Explainer: The best worst animal attack movies ever
You’ve seen “Jaws.” You’ve seen “The Birds.” Maybe you’ve even seen “Them!” if you’re old enough. They don’t make them like that anymore. (At least not for theatrical release—the SyFy Channel’s recent wave of tv movies starring mansquitoes, megasharks and giant octopi instigating safe, bloodless mayhem are a whole other family-friendly thing.)
That’s why the upcoming fish-sploitation/awesome summer junk movie “Piranha 3D” is so unusual; because they really don’t make killer animal movies in the same quantity these days. Our nature-in-revolt films have shifted from the subtext entertainment of angry creatures exacting revenge to full, on-the-nose text like “2012.” In these new movies, nature isn’t just annoyed and wanting some payback, it’s just going to commit suicide and take us all with it. Now that Greenland is melting and dropping into the ocean, Hollywood understands that it takes more to scare us.
But in their heyday (mostly the 1970s) attacking animals offered the tin-standard in schlocky fun. Here are some of the greatest/awfulest.
The terrifically inverted “Jaws”-style poster for this one warned: “18 feet of gut-crunching, man-eating terror” and featured the giant bear descending on a lone campfire-tending Goldilocks. With no mechanical grizzlies around and no actual trained 18-footers to be wrangled, the creative team substitutes footage of roaring bears and close-ups of enormous paws liberating dumb humans from the oppression of having limbs. This thing is impervious to bullets and can eat a helicopter, which poses the question: “How do you kill Jaws if it’s got legs and is in the woods?” That answer: “Make it explode with a rocket launcher.”
'Mako: Jaws of Death,' 1976
Also known, simply, as “The Jaws of Death,” it’s about a man who can talk to sharks via psychic communication (“a blood brother in a mysterious shark cult” intones a CBS late movie TV spot for the film — thanks, YouTube) which kind of makes him the Dr. Doolittle of getting sharks to eat people he doesn’t like. Fortunately for the viewer, he doesn’t like a whole lot of people. Unfortunately for the viewer, they forget to make a lot of blood happen so mostly all you ever see is a lot of underwater footage of sharks swimming around. But major points for weirdness.
When stowing away in a locked-up building for your role-playing game, you should always first check to see if there are any rage-fueled baboons running around loose inside. Because if you don’t then you’re all going to die one by one, throats ripped out and… well, actually that’s the only way you’re all going to die, without much variation. Baboons can pretty much do that one thing; they’re not that smart. Meanwhile the smartest thing about this straight-to-something-besides-theaters project is its inclusion of Roddy McDowall, who was also in all the “Planet of The Apes” projects. He was just glad he didn’t have to sit in a makeup chair the first six hours of every shooting day.
'Night of the Lepus,' 1972
Giant killer rabbits. Not making that up. Giant killer rabbits. A by-product of science gone wrong — futuristically enough, in a large-scale sexual orientation-switching experiment meant to stop their constant breeding and turn them gay — they hop around and gnaw angrily at everything that crosses their bunny trail. One problem: giant rabbits are still adorable and are incapable of inspiring fear. The poster tagline of “How many eyes does horror have? How many times will terror strike?” should more realistically have read “How many carrots will terror eat? How fluffy is impending death?” Another jewel in its bizarro-crown: it starred Janet Leigh.
'The Uncanny,' 1977
A British entry, which means its stupidity is classed up with all those accents, but it’s still about murderous, hissing cats. And not even giant ones. Just regular old cats. (best trailer line: “Where will they pounce?”) It features a cast of people like Peter Cushing, Samantha Eggar, Ray Milland and Donald Pleasence and a three-part narrative about feline evil, which everyone knows is true already. Too goofy to ignore, too bloodless to be fully fearsome, it will make you wish it were called “Fancy Blood Feast” and really meant it.
'Empire of the Ants,' 1977
It turns out that the giant ants from “Them!” didn’t need to get so big to take over. They just needed to grow to the size of cars, subdue Joan Collins and then the rest of the population would have fallen like dominoes. Weirdly enough, the line “I, for one, welcome our new insect overlords,” the one many folks think is in this movie, is actually just a quote from “The Simpsons.”
'Food of the Gods,' 1976
Just like “Empire of the Ants,” this one was based on an H.G. Wells book and happily treads the same trail of bloated animals. Now, it’s a question of taste as to whether you’ll be happier seeing Joan Collins battling big ants or 70s odd-lebrity Marjoe Gortner pitchforking enormous chickens and vintage Hollywood screen legend Ida Lupino hacking away at mega-rats. “Food” definitely had the screamier ad campaign (“For a taste of Hell!”) and that really worked in its favor. But you probably won’t be able to pick just one, so go ahead and watch both.
Sometimes bigger isn’t better. A giant insect is terrifying, of course, but it takes you into the realm of the fantastic where only Joan Collins actually lives. Wouldn’t it be more truly horrifying if plain old everyday bugs simply overran the planet and crawled all over you and burrowed into your ears and stuff? Yes, it would. And that’s what happens here thanks to an earthquake that splits open the ground, unleashing a million nasty cockroach-like exoskeletons. Written by William Castle, so you know it’s amazing.
Someone called John Huston, Shelley Winters and Henry Fonda on the phone one day in 1975 and said, “Hey, wanna go to Italy for a little vacation and get paid for it?” So they all did that, walked in front of a few cameras while they were there and let the Italian film crew add in some shots of a really big calamari pretending to attack chicks in bikinis. Everybody partied like the movie stars they were that summer and figured it would never see the light of day in American theaters. But then, oops, it did. Lucky us.
“What about the [expletive] piranha?” shouts the boss.
Underling response: “They’re eating the guests, Sir.”
It wouldn’t be an article inspired by “Piranha 3D” without at least mentioning the 1978 film of almost-the-same-name, now would it? And this one was actually kind of witty since it was directed by Joe Dante and co-written by John Sayles. The former would go on to make the hugely successful “Gremlins” (and, not coincidentally, the nostalgic comedy “Matinee,” which featured the film-within-a-film, “Mant!” billed as ‘half-man, half-ant, all terror!’) and the latter to make a lot of earnest, critically acclaimed indie films. Look, whatever it takes to get there, right?
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Discuss: You know you've seen at least one. Talk about your favorite guilty pleasure animal-attack movies.
Killer grizzlies and piranha, sure, but terrifying ants, bunnies and cats?
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