The greatest-ever films about killer animals

James Oliver

Here are the best killer animals, in horror films 

The Oscar ceremony isn't due until February next year but frankly, it could just as easily be held next week: the year's best film is on the horizons and swimming into cinemas soon: it's called The Meg and it has Jason Statham battling a giant shark. Either one of those ingredients makes it hard to resist but the combination promises to be a film—nay, a work of art—for the ages.

Probably.

The wait is obviously unendurable but here's something to help: a guide to some of the other films about very wild animals. No doubt pedantic zoologists will be infuriated at the loose definition of “animal”, so if it's accuracy you're after, go watch David Attenborough. If you want a right good laugh however...

 

The Birds

This wasn't the first film about unusually violent animals—King Kong (1933) had got there first. Hell, so had The Killer Shrews (1959). However, Alfred Hitchcock's film set the pace for all that followed.

Adapted from Daphne Du Maurier's short story, Hitch shifted events from Cornwall to Northern California but was no more forthcoming about what made our feathered friends go psycho. Was it the apocalypse? A response to pollution? Or just a bad batch of bird seed?

It contains some splendid set-pieces and inspired a memorable scene in Mel Brooks' High Anxiety...

 

Frogs

The 1970s was the golden age of the animal-against-man movie, usually pitched as retribution for what we were doing to the planet. Frogs is one of the best: even though the ecological overtones are somewhat heavy-handed, it's a carefully built film, set on the fourth of July as one plutocratic family finds themselves steadily overrun not just by frogs but by lizards, snakes, leeches and more. Be warned: many of the titular amphibians are actually played by toads! Let's hope the animal actors union kicked up a fuss.

 

Squirm

Another 1970s eco-horror, although this one goes easy on the Greenpeace stuff. It's probably just as well because it's about worms and while you can just about make an environmental fable about frogs, it's considerably harder with worms. Happily, the filmmakers know exactly what is required of them and deliver it in spades. The special effects were done by a young man called Rick Baker; he'd go on to Star Wars and An American Werewolf in London but his worms-burrowing-into-a-human-face gag remains one of the most effective things he ever did.

 

Night of the Lepus

Viewing the above—genuinely good—films might make you wonder why the killer animal movie has got such a reputation for unintentional comedy. But those, though, are outliers. Night of the Lepus is far more typical of the genre. It's not that it's not entertaining it's just... well, here's the thing: when it was being prepared, did no one think, Will anyone laugh if we make a film about killer bunny rabbits?

And not just regular-sized killer bunny rabbits either! They're GIANT killer bunny rabbits! Oh yes! All this might—just—have worked if they'd had really good special effects and a great director. But since they had neither, you can imagine the results.

 

The Uncanny

As everyone who's ever owned a cat will know, felines are convinced of their own superiority, so the idea that they might be working in concert to secretly control the world will not come as any surprise at all.

That's the premise of The Uncanny, an anthology film of three stories about manipulative moggies. To be fair, the film knows it's a bit silly and keeps its tongue in its cheek throughout, most especially in the best episode, an old Hollywood romp with Donald Pleasance as an ailurophobic film star.

(Incidentally, it's a shame these cats weren't available for Hitchcock's The Birds. They would have made short work of the avian assailants.)

 

Jaws: The Revenge

The original Jaws, of course, is one of the greatest films ever made, a brilliantly controlled masterpiece of terror and suspense. Jaws: The Revenge... is none of those things.

Judged on its own merits, though, there’s much to enjoy here, even if it's for the wrong reasons. There's the whole basic concept, for a start: are we really meant to believe that sharks can bear a grudge?

Then there's the execution, like the sequence where the shark attacks a seaplane (yes, really). Not to mention Michael Caine at his most mercenary (which is saying something). It's often described as a “guilty pleasure” but when a film offers as much pleasure as this, even unintentionally, there should be no guilt whatsoever.

 

Anaconda

Advanced publicity suggested that Anaconda might be Jaws (But With A Snake). As it is, it's actually Jaws: The Revenge (With A Snake And With Jon Voight Too).

Playing on a near-universal terror of snakes, Anaconda imagines serpents that can grow to humungous lengths. Voight plays the South American trapper determined to find them. Truly, it’s one of the most remarkable performances given by anyone, let alone an Academy Award-winning actor, played with a leer and a thick “South American” accent that makes Al Pacino in Scarface sound like King Juan Carlos of Spain. (“Five Whiskiesh? Da'sh BREKFASHT on de river.”)

There's a serious point here too: the eventual heroes are a Latina woman and a black man, diversity still rare in a Hollywood film. But no one noticed, because they were still marvelling at Voight.

 

Rogue

Surrounded as they are by fauna that can kill them in seconds, it's hardly to be wondered that our Australian friends have made such a vital contribution to Natural History Horror. Rogue is in the grand tradition of classics like Razorback (killer pig) and Long Weekend (killer everything), and it's arguably better than either.

Directed by Greg McClean, it's as carefully executed an exercise in terror as you’d expect from the director of Wolf Creek (a film devoid of actual wolves, funnily enough). The “rogue” in question is a big 'ol croc—you could make probably 50 pairs of boots out of him, easy, and still have enough left over for some handbags. But only if you caught him and killed him and that, frankly, will not be easy.