyss.
Sharks make the best survival horror menace around. The Reef is a solid outing, with real intensity and a plausible story. It doesn’t reach the visceral depths of Open Water, for which it took some cues, but it does a fine job of imperiling an unfortunate family of divers, forced to swim for it in great white shark-infested waters.
Triangle is a combination of survival horror, a time paradox dilemma, and a slasher feature. Melissa George is Jess, a traumatized young mother who goes on a pleasure sailing trip with Greg (Michael Dorman), who she has been dating, and his group of friends. When a squall emerges out of nowhere to roll the sailboat, Triangle, the survivors manage to scramble on board a seemingly vacant 1930’s pleasure cruiser, and find themselves stalked by a mysterious killer. The film has some very powerful moments, and manages to cleverly apply the missing puzzle pieces throughout the film, though some of the decision making will make you pull your hair out in frustration, and there are a number of situations where you just have to roll with the absurdity of it all. Once you get past the some of the narrative holes, it’s a well-crafted and well-acted thriller.
The big fella is back! And it’s actually pretty good this time! He’s got a big of a dad belly, and you don’t see as much of him as you’d like, but this is a grand re-introduction of the big green, and on a big screen, he sure is impressive! Gareth Edwards decided to do the “hide the monster” approach, which everybody points to for successful scary monster movies, but kaiju movies are a little different. You WANT to see the monsters more. Godzilla King of the Monsters improved on it in that way, but the 2014 movie had a better human plot. I think both of them at this point of the list is an appropriate landing spot.
Cape Cod is lovely. And apparently, it’s also filled with mysterious Lovecraftian Horrors. The Beach House follows the young protagonist couple Emily (the achiever) and Ray (the deadbeat) who try and work through their relationship issues on a trip to Ray’s parent’s beach house. But strange people are slumming in the house, and what’s more, something evil seems to be drifting in with the fog and the tide. A wonderful build of dread and menace.
I may be in the minority here, but I found The Bay to be a pretty compelling found footage movie. Oscar winning director, Barry Levinson (Rain Man, Diner, The Natural) shows how to edit and direct a shaky cam film, using several different film mediums effectively, to show a pandemic survival movie filled with mega-parasites. Lots of nasty body horror to turn off a conventional audience, and perhaps too much polish to satisfy die-hard shaky cam fans, Levinson turns his lovely home-town Chesapeake Bay area, into a dreadful place where the politics are as toxic and dangerous as the infected environment.
This is my favorite H.P. Lovecraft adaptation yet put to screen. The fact that it comes in at #19 on THIS list tells you the state of the quality of Lovecraft adaptations. Dagon is essentially the telling of “The Shadow Over Innsmouth”, but replacing a New England Town of Innsmouth, we get a Spanish town (THis is a Spanish production even if it has English dialogue.) I absolutely love Macarena Gomez as the squid priestess. Sexy and awful at the same time. Very effective sets for a micro-budget movie.
Yep, that’s what you need to know about Deep Blue Sea. One of the greatest surprise moments ever in horror movies, taking out the movie’s biggest star right during Jackson’s bravura speechifying. The plot makes absolutely no sense and the science is stupefyingly dumb, but the movie is a lot of fun. This movie does a great job of subverting your expectations. Thomas Jane, Saffron Burrows, Michael Rapaport and L.L. Cool J make up a snappy group of protagonists put through the shark habitrail that is this movie.
So, no character development or story arcs to be found here. But what you do get is a pulse-pounding roller coaster of an action film. Kristen Stewart proves she can pilot a big-budget action movie, but like other movies of its ilk, it was a box office bust, partly due to the Disney takeover of Fox, and the lack of backing from the Mouse House. The production values are off the chart, and the big bad at the end of the movie has never been rendered better on the big screen. (Hint, he just woke up, and he has lots of tentacles).
There are monsters a plenty in the Gore Verbinski and Johnny DeppPiratesof the Caribbean series. From the Ghostly apparitions of Barbarossa and Salazar, to the tentacle faced Davy Jones, the villains of these movies are certainly gateway horror characters. This is a good way to see if the kiddies are ready for something more visceral. The movies have lost their way narratively, but the production values have always been top shelf and Oscar Worthy. Ghostly pirates and sea monsters in a swashbuckling adventure? Sounds like a good time.
