Confession time!! I would spin this article as a companion piece to our recent review of Irish horror, Sea Fever, but this article has been in the making since before Underwater. Aquatic horror died off in the 90s, so getting two films about the danger of the big blue this year is a welcome surprise to fans of the subgenre. Much like space is this terrifying vacuum, utterly hostile to human physiology, the oceans that cover 71 percent of our planet still remain a mystery and a constant death trap for unprepared explorers.
We narrowed the entries on this list to films set exclusively at sea. These films can include underwater facilities or boats/ships/submarines. We are excluding movies with sharks as the antagonist because why waste another genre of film that we can milk for easy content. Aquatic horror is not a standout genre of horror classics; most on this list are cult films and have received a critical slating. There is a reason why they are few and far between, but we’ve compiled a list of a few entries worth checking out.
Sea Fever (2020)
The most recent release to the genre, Sea Fever, is an unintentionally relevant entry to the genre that mirrors aspects of the current Covid 19 Pandemic. What starts as a creature feature where a fishing trawler becomes entangled in strange tentacles becomes a quarantine nightmare as a deadly and contagious parasite is realized upon the boat. Sea Fever is far more subtle and contained in its approach to horror than other entries on the list, but definitely, one to check out for fans of slow-burn and paranoia-driven horror.
For a fan of genre film, especially science fiction horror, Underwater delivers a fast-paced popcorn flick with some standout thrills and scares. Stewart shines as a lead protagonist, a woman of action that doesn’t shy away from moments of vulnerability. The film’s aesthetic is equally great, with claustrophobic interiors and some of the best suit designs in any sci-fi film of recent years. Where the film falters is in a paper-thin supporting cast that wastes many of these solid actors’ talents and borrows too liberally from the classics it takes inspiration from while offering little in its own voice.
Directed by David Twohy and co-written by Darren Aronofsky, Below had some genuine talent in its corner. Definitely the scariest film on this list. Below is a claustrophobic and unnerving ghost story set on a WWII submarine. Sporting a great cast of esteemed character actors, the film is carried by believable characters and a heightened sense of terror as strange occurrences accumulate. Below is the only ghost story on this list, as I refuse to include the dreadful Ghost Ship released the same year.
She Creature (2001)
With creature effects by Stan Winston Studio, and Winston himself serving as producer, it’s a period horror film at sea about a killer mermaid. Rufus Sewell and Carla Gugino, two very underrated actors, feature as a husband and wife team looking to take a captured mermaid overseas to America. The mermaid turns out to be far deadlier than expected. The enclosed space of the ship is used well to heighten the tension, and the creature effects are stellar for such a low-budget film. Despite Sewell and Gugino butchering the Irish accent, they both deliver strong performances in this little-known creature feature.
DeepStar Six (1989)
Mention Aquatic horror films to horror fans, and one of the first suggestions is always Deepstar Six. Released in 1989, the prime year for underwater-themed horror movies, Deepstar Six takes place aboard an underwater US Naval facility that very much looks like the typical Alien set constantly regurgitated throughout the 80s. The film has a pretty angry monster who has an appetite for the crew, but most of the deaths throughout the film are due to hilarious mishaps from one of the most incompetent characters in horror history. Deepstar Six has some standout moments, but I’ve never really warmed to it quite as much as other fans of this genre. Despite my misgivings, I can’t ignore that the film has its following and deserves to be included here.
Deep Rising (1998)
Definitely the most fun film on the list, Deep Rising is a bombastic shlock fest filled to the brim with cheesy dialogue, gory deaths, and an almost slapstick sense of humour. Taking place on a luxury cruise ship, a group of mercenaries boards the vessel intending to rob the wealthy passengers and the vault. Unfortunately, the crew has apparently vanished, and several monstrous tentacles start to pick the mercenaries off one by one. Director Stephen Sommers is known for his swashbuckling creature features such as The Mummy and Van Helsing, but Deep Rising allows his fast-paced, wise-cracking style to thrive in a bloody R-rated monster flick.
One of the bigger budget films on the list, Sphere, is an exciting film that falls short of its premise. Based on a novel by the renowned Michael Crichton, the film follows a crew of scientists exploring an alien ship at the depths of the sea. Featuring a top-notch cast of actors such as Dustin Hoffman, Sam Jackson, Sharon Stone, the film is more of a phycological horror than an outright creature feature. The effects are a little dated, especially in the CGI category, but the film has some unnerving moments, and decent jumps scares.
The Rift (1990)
The Rift is not a good movie by any stretch of the imagination; it’s cheap looking, poorly acted, and perfectly encapsulates an Italian knock-off horror. And yet I had an absolute blast watching it. Falling into the ‘it’s so bad it’s good’ category,’ The Rift delivers unexpected laughs and a shockingly gory third act filled to the brim with strange monsters and some significant effects that far outshine the cheap-looking sets and obvious model submarine.
Standing head and shoulders above any other film in the category, Leviathan is a fantastic creature feature that was unfairly written off by critics. Leviathan is about a crew who discovers a sunken Russian battleship at the depths of the sea that has become contaminated by the deadly derelict. The set design and effects are awe-inspiring and were created by effects wizard Stan Winston. A simple description of Leviathan is setting the horror classic The Thing underwater. Still, the film has its own set of memorable characters and disgusting monsters to make it a must-see for fans of Aquatic horror.
Given the other movies on the list, I think you were misleading about the quality of Sphere (and probably even Ghost Ship). You’re right that it’s an attempt at *psychological horror, and that the concept was too big for the production. To be fair, despite Rotten Tomatoes claims that it’s a familiar plot, nobody could have done Crichton’s idea justice. There are a ton of plot holes in the movie, I won’t argue, but having seen all but the newest films on this list (a couple are sort of joke-horror) Sphere is easily one of the better movie watching experiences. Also, if you’re going to do campy aquatic horror films, and lead off talking about Irish horror, where is Grabbers on this list?
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Wow. This is awesome. And I thought I went “deep” (sorry) with my review of Underwater, rehashing of underwater romps. You stumped me on 4 out of nine. Kudos!
BTW: horrorfestival Festival for Horror’s pingback bought me here. Great read. Keep ’em comin’.
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I have only seen ‘Sphere’ from that list.
Many thanks for following my blog.
Best wishes, Pete
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A fantastic list! I have only seen Below and remember it was very atmospheric. I had no idea about Sea Fever! Sounds so good that I will try to seek it out and watch, thanks!