It’s not hard to see the appeal of the “animal attack” subgenre of horror. There are a ton of animals in the world, many of which have an overload of teeth and legs and claws, and our lousy fleshy bits just can’t quite stand up to them. Horror films have often not been terribly interested in representing the natural world, but if you leave a horror movie thinking, Maybe I should respect wild animals a little more and give them their space, more power to them.
However, just within the scope of the horror film, which animal has been given the best treatment and the most nightmarish vibes? Which one is the top of the food chain, repeatedly dominating humankind in a confident and gnarly fashion? With decades of films to choose from, here are the top 10 animals that horror has decided just aren’t worth messing with. Honorable mentions go to rats (Willard is utterly fantastic, with Crispin Glover’s best and most unhinged performance,) ticks (please enjoy Clint Howard screaming “I’m infested!” with his face full of them,) wild boars (Razorback is an Australian treasure), and orcas (mainly due to the film Orca, which is better than any horror film called “Orca” has any right to be.)
While being mostly limited to a single franchise, movies about piranhas do have their high points, depending on what you’re looking for. Fans of low-budget Roger Corman productions need to check out 1978’s Piranha, a movie written by independent film darling John Sayles and directed with gory aplomb by a young Joe Dante. However, if you’re looking to see a bunch of little fishes devour young adults in between thumping songs by Pitbull, Shwayze, and Far East Movement, then 2010’s Piranha 3D will be much more your speed. Fans of bloody special effects should wait for the mass attack on the wet T-shirt contest, a sequence that any amount of description won’t do justice to.
Piranha (1978) is available to watch on Peacock, Shudder, and AMC+, for free with ads on Tubi, Pluto TV, and Plex, or for free with a library card on Hoopla and Kanopy. Piranha 3D (2010) is available to watch on Showtime.
9. Lions/Big Cats
Thanks to films like Beast starring Idris Elba and the lion that wants to eat Idris Elba in said movie (not to be confused with The Beast, the giant squid movie based on the Peter Benchley book), the theme of big cats telling us to get out of their way hasn’t been totally forgotten. The selection of solid movies is sparse here (if you have some time, 2010’s Burning Bright is decent, but unremarkable), and the most memorable might be the historical drama The Ghost and the Darkness due to its cast alone. Val Kilmer! Michael Douglas! Tom Wilkinson! Emily Mortimer! Bernard Hill! Killer lions! All of your favorites!
Burning Bright is available free with ads on FreeVee and Tubi. The Ghost and the Darkness is available on Starz, or for digital rental or purchase on VOD platforms.
Dominated in recent years by the progressively underwhelming Anaconda series, snakes are an underrated terror that often deserve better. The first Anaconda is good (at one point, the giant serpent spits out a recently devoured Jon Voight, who slimily winks before dying), but many of the gems lie in the early ’70s.
In 1972, we got both Stanley and Frogs. The first features a Vietnam vet who gets his revenge by throwing snakes at or around people. Then there’s Frogs, where an old Southern plantation’s use of pesticides causes a whole swamp, including multiple venomous snakes, to revolt. The next year, Sssssss would be released, in which a scientist transforms a dude into a cobra and along the way gives us death by snake aplenty. It was a better time for cinema.
Anaconda is available to watch on Sling TV, or for digital rental or purchase on VOD platforms. Stanley is available to watch for free with ads on Plex. Frogs is available to watch for free with ads on Pluto TV. Sssssss is currently unavailable on streaming and VOD platforms.
The, ahem, feather in the cap of the killer birds film is, of course, Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds. Since then, though, the bird has mostly been featured as an omen of death or a supporting player, getting cameos in films like the eye-eating crows in Dario Argento’s Opera and the ravens assaulting one of the bad dudes in the I Spit On Your Grave remake. And points have to be added for all of the grade school kids traumatized by The Passion of the Christ when their youth group took them to a movie where they expected a redeeming lesson in faith and not a large crow violently pecking at a screaming man’s eyes.
The Birds is available to watch on Showtime.
Man’s best friend turning out to be not so chill is Horror 101, and it’s not a far leap to find wolves similarly threatening. Leaping from the Baskerville estate to the annals of pop culture, they’ve gone for the jugular in both starring and supporting roles. Liam Neeson’s survivor thriller The Grey was better than anyone expected, and the pack of wolves that show up to munch on the stranded ski slope victims in Frozen (not to be confused with Disney’s Frozen, which multiple rewatches confirm has absolutely no extended wolf maulings) were a delightful addition to the hopeless flick. Criterion Collection devotees should certainly add Samuel Fuller’s chilling treatise on racism, White Dog, to their shelves. The king remains Cujo, though. Coming out a year after the friendly Saint Bernard film Beethoven, Cujo finds Stephen King at the height of his “small town falls prey to some shitty stuff” powers, only instead of vampires or a big dome, it’s a rabid dog.
Frozen is available for free with ads on Tubi, The Roku Channel, and Freevee. The Grey and Cujo are available for digital purchase or rental on VOD platforms. White Dog is currently unavailable on streaming and VOD platforms.
With insects, it all comes down to your specific taste in seeing actors swat at special effects. Want big ants? Them! Want small ants? It Happened at Lakewood Manor (also released as simply Ants and Ants!) Want bees? There’s The Swarm, but save a soft spot in your heart for The Deadly Bees. Not quite a bug, but if literal tons of earthworms give you the creeps, 1976’s Squirm is a great time. And The Nest is probably the roach species’ finest nasty hour. Insects rank this high for pure versatility — they can break in your house, climb in through tiny places, and attack without you knowing it. And when a Hollywood victim’s best option is “flail wildly and incoherently,” they tend to be pretty effective.