Hear me out here. The Trench sequence allowed James Wan to show off his horror movie chops within a superhero movie. The toothy creatures of The Trench were a horror call out within the comic books, and Wan expertly uses them here at a pivotal point in the movie. Like the Pirates movies, this film has incredible visuals and a pretty janky adventure plot. But, for a Saturday matinee feature featuring Aquaman, Mera versus a swarm of toothy fish men? This is a throwback to the serials of old, but with the power of the full might of Warner Brothers budget behind it.
This is a starkly beautiful and intense thriller. It is also unlike most of the other films on this list, as it is a fairly realistic feature about a worst-case survival scenario where an experienced scuba diver has to try and rescue her sister who is trapped at the bottom of a Scandinavian fjord. It’s a very straightforward plot, cleanly done, and is a riveting piece of drama. The cinematography is as breathtaking as the plot literally is.
Release the Kraken! What the Empire State Building is to King Kong, the Golden Gate Bridge is to the Giant Octopus from It Came From Beneath the Sea. Like the Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, this fantastic Ray Harryhausen production doesn’t bother much with the humans but instead revels in the spectacle that is a giant octopus totally wrecking house in San Francisco. This movie also has one of the best bombastic soundtracks of the era.
This is Castaway with an amphibious sea monster. As if getting stranded on an uninhabited island wasn’t bad enough, there’s something that comes out of the surf every night to feed. Kiersey Clemens is smart, resourceful, and courageous in this tale of survival, and she has to carry the movie for almost its entire running time and provides a compelling performance throughout. The monster is pretty good as a “dude in a suit” creature, but I would have liked something more inherently oceanic as the beast, something more crustacean or cephalopod-like.
On the opposite side of the budget spectrum from Aquaman, is this clever little film about a trio of best friends/love triangle who in an attempt to sort out some inter-personal issues, and end up at each others throats, and as a result… Lost at Sea. The movie sports some very dark humor, right to the final “punch line” and it serves up one of the best lifeboat dilemma scenes you will ever see. The drawing of straws to determine who has to sacrifice themselves for the betterment of the others. Somebody could turn this into a blackbox stage drama, as the dialogue is whip smart, with a cast of only three.
This is a melancholy story that is a metaphor for race relations from the steam era. Two isolated lighthouse keepers (A theme we will see again) are frequently besieged at night by hordes of aquatic amphibian humanoids. The big wrinkle is that one of the “toads” is Aneris (Auro Garrido) , who has taken to living and loving the violent and obsessed engineer, Gruner (the reliably gruff Ray Stevenson) . The new man on the island is the gentle young meteorologist Friend (David Oakes), who is struggling to come to grips with all of this.
A lovely movie. And we’re not just talking about Blake Lively, though she is quite lovely. The movie captures trouble in paradise, in the form of a great white shark that comes into a remote tropical surfing hot spot in Central America. The shark and a seagull keep Lively company, as she contemplates her own mortality. A bit of implausibility mars the finale a little, but the build up to the end is captivating.
Giant robots punching giant monsters! BAM! SMACKO! This is how to stage a kaiju fight. Unlike the Transformer movies, these battles are comprehensible, and lots of fun. I’m probably overrating it, but this is a definite guilty pleasure of mine. Guillermo del Toro obviously enjoyed making this love letter to Japanese cinema. This was an international hit, so a sequel was made, though it is considerably inferior in plot than this film. There are some great character moments, but it’s not the reason to see this Kaiju vs. Jaeger throw-down.
The ocean is a mystery, and few films capture that sense of the unknown quite like Sea Fever, in the most realistic terms. The hard-luck Irish fishing vessel Niamh Cinn-Oir and her crew have crossed over an exclusionary section of the sea, in pursuit of elusive schools of fish. There is a reason for the prohibition, as there is something huge and mysterious living in these waters, and it comes filled with nasty killer parasites. This is a sea-faring film for the pandemic era, and makes some pretty pointed statements about the value of heeding quarantines.
