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: 20th Century Fox
How does a saltwater crocodile end up in a lake in Maine? That's the question plaguing everyone from a New York paleontologist to a local sheriff to a "rich kook anthropology professor" in this jokey horror flick from the creator of hit TV shows like Ally McBeal and Doogie Howser, M.D.
The Animal: A particularly large saltwater crocodile. (Spoilers: Actually two of them.)
What Sets It Off: Having found its way into a lake in Maine, it simply does what crocodiles do and eats whatever it can get its teeth into, eventually including some people.
Why It's Underrated: As you might expect, with a script from someone known for sitcoms, everyone is hilarious in this charming monster movie, which features a cast that includes Bill Pullman, Bridget Fonda, Oliver Platt, and Brendan Gleeson. The breakout star, however, is a foul-mouthed Betty White, whose appearance here played a big role in her reemergence into the modern pop-culture zeitgeist, even if the flick didn't perform that well at the box office.31525Underrated?
- Photo: Paramount Pictures
Based (loosely) on a true story, this historical thriller sees a pair of big game hunters (played by Val Kilmer and Michael Douglas) going up against a duo of man-eating lions who are preying on the construction crew of a bridge in Africa in 1898.
The Animals: A brace of lions whom the locals dub "the Ghost" and "the Darkness" because of how they hunt.
What Sets Them Off: "My particular feeling is that they were evil," screenwriter William Goldman said, describing the real-life events that inspired the film, when man-eating lions menaced a construction crew building a bridge in what is now modern-day Kenya.
Why It's Underrated: With a screenplay by Academy Award-winner Goldman (The Princess Bride), a star-studded cast, and the director of Predator 2 and A Nightmare on Elm Street 5 at the helm, The Ghost and the Darkness also had a relatively high budget, as these kinds of films go. Plus, it's the rare animal attack period piece.22237Underrated?
- 3Photo: Warner Bros.
Adapted from the Stephen King novel of the same name and directed by Lewis Teague, who also helmed Alligator, there's a reason why Cujo is the Jaws of "dog attack" movies.
The Animal: The eponymous Cujo is a large and friendly Saint Bernard... until he chases a rabbit into a hole in the ground.
What Sets It Off: Sticking his head into a hole in search of a rabbit, Cujo is bitten by a rabid bat, developing rabies himself and going on to attack a variety of people, ultimately cornering a mother (Dee Wallace) and her son in a hot car.
Why It's Underrated: There's a reason we still call any big, scary dog "Cujo" to this day, but the movie was initially panned by a lot of critics, including Roger Ebert, who called it "dreadful."18048Underrated?
- Photo: Columbia Pictures
There are countless movies about menacing sharks, from Jaws and its many imitators all the way up through the present day. A recent standout was this nail-biter about an injured surfer (played by Blake Lively) trapped on a shrinking rock by a hungry great white.
The Animal: In classic shark movie fashion, the villain here is a great white, circling between a nearby whale carcass and the rock where Nancy, our protagonist, has taken refuge.
What Sets It Off: Does a shark ever need a reason in one of these movies?
Why It's Underrated: How do you make a film claustrophobic when it's set on a gorgeous, open beach? Just add a shark. That's what direct Jaume Collett-Serra does here, keeping the tension cranking as the shark traps a wounded Nancy on the rock before allowing the film to explode into a day-glo phantasmagoria in its final confrontation. Also, there's a seagull in this movie named... Steven Seagull.16141Underrated?