It’s Shark Week, and we celebrate this staple of summer by diving into ten of the most memorable aquatic terrors in horror history.
Ah, summer! Nothing like beating the sweltering heat at the local swimming pool or beach, am I right? For years, horror fans have been groomed to harbor a healthy skepticism of standing bodies of water, as the genre has worked tirelessly to warn us about all sorts of terrifying creatures wading about in the shadowy depths.
Over the course of the genre’s history, there have been gill men, radioactive fish beasts, super-powered Nazi mutants, great white sharks, bloodthirsty piranha and countless more abominations ready to gnaw at your anxiety and your toes.
In celebration of the summer months, I’ve compiled a list of the weird, wild, scary, and campy aquatic horror efforts that have left casual audiences, midnight movie gurus, and horror aficionados landlocked for life.
Some of these beasts may be terrifyingly gross and some may be unintentionally hilarious, but all are sure to put some sizzle in your summer. Just make sure you don’t swim with these critters on a full stomach!
1. The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954)
You can’t have a list of essential aquatic horror films without kicking off with the poster child for aquatic boogeymen.
Universal Studios’ iconic 1954 classic The Creature from the Black Lagoon may not have been the first monster movie centered around a body of water, but it’s easily one of the finest from the creature feature heyday. One of the crown jewels of Universal’s legendary monster line, The Creature from the Black Lagoon found Universal ditching the gothic castles and misty graveyards of Dracula and Frankenstein for a hot and humid exotic excursion into the Black Lagoon inhabited by a true marvel for the Atomic Age.
Chock-full of immaculate underwater cinematography from William E. Snyder that’s made even more impressive through Ricou Browning’s inquisitive turn as the lurking Gill Man, Creature is a rollicking – and dare I say freakishly romantic — trek into the unknown that continues to nab the imagination of horror fans to this day.
I can only imagine how glorious this was back when it hit screens in 3D!
2. Attack of the Crab Monsters (1957)
In the late 1950s, Roger Corman began positioning himself as the B-movie kingpin by churning out a number of slapdash sci-fi flicks that rode the atomic wave of irradiated paranoia that was sweeping its way through the good old U.S. of A.
Among his earlier directorial efforts was 1957’s Attack of the Crab Monsters, a zippy little Pacific-set chiller with what could be the snappiest B-movie title of the decade. Like most of Corman’s work, Attack of the Crab Monsters is shamelessly streamlined for the double bill. And, boy, does it not disappoint.
Following a group of scientists who come face-to-face with a pair of massive crustaceans who not only murder their victims but also absorb their minds and communicate telepathically, this surprisingly spooky (if scattershot) little number will creep up on you with some unsettling set pieces and more gore than you would expect for a picture like this.
And then there are our mutated menaces, a hilariously cartoonish duo brought to life through papier mache and exposed wires, who snip heads and hands off with total abandon.
As far as early Corman goes, this exotic escapade somehow stays afloat even if it threatens to sink right before our very eyes, and astonishingly emerges as one of the most fascinating guilty pleasures of its time.
3. The Monster of Piedras Blancas (1959)
Heavily inspired by Universal’s The Creature from the Black Lagoon and its sequels, 1959’s The Monster of Piedras Blancas is way better than it had any right to be for such an obvious rip-off of a classic.
Directed by Irvin Berwick and produced by Jack Kevan, two former Universal-International employees who jumped ship and started their own production company, The Monster of Piedras Blancas is a lushly shot cheapie of a monster movie. But I’ll be damned if it doesn’t maintain an impressive level of quality that eluded many of the B-movies of the day.
While the creature design may not exactly send the shivers it was hoping to, this copycat is able to stand on its two webbed feet through a skilled cast that keeps you engrossed, and a startling level of gore that had largely been unseen in these types of movies up until this point.
If you find that you’ve worn your copy of Creature out, take a chilly coastal dip with The Monster of Piedras Blancas. It’s a bloody good unsung gem!
4. The Horror of Party Beach (1964)
It has been rumored that Stephen King supposedly has an affection for it, and it boasted to be the first monster movie musical at the time of its release. How can you not adore the absurdly goofy teenage fodder that is The Horror of Party Beach?!
Directed by exploitation regular Del Tinney in an effort to fill drive-in screens, this summery romp shimmied and shook its way under the night sky to a soundtrack by the Del-Aires, an up-and-coming rock group of the era. Far from scary but never short on entertainment value (mostly at its own expense), The Horror of Party Beach earns a spot here with its oddly pleasing meshing of the immensely popular beach party genre, the youth-in-revolt jaunts, and the never-ending string of monster movies dominating drive-in marquees.
And you can’t ignore those visually striking atomic zom-beasts that hilariously waddle after their prey with bulging ping-pong eyes and crooked teeth that protrude out of their mouths like links of sausage.
I promise you, grab a bunch of friends, whip up some strong tiki cocktails, and screen The Horror of Party Beach under the stars on a warm summer night. You’ll thank me later.
5. Jaws (1975)
Here we have another obvious choice of H20-infused mayhem that almost certainly has left legions with lingering anxiety about wading out into the great blue unknown.
Steven Spielberg’s classic 1975 thriller found the heavyweight director cutting his teeth on blockbuster territory while delivering a horror movie that continues to nibble at our nerves like Bruce the shark chomping away at that poor skinny dipper in the iconic opening sequence.
There’s almost no aspect of Jaws that hasn’t managed to get swept up in the pop culture current, and its relevance has continued to reverberate through a durably complex human struggle that has reflected our pandemic-plagued times.
