Often, the most terrifying films are not about paranormal beings or indestructible serial killers, but the animals we share the planet with. In these films we see man take on beast, and this can be a wake up call that we are not the top of the food chain. What is even more alarming is that in these battles, these beasts are in no way evil, but purely looking to survive (much like us). Some of these films have been frightfully realistic, and make you consider man’s position on the planet amongst those we share it with.
10. Black Water
There are dozens of decent man vs. crocodile films, but at the top of the pile is this 2007 Australian horror by Andrew Traucki and David Nerlich, which is based on the true story of a crocodile attack in Australia’s Northern Territory. It sees a vacationing trio who, along with a hired tour guide, set off on a fishing trip where they fail to catch anything, so the tour guide takes them off course and deeper into the swamps. Here, the boat is capsized by what they realize in an enormous crocodile. They become stranded and hunted by the terrifying beast. As a low budget production, they rely heavily on tension and suspense, which is achieved through the excellent acting. Due to the budget, footage of real crocodiles (which they filmed themselves) was used, which is a refreshing take given that CGI or robots are often used in films such as these.
A criminally overlooked 2014 Canadian horror, Backcountry is written and directed by Adam MacDonald and loosely based on the true story of Jacqueline Perry and Mark Jordan in the back country of Missinaibi Lake Provincial Park, Ontario. It is an incredibly tense, gripping, well-acted and realistic story where a young couple head into the backcountry without a trail map, and after going off the beaten path, they soon encounter a bear. What follows is a brutal attack, an agonizingly long and realistic chase, and the desperate attempt to survive. We do not see the bear until late on, but a few earlier signs and the couple going further off the beaten path (plus their arguments) only makes things tenser. What makes this particularly terrifying is that you witness just how powerful and fast bears are, and it is simply doing what the other characters are trying to do—survive.
8. Piranha/Piranha 3D
Although very different, we could not decide between the 1978 B-movie, Piranha, and the wildly over-the-top and unashamedly gratuitous 2010 remake, Piranha 3D, so we will combine the two. The original parodies Jaws and sees a school of ravenous piranhas, that were engineered for a Vietnam War project that became defunct (Operation: Razorteeth), terrorize a summer camp. Spielberg has stated that this is his favorite Jaws rip-off. The ludicrous 2010 remake also has to be mentioned, as this horror comedy cranks things up to the next level and is full of gore, nudity, gags and is very kitsch. This makes it a very fun and camp horror film, and for fans of this subgenre it is a must-watch (along with the 1978 original). These films do not take themselves seriously in the slightest, and this can be refreshing when the rest of the films in the subgenre are so serious.
7. The Edge
Another film seeing man take on a bear in the woods, this survival drama from Lee Tamarhori stars Antony Hopkins, Alec Baldwin and Bart the Bear (Hollywood’s most famous bear who also appeared in The Bear, White Fang and Legends of the Fall). In the film, Charles (Hopkins), Bob (Baldwin) and Stephen (Harold Perrineau) become stranded in the woods after a plane crash, and they soon find themselves hunted by a Kodiak bear. They work together to survive, and the added narrative of Bob having an affair with Charles’s wife (which he suspects) creates an intriguing dynamic as they bond in a bid for survival. There is therefore added emotion in this film which you do not typically find in these movies, particularly in the film’s climax. Like all the best films in the subgenre, we witness man go above and beyond in an attempt to survive.
6. The Grey
This subgenre can be much more terrifying than your average horror, and this is because the “villains” are in no way evil or opinionated, it is just nature and primal instinct. This is evident in 2012’s The Grey, where a group of oil men become stranded in Alaska following a plane crash, and they are soon hunted by a pack of gray wolves in the unforgiving cold weather. The film stars Liam Neeson, Frank Grillo and Dermot Mulroney, but instead of seeing Liam Neeson punching wolves in the face for 90 minutes (although this does happen once), it is a much more philosophical and bleak movie. It is incredibly tense throughout as the men have weapons, but the wolves have patience and are used to the conditions. This film differs to most due to the thought-provoking nature, making it a must-see for fans of this subgenre.
5. Open Water
Although not the best survival film of all time, Open Water is a unique man vs. animal movie and you will not find one that is as realistic as this one. Based on a true story, the 2003 film directed by Chris Kentis follows an American couple who go out on a scuba dive but become accidentally left behind due to the crew failing to take an accurate headcount. Stranded at sea, they suffer from mental exhaustion and hunger, and soon realize that sharks are circling beneath them. Their hope of being rescued is then replaced with sheer terror, and this process is agonizing to watch and is what makes this such a deeply affecting film. The slow-burning nature of the film creeps towards a terrifying and haunting conclusion, and this helps it to be the second best shark movie out there (no, not Sharknado).
What is particularly striking, sad and scary about Cujo is that it explores what would happen if man’s best friend became the villain. A classic Stephen King novel made into a 1983 horror by Lewis Teague, the story sees a St. Bernard, Cujo, bitten by a rabid bat. This turns Cujo mad and into a violent beast. To see an animal that we trust and care for so much suddenly turn into a wild, unpredictable and violent creature is as terrifying as it is heartbreaking, and this is really driven home with the film’s climax. Cujo does not “turn” for a while, and this makes it a tense and slow-burning watch. Also, as Cujo is a real dog and not a robot, it means that most of the fear comes through the reactions of the characters and it feels a lot more realistic than many other films in the subgenre.
3. The Birds
Whereas most of these films focus on large predatory animals, Alfred Hitchcock went in a new direction with his 1963 horror masterpiece, The Birds. This sees the people of Bodega Bay, California, become victim to brutal and violent bird attacks over the course of a few days. What makes this a particularly terrifying prospect is that there is no apparent reasoning for the attack, and it makes you consider what would happen if these usually harmless animals started to attack. In typical Hitchcock fashion, the suspense becomes almost unbearable at times, and when the birds do attack, the gore that the film shows set a new standard for the horror genre as full color gore was still relatively new to cinema. Additionally, what makes this film standout and feel particularly chilling and realistic is the fact that there is no score used at all.
2. Jurassic Park
Unlike The Flintstones would have you believe, man has never walked the planet with dinosaurs. This is explored in Steven Spielberg’s 1993 classic, Jurassic Park, where genetic scientists produce a wildlife park of cloned dinosaurs. There is good reason why this is one of the most popular films ever, as once the power goes out, it is the dinosaurs that have the upper hand. The scene where the Tyrannosaurus rex chases the tour group has become iconic, and the sheer size, power and speed of all the dinosaurs is truly alarming and it is clear that humans would never be able to coexist with dinosaurs. Like all good man vs. animal movies, survival is the name of the game and the group must act bravely and heroically to survive. Although a fantastic man vs. animal movie, Steven Spielberg had already made another almost 20 years earlier that cannot be topped.
Although it is over 40 years old, there is still no man vs. animal film as terrifying and fantastic as Steven Spielberg’s Jaws (based on the novel by Peter Benchley). This film is the undisputed champ, and it became the template for many of the great horror films that followed (and certainly inspired the majority on this list). What is so powerful about Jaws is that the actual shark is used sparingly, and instead the film relies on suspense and tension. This is masterfully achieved through the acting and the iconic and ominous theme, which was used to indicate the shark’s impending appearances. When the shark appears, the kills are gruesome, and for the time, very impressive. The ocean is also the perfect setting for a horror film as it places humans outside their element, and of course what creature better than a giant man-eating great white shark to hunt them.