Jaws changed movies in a lot of ways, but even before we knew we were going to need a bigger boat, there were already plenty of flicks about killer animals, with lots more to follow on the heels of that film's success. From creepy crawlies like bugs or the spiders of Arachnophobia to more obvious threats like crocodiles, alligators, big cats, and, of course, sharks, there have been scads of movies about nature run amok. Sometimes these films make the mistake of taking cute critters and trying to make them scary, as in Night of the Lepus or Strays, but often you have some pretty effective (or just plain weird) chillers about what happens when animals attack.
Here are a few that you may not have seen, or that deserve a second look. This batch excludes movies about giant animals - from the giant bugs of the 1950s to big apes like King Kong - as well as any movie where the animal is of supernatural origin (Cat People) or otherwise deviates too far from its natural size or shape. Also not included are movies in which a villain merely uses animals to carry out their dastardly plans, such as Willard, Black Zoo, and Murders in the Zoo.
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- Photo: Buena Vista Pictures
The directorial debut of acclaimed producer Frank Marshall, Arachnophobia helped capitalize on one of the smallest animals that most people are scared of anyway, and is one of the few movies around about killer spiders that doesn't just go ahead and make the spiders huge.
The Animals: A (thankfully fictional) genus of extremely poisonous Venezuelan spiders that get loose in a small California town.
What Sets Them Off: They're simply transplanted from their native ecosystem, and start to establish themselves in their new hunting grounds as the dominant predators.
Why It's Underrated: With Steven Spielberg on board as an executive producer, Arachnophobia takes an Amblin Entertainment-style approach to scary spider movies, with Marshall describing his intent as, "People like to be scared but laughing, like a roller coaster. No one wants to be terrified." Not that plenty of arachnophobes weren't still terrified by the flick, which uses over 300 real spiders, often guided around by heat and cold, and sometimes actually placed on tiny leashes! Who doesn't want to watch that? (Besides people who are already scared of spiders.)17050Underrated?
- Photo: Paramount Pictures
From director Alexandre Aja (High Tension), Crawl's story of a swimmer and her dad who are trapped in a flooding house during a hurricane and menaced by alligators made waves (so to speak) thanks to its claustrophobic setting and an intense central turn by Kaya Scodelario.
The Animals: A bunch of alligators.
What Sets Them Off: A hurricane floods a neighborhood in Florida, dumping a bunch of alligators into the crawlspaces beneath a house, where they eat what they can get, which happens to be our protagonists.
Why It's Underrated: Crawl did well for itself in theaters, but then COVID came along the following year and a lot of people may have forgotten the nail-biting thrills of this claustrophobic and bombastic home invasion flick - where the home invaders are massive gators.12440Underrated?
- Photo: Open Road Films
After surviving a plane crash, Liam Neeson and a bunch of other people who aren't Liam Neeson find themselves menaced by a pack of wolves.
The Animals: A wolf pack.
What Sets Them Off: The plane crash happens to land the survivors right in the middle of the wolves' territory. On a more thematic level, though, Neeson plays a marksman who has been making his living picking off wolves that threaten oil drillers in Alaska, so maybe turnabout is fair play after all.
Why It's Underrated: Liam Neeson tapes broken mini liquor bottles to his knuckles to make himself into a bargain-basement Wolverine and then fights a wolf. Do we need to draw you a diagram?11837Underrated?
- Photo: New World Pictures
Of all the many, many, many knock-offs of Jaws that came out in the 1970s, the best might just be this early film from director Joe Dante, which mixes humor with grue in a way that would be recycled in countless other movies (including a couple of remakes and a sequel directed by none other than James Cameron).
The Animals: Genetically engineered piranhas designed as a weapon for use in Vietnam.
What Sets Them Off: The piranhas have been genetically engineered to be even more deadly than regular piranhas, which, given how deadly movies wanted us to think regular piranhas already were, is a lot. So all that's required to "set them off" is an opportunity, which they get when a determined skiptracer inadvertently releases them into the river.
Why It's Underrated: There's so much to love in Dante's goofy movie that is equal parts Jaws homage and, in true Dante fashion, a satirical jab at the military-industrial complex. Our protagonists (played by Heather Menzies and Bradford Dillman) are absolutely delightful; there are guest appearances by the likes of Kevin McCarthy, Dick Miller, Barbara Steele, and Paul Bartel; the score is by Pino Donaggio; and there's even a totally unnecessary stop-motion fish monster reminiscent of Ray Harryhausen's Ymir from 20 Million Miles to Earth!7825Underrated?