The 12 best sea monster movies ranked, if The Meg doesn’t float your boat
Just in case new aquatic feature The Meg sinks without trace, we have you covered on the top films from the depths, and creatures from genetically enhanced mako sharks to a deformed octopus to the mythic Kraken
“Beneath this glassy surface, a world of gliding monsters,” goes a line in the 1999 film Deep Blue Sea.
Our fascination with the ocean has long struck a balance between indulging our sense of adventure and wrestling with our fear of the unknown.
Cinema was quick to latch onto this winning combination, and there have been hundreds of films featuring intrepid explorers and dedicated scientists being tormented by aquatic predators awash with teeth and tentacles.
As Jason Statham and Li Bingbing face off against a prehistoric giant shark in The Meg, which opens in cinemas this week, we pondered where the high water mark for sea monster movies is, and came up with a list of our dozen favourites, ranked in order of ludicrous fun.
Within the first few minutes of Disney’s Technicolor adaptation of the Jules Verne classic, the sea monster terrorising ocean vessels is revealed to be a “submerging boat” piloted by the vengeful Captain Nemo (James Mason). Nevertheless, this star-studded childhood favourite remains a rip-roaring underwater adventure, fondly remembered for the climactic confrontation between the Nautilus and a terrifying giant squid.
11. Deep Rising (1998)
Treat Williams’ roguish boatman reluctantly ferries a gang of mercenaries out to a luxury cruise liner. But their efforts to loot the vessel are scuppered when they discover the passengers have all been devoured by some particularly nasty underwater beasties. A grisly yet lighthearted blend of Alien and Under Siege from writer-director Stephen Sommers (The Mummy), the film keeps its tongue firmly in its cheek, and then ramps up the ridiculous.
10. It Came From Beneath the Sea (1955)
This atomic age B-movie classic features a giant octopus that, irritated by H-bomb testing, makes its way towards the west coast of the United States, attacking numerous ships along the way. The film features the incredible stop-motion special effects work of Ray Harryhausen, particularly impressive during the final attack on San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge. However, eagle-eyed viewers will notice that the octopus only has six tentacles – a result of budget constraints.
9. The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954)
What are rules for, if not to be broken? No list of sub-aquatic monsters would be complete without the inclusion of Universal’s iconic amphibian. Touted as the missing link between land and sea creatures, Gill-man’s origins were definitely in the ocean, despite it now living in the Amazon basin. Originally released in 3D, Jack Arnold’s film is still a lot of fun, even if the rubber-suited creature has lost much of its scare factor.
8. Open Water (2003)
Based on the true story of Tom and Eileen Lonergan, this micro-budgeted holiday nightmare was a massive hit and helped spawn a wave of found-footage horror flicks. While scuba-diving in the Caribbean, a young couple are left behind by their dive boat, and forced to fend for themselves in shark-infested waters. The results are visceral, claustrophobic and genuinely terrifying, doing more to damage water-bound tourism than any film since Spielberg’s little shark movie.
7. Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (2006)
The second, and most successful, entry in the Disney franchise finds Johnny Depp’s rum-addled Jack Sparrow indebted to the otherworldly pirate Davy Jones (Bill Nighy). When Jack flees, Jones unleashes the ancient, mythological Kraken to hunt him down. While Ray Harryhausen had previously conjured a stop-motion version of this colossal sea beast for 1981’s Clash of the Titans, the eye-popping and Oscar-winning work on display here proves hard to improve on.
6. Deep Blue Sea (1999)
Some of the best monster movies are the most ludicrously logic-defying, and that certainly applies to this shamelessly entertaining Renny Harlin offering. When scientists genetically enhance massive mako sharks in an attempt to cure Altzheimer’s (stay with me), the sharks get smarter and attempt to escape their remote ocean enclosure. Cue Thomas Jane and Saffron Burrows being pursued through flooded corridors by giant fish that can break down doors and turn on ovens. It’s all ridiculously good fun.
5. The Host (2006)
South Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho ( Okja ) scored a massive success with this action-packed monster melodrama about a mutated fish monster in Seoul’s Han River. Song Kang-ho and Bae Doona play members of an estranged family who must hunt down and defeat the creature, after it abducts their youngest member (Go Ah-sung). The most successful Korean film of all time in its day, it remains Bong’s biggest hit internationally.
4. The Abyss (1989)
No fewer than six underwater monster movies opened in 1989, after word spread about James Cameron’s latest project. Of those, DeepStar Six and Leviathan aren’t bad, but both incorrectly assumed Cameron’s follow-up to Aliens would be another horror film.
Instead, The Abyss is closer to Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, as a team of underwater roughnecks stumble upon a community of benevolent extraterrestrials lurking at the bottom of the ocean. A brilliant ensemble cast and pioneering digital effects make this ripe for revisiting.
3. Moby Dick (1956)
The greatest American novel of all time has been brought to the screen numerous times, but never better than in John Huston’s stately adaptation, starring Gregory Peck as the obsessed Captain Ahab. While some of the effects work is now a little rough around the edges, Peck brilliantly embodies a man consumed by his search for the great white whale that took his leg.
For those eager for a more contemporary retelling, Ron Howard’s In the Heart of the Sea is an unfairly dismissed dramatisation of the “true story” that inspired Melville’s novel.
2. Godzilla (1954)
No beast has ever emerged from the watery depths more fearsome than Ishiro Honda’s atomic behemoth “Gojia”. An allegorical cautionary tale against the horrors of nuclear warfare, Godzilla continues to terrify and delight audiences more than 60 years after his towering frame first lumbered ashore and laid waste to an unsuspecting Tokyo.
Having inspired dozens of sequels that continue to this day, the giant, mutated lizard has evolved into Japan’s protector, and stands revered as a cultural icon. But cinematically, nothing comes close to the emotional impact and resonant pathos of Honda’s original.
1. Jaws (1975)
Was there ever any doubt that Steven Spielberg’s cinematic game-changer is still the greatest sea monster movie ever made? The first summer blockbuster, which scared a generation off the beaches and into the cinemas, remains the most emulated and imitated film in its genre.
Part adventure movie, part horror film, part men-on-a-mission thriller, Jaws succeeds because of the incredible character work from Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss and Robert Shaw, and because the perpetually malfunctioning shark forced Spielberg to show as little of it as possible.
A masterclass of suggestion and slow-burn tension, topped by John Williams’ iconic two-note refrain that still terrifies people even when they’re in the bath, Jaws remains an undisputed masterpiece.
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