Ah, what better time of year; the weather's warming, the beaches are teeming, the bikinis are strapping up...yup, it must be summer. As such, and given the fact I happened to catch the underrated 1977 Peter Yates film THE DEEP on TV the other day, I thought why not spotlight some of the most effective aqua-horror flicks. Perhaps a tad ambitious, especially given how expansive the subgenre is, but we're not limiting ourselves to just the ocean. Oh hell no. We're talking lakes, rivers, pools, ponds, lagoons...basically any body of water that's fraught with a malefic force. Sharks, fish, monsters, crocs, aliens...nothing's off limits in this bitch. So crack a brew, slather on the sunscreen, get out the folding chair...it's time to have a little fun with some of the most memorable aqua-horror flicks!
WARNING: MINOR TO MAJOR SPOILERS BELOW!
#10. LEVIATHAN - George P. Cosmatos (1989)
I know I could have easily awarded a better film in the ten hole, but there's something far too irresistible about the unabashed 80s b-movie that is LEVIATHAN. Damn I love watching this flick. Sure it's an obvious nod to ALIEN, set underwater, but what's not to love about Peter Weller, Daniel Stern, Richard Crenna, Ernie Hudson and Hec Elizondo fighting to survive an aqua-mutant onslaught? For those who missed this derivative cheese-factory, the story follows a crew of deep sea miners tasked with retrieving cargo found on a Soviet shipwreck. As you might guess, they discover something far more sinister. A rapacious alien monster that systematically fells each crew member, one by one. Mad props to the late great, 3-time Oscar winning Stan Winston, whose makeup and F/X work on LEVIATHAN is far better than anything else in the film. Truly.
#9. ROGUE - Greg Mclean (2007)
After garnering acclaim with his superb 2005 film WOLF CREEK, Aussie writer/director Greg Mclean followed up with the solid killer-croc film ROGUE. I'll be honest, it was a tossup between this and ALLIGATOR (1980) for reptilian supremacy, but in the end, I think ROGUE is simply a better flick. Shot in the gorgeous Australian outback, there are a couple of things that made the flick work so well for me. First, like Spielberg was forced to do with JAWS, Mclean doesn't overexpose the actual crocodile in the film. We only see the creature sparingly, which adds to the suspense and terrifying mystery of what the beast is capable of. He also uses real crocs early on in the film to let us soak in the visual, so by the time he finally does unleash the CG croc, we hardly spot and/or hang on to the artifice. Secondly, I loved how Mclean kills off one of the main characters in the film, a character you thought all along was the protagonist. It's the Marion Crane effect, a bold move I always marvel at.
#8. DEEP RISING - Stephen Sommers (1998)
Just when I thought it was impossible to surpass the jaw-dropping absurdity of LEVIATHAN, here comes Stephen Sommers' DEEP RISING to prove me wrong. Wow. Just the sheer premise is enough to make me giggle like a preteen Twi-hard. Imagine you were part of a heavily armed hijacking squad dispatched to ransack a luxury ocean liner of its jewels, only to be unceremoniously welcomed by a gaggle of giant man-eating squid creatures? F*CK THAT! Really though, what rocks so hard about DEEP RISING is the full-blown action sequences punctuated by R-rated violence. Additionally, the pacing is brisk, the creatures are gnarly to look at (thanks to Rob Bottin and his F/X team), and the tone is never too serious. I also dig how's there's a lack of discernible heroes or heroines in the film. Since we're never really obligated to root for anyone (Famke aside), part of the fun becomes anticipating when and how the next creature is gonna strike.
#7. BELOW - David Twohy (2002)
Co-written by Darren Aronofsky, David Twohy's 2002 film BELOW is a dizzying spin on the haunted ship paradigm. Here, it's a WWII U-boat that's taken hold by a deeply troubling ethereal spirit. Thing is, the crewmembers are never really privy of what's going on...as they are intrinsically linked to this alternate plane of existence. Actually, the first half of the film pretty much plays like a creature-feature, all signs of the vexing point toward some kind of external menace. But as the mystery slowly unravels, a far more chilling truth is revealed. As is the case with most submarine pictures, the claustrophobia is palpable in BELOW, so much so that the cabin fever element begins to wear on us the viewer as much as it does on the characters in the film. There's literally no escape. Good performances from Bruce Greenwood, Matthew Davis, Olivia Williams, Zach Galifianakis and Jason Flemying elevate BELOW to being something greater than its genre material would normally allow for.
#6. CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON - Jack Arnold - (1954)
Embroiled in the wave of cheap 50s monster movies was Jack Arnold's CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON, which has gone on to inspire countless imitations and unsuccessful retreads. But here's the forerunner. In fact, Steven Spielberg has openly attributed many aspects of Arnold's film to the success of JAWS. The underwater POV shots, the suspense of keeping the creature largely unseen, the similar music, etc. Taking it further, both JAWS and CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON were both Universal productions, and in 1983, the studio opted to make JAWS 3-D over a planned BLACK LAGOON remake. The two films seem inextricably linked. Come to think of it, another high list entry on this here Top Ten owes a great deal to BLACK LAGOON, but I'll let you figure that one out tomorrow (when part 2 goes up). Originally produced in 3-D, Jean Renoir served as script doctor on the film. Not trivial enough? Ingmar Bergman used to watch this film every year on his birthday.