Jaws remains a watermark for horror and mass consumption filmmaking – an immortal slice of maritime mayhem that continues to act as a gateway to those craving a good nautical scare.
If you’ve never taken the plunge off the docks of Amity, now’s as good a time as any!
6. Shock Waves (1977)
As the years creep by, I’m noticing an increasing affection growing for Ken Weiderhorn’s terrifying 1977 effort, Shock Waves.
Telling the tale of a group of tourists who stumble upon a mysterious island flanked by a rusted-out ghost ship after an otherworldly, eclipse-like event, Shock Waves is a hallucinatory nightmare that almost feels like a fever dream you can’t wake up from. And this is before the group is besieged by a pack of superpowered Nazis that emerge from the surrounding waters looking to dispatch the unwelcome visitors.
Set to a haunting score that will have every hair you have standing at attention, this tropical shocker quickly lets you know it means business, and it does so through heaping doses of restraint. It also helps that it’s led by an impressive cast that brandishes a few horror heavyweights among its credits (John Carradine! Peter Cushing!).
Shock Waves is a personal aquatic horror favorite of mine, one that I promise will send you reeling away from any crashing beach or tropical island for years to come.
This is one seriously freaky and singular movie that leaves you feeling like you were cooking in the summer sun for far too long.
7. Piranha (1978)
In the wake of Jaws’ tremendously successful theater run, B-movie kingpin Roger Corman quickly moved to capitalize on the public’s frenzied interest in Spielberg’s great white phenomena. In 1978, he delivered director Joe Dante’s Piranha, a moody little concoction of laughs and terror that acts as a lovingly modest little send-up of Jaws’ nature-run-amok shenanigans.
Given that this is a product of Corman and New World Pictures, rest assured that the midnight movie crowd will have much to splash about, as there is plenty of gratuitous nudity and gore sprinkled throughout this fishy delight.
But Dante and Corman smartly understand that part of the appeal of Jaws was its core trio of characters, which is mirrored here with the unlikely pairing of a drunken woodsman and highly-motivated skip tracer who join forces to uncover some strange disappearances. Of course, it’s military-grade piranha that are the culprits, who are shown in jittery close-ups which mask the lo-fi special effects Corman was notorious for.
Who cares, though, right?
Piranha is an endlessly entertaining cannonball of a movie, one that jumps straight at you with a goofy smile on its face and a desire to spray fake blood all over anyone within the splash zone.
8. Humanoids from the Deep (1980)
The third film from legendary director/producer Roger Corman and his New World Pictures making the list, 1980’s incredibly seedy Humanoids from the Deep serves up everything an exploitation fan could possibly crave in a monster movie.
Surging with copious amounts of blood, entrails, and monster sex, director Barbara Peeters crafts an atmospheric little chiller about a small fishing town anxiously awaiting the arrival of a cannery, who proceeds to inadvertently unleash an army of horny sea creatures on a mission to murder, maim and mate!
In true Corman fashion, certain aspects of Humanoids from the Deep do appear rickety, but it wields an unexpectedly apocalyptic atmosphere, particular in its exhaustingly excessive grand finale that finds the film wearing its grungy grindhouse slime on its fins.
Despite its greasier qualities, Humanoids does muster some captivating human drama in the form of the down-on-their-luck fisherman who welcomes the cannery and the resident Native American who objects to the operation moving to town.
This is perhaps one of the most extreme movies on the list, one that finds Corman on a mission to offend and disturb to the point that many will walk away clutching their gut.
9. The Host (2006)
Long before he won an Oscar for Parasite, South Korean director Bong Joon-ho delivered a slippery little horror comedy by the name of The Host.
Heavily celebrated upon its 2006 release and continuing to amass a following as I write this, The Host brims with a fondness for the B-movies of yesteryear, the ones that birthed mutated monstrosities from carelessly handled toxic sludge and unleashed them on a paranoid post-War world shuddering at what strange new specimens would emerge from the shadows of the bomb.
Unleashing its horrors in a casual, matter-of-fact manner (our first glimpse of the monster attacking sneaks right up on you in the best way), The Host finds Joon-ho skidding from laughs to scares to political commentary with almost balletic grace, to the point where he makes it all look too frustratingly easy.
It helps that the film’s heart and soul are found in the hilarious family drama, which further rewards your investment in this charismatic little horror show.
Dripping in shocks and surprises, The Host is a new-age classic that deserves to be talked about for years to come. It’s got the stakes, it has the screams, and – most importantly – it has the humanity.
10. Crawl (2019)
In 2019, director Alexandre Aja teamed with Sam Raimi on Aja’s second aquatic horror outing – the first being a madcap remake of Joe Dante’s Piranha.
Crawl is a supremely clever creature feature that assaults the viewer, not only with swarms of ravenous alligators but also a howling Category 5 hurricane that bears down on the viewer like a screaming demon.
At a tight runtime of just under ninety minutes, Aja and Raimi aim their focus squarely at delivering a roller-coaster ride of a horror movie that never surrenders its engrossing human core of a highly-encouraging father and an overachieving daughter amending their swampy relationship. It’s lean and mean, a just-the-basics exercise sure to leave anyone suffering from claustrophobia to be clutching for a paper bag and speed-dialing their therapist for the next available session.
Crawl is a fearsome modern marvel that calls back to the heyday of character-driven spook shows with strong affection, one flooded with plausible real-world scares that will leave viewers putting as much distance as possible between them and the entire state of Florida.