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Bekah’s Top Underwater Horrors: The Deep Cuts

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Almost every culture known to man has some type of water monster-related folktale, and it makes total sense. Water covers 70.3% of the planet, and even the earliest cavemen surely had some anxiety about what could possibly be lurking beneath their rudimentary rafts. Loch Ness, Kappa, Kraken, and even Jaws—these stories and mythos endure simply because we still have no clue what could be living at the bottom of most lakes, let alone the deepest ocean trenches.

Our apprehension and fear of the unknown depths has, of course, been repeatedly echoed on film, over time becoming an often saturated and yet vibrant subgenre. One of the first swells of underwater horror films came in the early-to-mid 1950s, specifically 1954 which saw THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON, 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA, and several others. By the late 50s into the early 60s, atomic energy was an explosive topic, and the feared radiation leaked its way onto screen in countless stories of mutated creatures emerging from the depths. GODZILLA was by no means alone in his radioactive destruction. Everything from giants crabs to poorly constructed sea creatures via the hands of Roger Corman crawled out of the sea to terrorize land-dwellers.

The 70s saw a host of underwater terrors in the wake of the mother of all fish-related movies, JAWS. This 1975 horror classic not only sparked a surge in the killing of real sharks and a decline in beach attendance, it also scarred endless moviegoers. To this day, scads of the filmmakers report JAWS as being one of their favorite and most influential films. JAWS marked a massive surge in fishy horrors, most of them shark-based. And Universal did not take kindly to other shark films trying to ape off JAW’s unprecedented success. The studio even sued THE LAST SHARK (aka GREAT WHITE), after it had been playing in theatres for a week and garnered a decent profit. Not until earlier this year did THE LAST SHARK see DVD release in the form of on-demand disc from Amazon.

The 1980s were all about flexing some creature FX muscles and where better to do this than with underwater critters in everything from sequel JAWS 3-D to CREEPSHOW 2’s “The Raft” right up until 1989 with THE ABYSS and LEVIATHAN?

The 90s saw a few splatters of shark films and water monsters (DEEP BLUE SEA, DEEP RISING, LAKE PLACID), but the aforementioned Roger Corman lead the next boom in the 2000s with low-budget digital monsters like SHARKTOPUS and MEGA SHARK VS GIANT OCTOPUS.

Now, as Labor Day is soon upon us and folks will be flocking to beaches and lakes in droves to bask in sunlight once more before the summer retreats, let’s look upon my favorite underwater horrors (in chronological order) and think about all the gloriously scary things that could be lurking beneath you.

SHOCK WAVES (1977, Ken Wiederhorn)

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Underwater Nazi zombies and Peter Cushing. Hot damn, this film has everything! Though it had a poor reception during its initial release, it has since gained a large cult following and was treated to a sweet DVD release from Blue Underground in 2003.

PIRANHA (1978, Joe Dante)

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Who needs sharks when we have these pack-hunting razor-toothed little guys? Joe Dante directed the original PIRANHA under producer Roger Corman and with a cast that includes genre faves Dick Miller and Barbara Steele. Rumor has it Universal almost sued over this film as well, but ceased their effort after Spielberg professed his love for it.

LEVIATHAN (1989, George Cosmatos)

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Part of the underwater monster surge of 1989, LEVIATHAN stood out from the pack because of its inventive plot and stellar monster FX from Stan Winston, Tom Woodruff, Jr and Alec Gillis. Though some parts are notably silly, others are downright creepy.

DEEP RISING (1998, Stephen Sommers)

Many panned DEEP RISING, but I have an extreme love for this flick. Maybe it’s Treat Williams’ witty retorts to the offending creatures and his catch phrase “now what?” Maybe it is the over-the-top explosions or cg’ed monsters. Sadly DEEP RISING’s negative reception has meant it has never seen a good release, only a DVD and now poorly transferred Blu-ray combo release that partnered it with THE PUPPET MASTERS. Such a shame.

DBSListDEEP BLUE SEA (1999, Renny Harlin)

A scientist genetically engineers some super-duper smart sharks so she can cure Alzheimer’s. This one plays off the late 90s hot button topics of genetic modification and curing diseases through intelligent animals. You know what, forget the science part. Big giant sharks, Samuel L. Jackson, and LL Cool J has a parrot.

VIRUS (1999, John Bruno)

Overlooked, but it is a really cool water adventure with dynamite effects. A tugboat happens upon an abandoned vessel full of a Borg-like alien species that begin converting everyone all into deadly cyborgs. Jaime Lee Curtis has gone on record talking about how bad this movie is, but I love this water-laden robotic creature feature.

BLACK WATER (2007, David Nerlich and Andrew Traucki)

This Australian horror film leaves the ocean behind in lieu of the equally ominous mangrove seas on the north side of the continent. Based on a true story, a family goes on fishing trip in the desolate area only to encounter a huge salt water crocodile that capsizes their boat and then stalks them. This one was a toss-up with LAKE PLACID, but landed on BLACK WATER because the list needed some international love. (Pictured, up top)

BELOW (2002, David Twohy)

Darren Aronofsky joined David Twohy and Lucas Sussman to create this subtle and taut thriller about a WWII submarine riddled with the supernatural. This creepy flick packs a ghostly punch and also pokes at your claustrophobic nerve.

THE BAY (2012, Barry Levinson)

When Barry Levinson took on found footage horror, I was very skeptical of the outcome. THE BAY, however, has quickly become one of my favorite water-based horrors. A local chicken factory’s pollution causes Chesapeake Bay parasites to surge and begin attacking humans. This one will make your skin crawl! The parasites are based on real life creatures that eat the tongues out of fish. Just Google “Cymothoa exigua” and enjoy the squirm.

Runners-up:

I first saw JAWS 3-D on TV and there is till something so endearing about this move. Perhaps it is the scene where Jaws slowly… very slowly floats towards a plate glass window which smashes in awkward 3D. Or maybe its just Louis Gossett, Jr. Meanwhile, SHARK ATTACK 3: MEGALODON (2002, David Worth) contains two now-infamous scenesl; one of a shark slurping down a life-raft full of people. The other, one of the most amusing lines you will ever hear.

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About the author
Rebekah McKendry
Rebekah McKendry is the Director of Marketing for Fangoria Entertainment, and additionally she is a college professor teaching classes focused on film history and horror films. She is also an award-winning filmmaker. She has Bachelor's Degrees in Film and English, a MA in Media Education, a MFA in Film, and she is currently completing her PhD in Media Theory focused on horror and exploitation cinema. She is especially passionate about grindhouse films, video nasties, and rare or lost titles.
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