#5. PIRANHA/PIRANHA 3D - Joe Dante/Alexandre Aja (1978, 2010)
Since you can't have one without the other, why not cast a little love to both Joe Dante's and Alexandre Aja's paean to unadulterated trash? Dante's 1978 film, far tamer than Aja's, is on the surface a cheap JAWS knockoff. However, with John Sayles at the keys and a veteran cast that includes Kevin McCarthy and Dick Miller, Spielberg dug the film so much he personally had Universal drop a lawsuit over the film being a JAWS spoof. The flick also employs the stylings of a rookie Rob Bottin and his F/X team. Of course, Aja takes the model to extremes in his over the top 2010 grue-gala. With the makeup work of Howard Berger and the KNB squad, Aja's profligate marriage of camp and kitsch with laughably exorbitant violence is a lot of fun to behold. Then of course there's Kelly Brooke and Riley Steele flaunting more skin than Buffalo Bill, a more welcome sight there's never been in a horror film. Here's hoping John Gulager can keep the sleaze-filled tradition alive when PIRANHA 3DD (yes Double D) feasts this Thanksgiving!
#4. HUMANOIDS FROM THE DEEP - Barbara Peeters & Jimmy T. Murakami (1980)
Vic Morrow in a putrid Jew-fro? Come on now, how could we go wrong? We can't, which is one of the reasons I love HUMANOIDS FROM THE DEEP so damn much! The pure foulness, the oily perversion, the unrepentant sleaze...every morsel of depravity is on display in this 1980 monster movie classic. Forever indebted to CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON, Barbara Peters and Jimmy T. Murakami's film sees a small fishing village ravaged by a school of horny and murderous man-fish mutants. They kill the men, rape the woman...and do so in the most disgusting and violent ways imaginable. In fact, when Barbara Peters refused to go back and shoot more salacious scenes of women having their clothes ripped off and raped, Roger Corman fired her ass and replaced her with Murakami. For anyone who's seen the film, Murakami did not fail to give Corman what he wanted. A smart man...and a hell of a flick!
#3. THE HOST - Joon-ho Bong (2006)
Although Joon-ho Bong's 2006 creature feature THE HOST (GWOEMUL) has more of an overt humorous bent than most on our list, the overall execution of the film is done too well to keep out of our top three. Now I'm generally a proponent of practical effects over computer generated ones, but the way Orphanage Inc. was able to skillfully render a believable monster is quite admirable. Funnily enough, Bong and his creature designer referred to the monster as Steve Buscemi while on set...largely in reference to the way the gangly actor performed in the Coen Brothers' FARGO. Odd, I know. Still, it's the environmentally conscious metaphor and unbridled brio of the film that makes it hold up so well. Interestingly, the opening explanation of the film...about a U.S. military civilian dumping tainted formaldehyde into the Han River, really happened in Seoul, South Korea. I guess it also serves as a treatise on American foreign policy...anytime the U.S. wants to bury it's garbage under foreign soil, a deadly monster is born.
#2. THE ABYSS - James Cameron (1989)
Before Jimmy Cameron was shattering box-office records and proclaiming himself King of the World, the dude was cutting his teeth on more personal spectacle-driven blockbusters. One such flick is his 1989 effort THE ABYSS, which boasts a motif often found in Cameron's body of work: the ocean. Here though, Cameron seems just as interested in the mutual symbiosis of human and alien life, not just disharmony. What I like about the film, despite it being PG-13 and shot in a 7 million gallon tank instead of the ocean, is how believable the movie is. Props to Ed Harris, Michael Biehn and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio for doing virtually all of their own underwater stunts, in addition to giving such effective performances. Throw in the one and only collaboration between Cameron and composer Alan Silvestri, the forerunning CGI and the Oscar nominated cinematography by Mikael Salomon, THE ABYSS holds up pretty damn well over decades later.
#1. JAWS - Steven Spielberg (1975)
I suppose it's a tribute to the films overall splendor, but I'm seriously starting to question why it seems like every other Ten Spot we do is top-lined by JAWS? Not that I'm complaining, and not it's not like you didn't expect to see Spielberg's 1975 masterwork among the best aqua-horror flicks. Right? But instead of retreading all the virtues of the first real cinematic blockbuster, let's note how it's still dictating what kinds of genre films are being made 35 years later. In the next year alone, at least four major killer-shark movies will be washing ashore. There David Ellis' SHARK NIGHT 3D, Kimble Rendall's BAIT 3D, John Stockwell's DARK TIDE and Andrew Traucki's THE REEF...all of which owe a huge debt of gratitude for the bar that Spielberg set back in the day. My favorite story about JAWS has to do with the famous speech Quint (Robert Shaw) gives onboard the Orca. Apparently, ever the real life sot, Shaw was so drunk when he showed up on set that Spielberg couldn't use a single line he laid down. Shaw sobered up, returned the next morning, and the speech you see in the film was achieved in the first take. For all his demons, Shaw was a terrific actor. Be sure to check him out in THE DEEP.