When the sun is blazing and waves are crashing, your first thought probably isn’t, “I want to be terrified.” Many of us though can’t hit the beach without thinking of Jaws, and thus spending vacation in the summer months does stir up the urge to watch scary flicks.
It’s incredible how just one timeless blockbuster film can make an unlikely season feel ripe for horror. A testament to fantastic filmmaking. Beyond Jaws, however, there are many more great underwater horrors that serve scares and still capture that seaside, summer feel.
Deep sea sci-fi, lake creature-feature fare, and survival thrillers in rushing rapids; there is fantastic cinematic terror to be found by the water. Fortunately, there exists a near countless amount of flicks that capture the horrifying mysteries of lakes, rivers, and seas; many of which are long forgotten or simply not mainstream.
Let’s have a look at 10 films that vary greatly in their fanbase size. Some are big budget and known but not aptly loved. Others cheap indies that never received their shine. Whether you’re a lover of old shlock, or someone who prefers a sophisticated thriller, you’ll find something to watch here.
Humanoids From The Deep (1980)
Although it is an undoubted cult classic, Humanoids From The Deep is a wild and gory creature-feature with unsettling seaside ambiance that still deserves more love.
A small, coastal fishing town is rocked part-fish, part-human creatures coming from the sea, killing and raping their way about town.
Humanoids From The Deep is, dare I say, real before its time darkly comic creature-feature nuttiness. The film has a secluded, hazy atmosphere, set in a grey coastal village that feels highly isolated from major metropolitan areas. In premise, the flick sounds like goofy shlock. During kills and “rape” scenes it does exhibit early 80’s outrageousness, but for the most part HFTD is grim and moody – slow and sizzling but not without frequent spots of violence and buckets of salty blood.
The characters are classic fishing town individuals. The storytelling moves eerily and creepily yet never feels dull. The killer humanoid action is brutal and fun if not outright horrifying. HFTD also includes funny lines and the right sort of practical-effect driven rubbery mania. Viewing this movie is easier than ever since its release to Blu-ray and 80’s horror fans who haven’t seen Humanoids From The Deep owe themselves that treat.
The River Wild (1994)
The River Wild isn’t horror, per say, nor is it “underrated,” but it’s a first-class chase thriller on the water that never dips beneath thoroughly tense and edge-of-your-raft exciting. It also doesn’t frequently receive praise from modern film fanatics.
In short, a young couple take their ten-year old son on a whitewater rafting adventure in Montana and are taken hostage by a pair of armed fugitives.
The River Wild is Grade A thriller filmmaking with a formidable cast of familiar faces. With names like Meryl Streep, Kevin Bacon, David Strathairn, and John C. Reilly, the superb performances are to be expected. Meryl Streep conjures up her strongest heroic mother as Gail Hartman, a sharp and brilliant mom with a real set of survival skills. Bacon, as the charming but conniving fugitive Wade, brings an infuriatingly wise, evil man to life who you have to hate but also must admire. Wade is slick, always one step ahead of the family who are trying to escape him. His partner in crime, Terry (John C. Reilly) is a dullard lackey who shows signs of a moral compass still dwindling within. Together, Wade and Terry are the low-class sorts of villains you’d expect to see – Outwardly bad but able to show the heart that might manipulate a gullible individual.
The River Wild is quite literally a wild ride from start to finish, with an almost nauseating amount of twists. Hey, all of the turns and false glimpses of hope fit the mood of fighting for one’s life while stuck in rushing rapids. It’s hard to imagine a viewer not being reeled into this one. The action’s non-stop. The scenery, despite its beauty, leaves the viewer with little hope for our heroes. The mood is tense and just slightly filled with hope. The main hero (Streep) is an unshakeable fighter. The River Wild is a respected blockbuster thriller, but being from ’94 it may be overlooked. I feel it’s deserving of classic status.
Sergio Martino, a prolific Italian producer, produced hundreds of films from the 60’s through the 2000’s, while he directed just a handful of flicks. One of those movies is the late 70’s Italian aquatic horror-fantasy Screamers, which was released to drive-ins in American in 1981 with additional gore footage through Roger Corman. A (sort of) retelling of “The Island Of Dr. Moreau,” Screamers packs a hilarious culmination of tropes including volcanic eruptions, mutant fish creatures, voodoo, treasure hunting, mad science, and the lost city of Atlantis.
A crew of escaped convicts flee to a remote island, and soon find that their new home is inhabited by a menacing doctor (Richard Johnson of Zombie 2 fame) a mad scientist (Joseph Cotten), his daughter (Barbara Bach) and an island full of superstitious natives. Tribesmen warn that the doctor has created half-human, half-fish creatures for sadistic, undisclosed purposes. While the convicts don’t initially believe in the voodoo and mutant creature talk, they have no choice but to once they start disappearing one by one.
Martino’s Screamers has the heavy, creative gore to please horror fans, but it’s a lost island adventure film above all else. Despite its fantasy adventure glory, the colorful palette and gorgeous, remote island setting are reminiscent of the 70’s and 80’s Euro-Horror fans love. The flick has its lulls, but it’s pretty, grotesque, and coasting on pure imagination. Tag on a cast of B horror royalty, and it’s something of a must watch for those who love their dated European shlock.