James Cameron has some very expensive hobbies, one of them being underwater exploration, and he got to indulge himself in the Abyss. This scientific tale is certainly NOT a horror movie, but I include it with its genre brethren since this film, Deepstar Six, and Leviathan will always be linked together as a trio of movies with similar themes that came out in 1989. The Abyss is clearly the most ambitious of the three movies, and it had the might and faith of 20th Century Fox behind it. The film cost a whopping $70 million to make, and made back $90 million, not quite breaking even.
The hubris of Victorian England’s navy is put to the test in this adaptation of Dan Simmons “what if” scenario of the real life tragedy of the HMS Terror and HMS Erebus, two navy vessels sent to find the northwest passage across the north of Canada. As if the horror of starving and freezing to death wasn’t bad enough, a spirit creature resembling a giant mutant polar bear is hunting and killing the crew. Produced by Ridley Scott, this AMC production had stellar production values and great acting from Jared Harris (Crozier), Tobias Menzes (Fitzjames), Nive Nielsen (Lady Silence), Ciarin Hinds (Franklin), Paul Ready (Goodsir), and Adam Nagaitis (Hickey). Such a cold and terrible fate for the fated men on this journey (with a fictional wrinkle.) This is a tale of heroic sacrifice and the hubris of empire at its peak.
This water-tight thriller (pardon the pun) was the first big introduction of Nicole Kidman to the American big screen audience. She and Sam Neill play the Ingrams, who are pleasure sailing trying to recover from a recent auto accident they were in, when they take on Hughie (Billy Zane), from a sinking ship. Something about Hughie’s story is fishy (again, the puns) and John Ingram goes to check ou the sinking ship, and discovers (horrors!) that Hughie is responsible for the sinking ship. Back on the Ingrams boat, Hughie hijacks the boat from Rae, abandoning John at the other ship, and the thriller kicks into high gear. This is definitive sexy thriller material, and is edge of your seat tense.
Steam Punk owes a huge debt to this movie, Disney’s stunning enactment of the famed Jules Verne novel. The Nautilus is really a character all to herself, and it set imagination ablaze in a time when genre fare was left to the Roger Corman low-budget school of the 1950’s. The now late, great Kirk Douglas teamed with Peter Lorre, Paul Lukas, and James Mason (as Nemo) to provide an adventure to set the high seas standard. The giant squid attack remains one of the best sequences of its kind ever filmed.
Up from the depths! Thirty stories high, breathing fire, his head in the sky! GODZILLA!
From the 1980s filmation Cartoon series
Ohhhhh no! There goes Tokyo! Go Go Godzilla! WoooOOOOooOOOO!
Blue Oyster Cult, Godzilla
The radioactive kaiju is the gold standard for sea monsters., and is the ultimate cautionary tale of man pushing the ethical limits of science. Godzilla was not the cuddly monster he became in the late ’60s. He was the living embodiment of the nuclear horrors set upon Japan in WWII. Often imitated, and never surpassed in effect, the big fella continues to inspire awe to this day.
In my book, this is the best survival horror movie ever made. I say that even though (SPOILER ALERT) … there are no survivors. This is a tragedy at sea, slowly played out. Two divers, left behind by accident in the Caribbean, are left to try and figure out how they can get help. The movie seems 100% plausible, probably because of its ripped from the headlines provenance. In Austrailia, a diving couple got abandoned by mistake, never to be seen again. Super scary and dreadful, because you can put yourself in their shoes very easily.
Could it be anything else? Does any other movie put the fear of going into the water into you more than Jaws? Great opening sequence, followed by a fantastic interwoven narrative of weak politicians and angry public reaction, and bookended with a wonderful tale of three very different men put to the test and building friendships while pursuing, and being pursued by the scariest shark ever put on the screen. A movie that launched two fantastic careers in Stephen Spielberg and John Williams.
But perhaps the scariest ocean-bound movie is… not a horror movie.
Want to know what claustrophobia is? Watch this movie. The life of the U-boat crews in WWII were cramped, and always fraught with death around the corner. One of the best war movies ever made, and scary as hell.