Squirm is available for free with ads on Tubi. The Deadly Bees is available for free with ads on Plex. Them!, The Nest, and The Swarm are available for digital purchase on rental on VOD platforms.
Despite its relatively short filmography, the cuddliest animal ever invented (that you’re not actually supposed to cuddle with) earns its prominence as a movie monster through sheer quality. Few films in the “Jaws but with (insert animal here)” era of the late ’70s are as bombastically fun as Grizzly, a movie about a bear so big and angry that it knocks down towers, ravages helicopters and requires a rocket launcher to be put down in the end. Fairly recently, we also got Backcountry, the 2014 film about the devolution of a relationship and also a spooky black bear who quite literally tears the relationship’s face off. One could argue that Werner Herzog’s documentary Grizzly Man also plays like a bit of a horror film, as even though you know what happens to the intrepid and optimistic Timothy Treadwell early on, it’s hard to not be sucked in by the sense of inevitable doom.
Grizzly is available on Shudder and AMC+, for free with ads on Tubi and Freevee, and for free with a library card on Hoopla. Backcountry is available on AMC+ and Shudder, or for free with a library card on Kanopy. Grizzly Man is available for free with ads on Tubi, Pluto TV, and Plex, or for free with a library card on Kanopy.
Keeping the spiders and arachnids separate from the insects isn’t just for biological distinction; the horror genre typically treats spiders as much more of an alpha predator, given a semblance of intelligence that makes their threats different from a mindless insect horde. The ’50s would grant us giant spider classics like Tarantula and Earth vs. the Spider, and fans that went to repeat viewings of Star Wars in 1977 were making a boneheaded move when they could’ve been enjoying Kingdom of the Spiders or Tarantulas: The Deadly Cargo on TV. The gold medal goes to Arachnophobia, which not only has an all-star cast (Jeff Daniels, John Goodman, Peter Edward Ostling, and Harley Jane Kozak,) but the benefit of hundreds of actual Australian Avondale spiders. They’re harmless in real life, but it’s the movies, so naturally they get a supernaturally powerful venom and a “general” leader that has the leg span of a basketball.
Earth vs. the Spider is available for free with ads on Tubi, Plex, and Pluto TV. Kingdom of the Spiders is available on ScreenPix through The Roku Channel. Tarantula and Arachnophobia are available for digital rental or purchase on VOD platforms.
No animal has come to typify this genre like the shark. It doesn’t hurt that the most famous example remains Jaws, a master class in suspense, and that every few months we get a new film about how much sharks dislike it when we go swimming. However, what prevents the shark from taking the number one spot is that quantity tends to outdo quality here — the amount of killer shark films out there dwarfs the amount of killer shark films that are worth recommending, and you can only ride the wave of “Haha, it’s SUPPOSED to be bad!” for so long. However, there are definitely some gems, including 1999’s Deep Blue Sea, which has been reevaluated as a camp prodigy, and Open Water, which is a truly miserable experience and thus a pretty great movie. Recent efforts like The Shallows and 47 Meters Down have also been solid, coming out almost like a public relations campaign for the legitimacy of scary sharks after the Sharknado franchise ruined their good name.
Jaws is available to watch on AMC+ or for free with ads on Tubi. Deep Blue Sea is available to watch on HBO Max or for free with ads on Tubi. Open Water is available to watch for free with ads on Freevee. The Shallows is available for digital rental or purchase on VOD platforms. 47 Meters Down is available to watch on Hulu.
No animals give you more ferocious bang for your buck than the alligator and the crocodile. They work as leading monster: Greg McLean’s follow-up to Wolf Creek was the 2007 saltwater crocodile thriller Rogue. And remember John Sayles, the acclaimed indie screenwriter who also happened to write Piranha? A bit later he did the incredible Alligator, where a toilet-flushed gator returns from the sewers to menace Chicago. They also function as simply the surprise (Tobe Hooper’s Eaten Alive forces the pet gator to play second fiddle to a deranged Neville Brand, and Ti West’s X has an alligator eat someone in the swamp probably because the movie was more fun that way). You can use one (the underrated Black Water is restrained and unnerving, and the 1989 Italian film Killer Crocodile overcomes its lack of budget with loads of blood) or many (Piranha 3D’s director, Alexandre Aja, would later make Crawl, a tense, exciting, and alligator-filled flick about what can be assumed is just an average day in Florida. Meanwhile, Betty White raised quite a few of them in 1999’s unofficial Best Picture winner Lake Placid). They’re always a good time, and unlike the shark, they haven’t worn out their welcome enough. Bring on these big, lazy lake dinosaurs. The people (me) demand it.
Rogue (2007) is available to watch for free with ads on Tubi, Vudu, and Plex. Alligator is available to watch on Shudder and AMC+. Eaten Alive is available on Peacock, AMC+, and Shudder, or for free with ads on Tubi, Plex, and Vudu. Killer Crocodile is available for free with ads on Tubi, Plex, and Vudu. Lake Placid is available to watch for free with ads on The Roku Channel. Black Water is available to watch for free with ads on Hoopla, Tubi, The Roku Channel, and Plex. Crawl is available for digital rental or purchase on VOD platforms.