Killer creatures in the water AND zombies? That’s a combination thrill seekers can get down with. Shockwaves is a super low-budget, minimal 70’s gem with the star power of Peter Cushing and John Carradine, and a hell of an isolated atmosphere going for it.
A group of yachters are left stranded on a remote island. A local hermit alerts them it’s not safe, as there’s a crew of invincible Nazi zombies laying dormant off the island. Unfortunately for the boat accident survivors, it may be too late.
Shockwaves rides eerily on a creepy setting, great zombie make-up, and a screeching, ominous score from Richard Einhorn – a thoroughly horrifying score that may haunt you after the film’s finish. Gore is low in comparison to other zombie fare, and the violence isn’t plentiful, as Shockwaves has a feel so arid it’s grimly pleasing enough without unnecessary guts piling up. Director Ken Wiederhorn crafts a beautiful, uncanny piece of horror in broad daylight, and those who love atmosphere will find a special flick here.
A surprisingly chilling, “keeps you guessing” B-movie about a haunted WWII submarine, Below doesn’t pack star power or over-the-top theatrics, but it tells a sophisticated ghost story deep underwater that haunts and twists.
It’s 1943 in the North Atlantic, and the U.S.S. Tiger Shark picks up 3 survivors from a British medical shape that was recently torpedoed. One of the survivors is a German, which spurs violence on ship, before eerier occurrences start taking place. Meanwhile, the sub is being chased by a German cruiser. Is an apparition on board, or are the crew just imagining out of fear?
With tasteful style and subtlety, director David Twohy paints a terrifying tale unlike other war films, deriving horror from the paranormal and unknown, with bits of standard WWII terror. As for the scary moments in Below, they’re peppered throughout to occasionally scare the pants off you when you’re not theorizing about what’s going on. The effects work is conservative and effective; never goofy. Cinematography from Ian Wilson is vibrant, even arthouse quality, but neither the effects nor Wilson’s flare for the artful prevent this from being an edge-of-your-seat ride. The miniatures and digital works create a beautiful, terrifying world deep under the sea. Below is absent of hokeyness, light on violence, and strong in pure creepiness. Impressively, it’s so much more than an atmospheric ghost tale – It’s a thrilling adventure you’ll struggle to figure out.
The Deep (1977)
Mystery, violence, and dark intrigue await the, at the time, young stars Nick Nolte and Jacqueline Bisset in this 70’s adventure thriller based on the Peter Benchley novel (who also wrote the “Jaws” novel).
David Sanders (Nick Nolte) and his lover Gail Berke (Jacqueline Bisset) are on holiday, treasure hunting off the coast of Bermuda. The two uncover a bottle of morphine and an unrecognizable old piece of jewelry. They continue on with their vacation, unaware that competition is after the exact items they found, and said competition is willing to go to any lengths to obtain the treasures. With the help of their assistant Romer (Robert Shaw) the team of protagonists try to turn the tables on the vengeful folks who hunt them.
Robert Shaw delivers an always great performance, and Nolte (then a fresh young actor) is a convincingly passionate, tortured leading man. Jacqueline Bisset is alluring, bright, and complex. The crew of leads play out of their element adventurers well, and all have the range to add necessary psychological undertones to what would ordinarily just be a damn good thriller at sea.
The Deep offers beautiful aerial shots of Bermuda, and impressive, gorgeous underwater scenes. It’s a beautiful escape yet deprived and gritty. Between the scenery, underwater treasure hunting, chases, and not-so-tame violence, there’s a great deal to keep audiences interested. While this may have been a minor classic back in the 70’s, it still received pushback, being marked as a Jaws cash-in. It isn’t, and today it’s almost entirely forgotten outside of cinephile circles. Catch a fresh Nick Nolte at his most tenacious, and Robert Shaw doing his wise old thing in this bloody deep sea escapade.
The Beast (1996)
Yet another film based on a Peter Benchley novel, this one a 90s made-for-tv mini series that demands more recognition for being flat out enjoyable aquatic monster fare.
The Beast is set in, you guessed it, a quaint coastal town, the Pacific Northwest resort community of Grave’s Point. One evening, a couple disappears on a yacht. Fisherman Whip Dalton (William Peterson) finds an empty lifeboat from the yacht, which has a large claw stuck in it. Whip sends the claw for analysis to marine biologist Dr. Herbert Talley (Ronald Guttman) who pays a visit to Grave’s Point warning the claw is from a giant squid.
The island’s harbor master Schuyler Graves (Charles Martin Smith) instructs Whip to kill the squid, but he refuses, so Graves hires Lucas Coven (Larry Drake) for the job. Coven succeeds in killing the squid, and its carcass is quickly sold to Sea Land Texas owner Osborne Manning (Deni Arndt). Unknown to harbor master Graves, the sonar that isn’t being watched detects an even larger squid.
