Now in cinemas, Crawl explores standard everyday activities – such as battling alligators during a hurricane. To mark the film’s release, Sarah Ward gorges on creature features: the best, the worst and the completely feral.
Just when cinemagoers thought it was safe to grapple with nature, along slithers Crawl to take a bite out of the big screen. The latest creature feature from Piranha 3D’s Alexandre Aja, the Florida-set thriller strands competitive swimmer Haley Keller (Kaya Scodelario) and her father Dave (Barry Pepper) in their old family home during a ferocious hurricane – and, thanks to surrounding swampland and rising floodwaters, they have alligators for company.
Only complicating its straightforward premise with routine father-daughter dramas, Crawl keeps its focus on tension and anxiety. Aja doesn’t shy away from the questionable character decisions and convenient convergence of unfortunate events that have become horror movie clichés, or from overt CGI, but he also knows how to wring palpable anxiety out of a fear-inducing situation.
It’s a formula that filmmakers have been splashing around for decades. When it works, it thrills.
Crawl has ample company in its genre, with many a movie unleashing many a critter to terrify humanity. Some have changed the shape of cinema. Some would’ve been better off scampering into obscurity. Some are so bizarre that they defy categorisation.
Here are the best and worst.
Almost nine decades after it first rampaged across the screen, King Kong’s account of nature run amok couldn’t be more potent or relevant. Indeed, when the eponymous ape wreaks havoc after his encounters with humanity, it’s easy to understand why. While multiple remakes have attempted to capture the initial film’s power and channel its message into a modern context, the original remains a cinematic titan.
Once anyone watches Alfred Hitchcock’s avian thriller, it’s impossible to look at a seagull the same way. His leading lady Tippi Hedren no doubt felt similarly. Following a weekend seaside jaunt gone wrong, The Birds pairs its swooping thrills with a technical masterclass, particularly in framing and editing, as its iconic attack scenes demonstrate.
The only film directed by graphic designer Saul Bass – whose title sequence and film poster work represents both art forms at their best – Phase IV lets a colony of super-intelligent ants loose on a scientific laboratory. Unsurprisingly, given the filmmaker behind it and the immersive premise he’s working with, the result is a visual treat, not only due to its close-up insect imagery.
When Steven Spielberg’s Jaws sunk its teeth into the creature feature genre, it left an imprint, with the adaptation of Peter Benchley’s 1974 novel rightfully considered the benchmark of animal attack films. Much of the movie’s power stems from its preference for suggesting rather than showing its shark-sparked horrors, although its deft direction, excellent cast and unnerving theme tune assist considerably.
Based on Stephen King’s novel of the same name, Cujo turns man’s best friend into its worst enemy, after a St. Bernard is bitten by a rabid bat. Transforming a family pet into a source of fear is meaty thematic ground, as King also covers in Pet Sematary. However it’s Cujo’s gory exploration of its concept that makes it stand out.
Thanks to its vast, desolate expanse, the Australian outback can prove unsettling all on its own merits, as plenty of films have capitalised upon. Throw in a wild boar, as Razorback does, and the scene is set for a natural horror nightmare – with director Russell Mulcahy wringing every possible bump, jump, shock and thrill out of the notion.
Another Ozploitation classic, Dark Age tasks a park ranger with eradicating a seven-foot killer crocodile; however his culling plan is met with opposition by the local Indigenous population, who consider the animal to be sacred. Combining schlocky horror with prescient cultural and ecological themes, and featuring David Gulpilil, the movie experienced a troubled theatrical release but deserves its rediscovered status.
Creature feature comedies don’t always work, but New Zealand’s Black Sheep finds the sweet spot between inspired, outrageous and deadpan. The idea is simple, with genetic experimentation creating a mutated strain of sheep with a taste for more than grass – all when the sheep-phobic son of a farmer returns home, of course.
BEST AND WORST
Directed, written and produced by Tippi Hedren’s then-husband Noel Marshall, and starring the duo, his sons and her daughter Melanie Griffith, Roar was inspired by the central pair’s desire to address the status of endangered lions in Africa. As well as shining a spotlight on a sizeable number of real-life big cats, the film became one of the most notorious and dangerous productions in history. More than 70 injuries occurred on-set at the hands of its prowling animal cast, including to Marshall, Hedren and Griffiths, while cinematographer Jan de Bont was even scalped during the shoot.
Watching the end result, it’s easy to see how such carnage occurred – and difficult to fathom why the whole thing didn’t end in a bloodbath. Narrative-wise, the feature follows a family who lives with and studies wild animals in Africa, including lion pack leader Robbie and violent scoundrel Togar. However it’s the movie’s sheer audacity that provides its true story. There’s simply nothing else like Roar.
All of the Jaws rip-offs
When Jaws ripped into the box office, a spate of natural horror-themed rip-offs chomped after it. While Piranha is the best of them, they mostly make for a sad and sorry bunch. Everything is covered: bears in Grizzly, whales in Orca, an octopus in Tentacles, dogs in The Pack and bats in Nightwing. Alligator, featuring the obvious ravenous creatures, fares better than most, although that’s largely thanks to Robert Forster.
Samuel L. Jackson’s now iconic one-liner is the best thing about this gleefully silly movie, which never tries to be anything more than a ridiculous action-comedy, yet never manages to piece its various parts together. Watching Jackson battle slithering foes while flying through the air really should be more enjoyable.
The Sharknado series
Even as simple dumb fun, the Sharknado series struggles. That’s true of its first and best film, so it should come as no surprise that the five-title franchise increasingly proves a case of diminishing returns. Who knew that a tornado filled with sharks couldn’t flesh out an entire tongue-in-cheek saga? Everyone.