The Beast has its Jaws similarities, and understandably so, but this flick has a strong enough story, unique picturesque fishing town setting, and the fun sea monster action to stand as its own late-night enjoyment. Shot primarily in New South Wales, the scenery’s astounding, and the resort town seems a perfectly peaceful place until local fishermen are forced to battle a giant, murderous squid
Action sequences, both under and above water, are suspenseful and exciting, and the creature effects are impressive for a 90s made-for-tv effort. We can’t beat around the bush, The Beast runs on the old Jaws formula, but a fishing town as opposed to a beach town offers a specific charm. The cast of fishermen are incredibly believable – authentic old sea dogs. The love story in The Beast is nothing spectacular, though it’s at least an added realness beneath a fun horror plot. Best of all, the giant squid is a nice change of pace from hacky shark tales. A bit more mystical than the average killer shark. This is above average 90s monster amusement.
Beneath is a low-budget indie with absolutely loathsome characters and atrocious dialogue, but it’s floating by on a cool concept. If you’re familiar and or a fan of “The Raft” segment from Creepshow 2, Beneath is essentially a feature-length version of that short horror gold; thus worth your time if you like a simple, dark premise drawn out.
The plot’s as simple as can be: A group of horrible, angsty teens who recently graduated high school gather on a rowboat and coast out on a lake, but soon find themselves trapped by a man-eating fish in the water that’s circling their boat.
From there, the characters fight amongst themselves as they’re forced to choose crew members as distractions to escape this creature.
Beneath has its many deep flaws, though one actually becomes a positive. There’s nobody to root for. The leads are all equally detestable. So why not cheer on the killer fish? A flick throughout which you’re forced to root for the monster has its value.
On another sellable note, the creature is a rubbery prop. While that might be corny, it’s a breath of fresh air from the onslaught of CGI sea monsters us aquatic horror lovers have been forced to endure over the years. It’s not the most menacing creature, but it’s a fishy monster actually in the water.
The cast of unknowns, for the most part, stink like the lake water that holds their fates. Their interpersonal conflicts aren’t overly deep. However, indie director Larry Fessenden adds a hint of pure evil as the annoying characters turn on one another out of selfishness and survival.
Beneath doesn’t break a single bit of ground. It won’t wow you in any sense. This little chiller does have a great simplicity to it, though, and a darkness that cynics can rally around. And who doesn’t enjoy in-fighting amongst arrogant teens who are at risk of losing their lives to a killer fish?
Breaking Surface (2020)
This 2020 Swedish/Norwegian production from writer/director Joachim Heden was praised by critics but went mostly unnoticed by the general film going public. That’s a shame, as Breaking Surface blends fierce drama and tense survival thriller in depicting the real dangers of deep sea diving.
Two sisters diving off the remote coast of Northern Norway during winter fall into danger when a rockfall traps one of them on the ocean floor.
Breaking Surface provides enough background to muster some care in the viewer, making the sisterly relationship drama compelling, while the survival thriller aspects keep your heart pounding. The remote coast of Norway is stunning, and the underwater scenes have a gorgeous flare. Breaking Surface is both mesmerizing and gripping, though maybe a bit frustrating in the wrong way when it comes to the main character Ida’s stupid decision-making. Conversely, there’s a fitting feel of frustration in the “one mishap after another” thriller transgression that creates intensity. Breaking Surface isn’t doing much to rewrite the survival thriller, but it adds genuine drama and tells a compelling tale with hypnotic, artsy finesse.
The Beach House (2019)
The Beach House, a beachy body-horror slow burner and Shudder exclusive, released in 2020 and didn’t catch much attention beyond Shudder users and horror diehards. In premise and playout it isn’t revolutionary, but its memorable atmosphere is one of creeping dread, the few body horror moments are impressively disturbing, and the film’s overall weirdness can’t be ignored.
College sweethearts Emily (Liana Liberato) and Randall (Noah Le Gros) head to Randall’s family beach house for a quiet getaway, only to find some unexpected visitors. A strange couple, Mitch (Jake Weber) and Jane (Maryann Nagel) are there claiming to have rented the place. As if their presence isn’t odd enough, the coast is experiencing a mysterious fog rolling in, while an infection from the water is spreading throughout town.
Writer/director Jeffrey A. Brown’s The Beach House is consistently atmospheric, surreal, and strange. From the beginning, with our leading young couple’s arrival at a secluded beach home, accompanied by ocean sounds and minimal score, the audience can sense uncanniness afoot. The addition of socially off older couple Mitch and Jane adds a bizarre feel of discomfort, both for our heroes and us as viewers. Brown doesn’t pack in much violent action or artless gross out happenings, instead opting for empty personal interactions and old-school creeping feel. When the body horror bits do seep in, they’re chilling. The Beach House concludes rather anticlimactically, which is truthfully a letdown, but atmospheric horror heads have to appreciate the eerie coastal ride. Leading actress Liana Liberato as Emily is down-to-earth, expressive and honest. The same can’t be said of her boyfriend Randall, but it’s his absent-mindedness that helps us care for Emily. I can’t say audiences will rave about The Beach House, but 70’s horror fans, Cronenberg-lovers, and anyone who likes their scary movies slow and strange will take a liking.