In a summer that’s keeping most of us isolated and indoors, waterfront or seafaring escapism through cinema is more crucial than ever. Some might favor vacation comedies or sandy romantic trysts, but my viewing preferences see this as a perfect opportunity to recommend some streaming aquatic horrors. We’re talking creature features, floating prisons, and deadly trips on vile vessels. There’s a reason why Steven Spielberg made summer blockbuster history with his now-iconic great white terrorizer (which HBO has brought to subscribers). Why not watch some of the films he inspired?
Bait 3D (Amazon Prime, Tubi, Hoopla)
When theaters reopen, my first goal is to host a triple-feature of Bait 3D, Burning Bright, and Crawl. Three righteous examples of “when animals attack during natural disasters.” Kimble Rendall directs Bait 3D, about shoppers in an Australian supermarket hunted by sharks after a freak tsunami traps humans and beasts inside together. A cast including Xavier Samuel, Sharni Vinson, Alex Russell, and more find themselves swimming through flooded aisles with submerged threats in hot pursuit. There also might be robbers, makeshift dive suits, and plenty of blood in the water—Deep Blue Sea but with stocked shelves. Bait 3D goes in and out of streaming services, so keep an eye out for it and watch it when you can!
Beneath (Amazon Prime)
One of New York City’s prominent independent filmmakers, Larry Fessenden, pits a group of “maturing” teenagers against some mystical, man-eating fish. Adrift, on a lake, as their dingy is repeatedly bashed by Fessenden’s supersized catch-of-the-day (a practical prop). It’s the setup of many a creature feature, but Beneath’s true intentions hit when characters shed their morality and rapidly reveal their true colors with survival on the line. To some, this might be the equivalent of “assholish kids making dumb decisions,” but there’s something so evil about “friends” voting to use each other as snackable distractions. It’s mean, it’s malicious, and it’s a robust low-budget character study in my eyes.
Triangle (Plex, Tubi)
Golly is Melissa George an underappreciated actress. In Christopher Smith’s Triangle, she’s thrust into a time-loop thriller that she embraces with emphatic paranoia. As capsized sailors board the Aeolus looking for help, George’s mother of an autistic son realizes their fates have already been sealed. Her motivations are parenthood and redemption, which George realizes with impassioned franticness. The worry here is that Smith won’t be able to keep his paradoxical purgatory afloat, but I assure you, its ending hits like a Jet Ski at full speed. One of those miraculous conundrums that sustain throughout, melding mystery and horror into this slasher-hybrid that’s intelligently entertaining.
It’s a shame J.D. Dillard’s Sweetheart didn’t get the theatrical rollout it deserved. You best right that wrong by streaming his castaway horror flick starring Kiersey Clemons as a shipwrecked partier. Alone, on an island, with only scant supplies like a flare gun. Even worse? At night, a creature surfaces from below and stomps around her campsite. Survival horror at its most primal that stands out due to practical monster designs and cinematic slickness (Gill-man’s reveal against the red-flare light is sublime). Woman versus legend, with a few added surprises and commentaries to make things interesting.
Friday the 13th: Jason Takes Manhattan
It’s called “Jason Takes Manhattan” but should be “Jason Takes A Boat Ride.” Most of the action happens on a large “cruise” vessel where high schoolers are picked off one-by-one during their graduation celebration. It’s not the most popular when diehards rank Jason’s franchise, but I’d argue there’s plenty to love here from ridiculous kills to waterlogged Mr. Voorhees. I mean, some dude’s head gets boxed off, and another girl dies via Flying-V guitar. I’ll never understand the disdain for this one, much like how I’ll never get the love for The New Blood. Maybe y’all need to re-watch Jason Takes Manhattan while playing my curated drinking game?
Sea Fever (Hulu)
Neasa Hardiman’s Sea Fever is this Lovecraftian amalgamation of The Thing and Cabin Fever set aboard a fishing trawler. It’s methodical, “scientific pursuit” horror that pits humankind against the unknown from a place of fear and curiosity. Connie Nielsen, Hermione Corfield, and Dougray Scott are phenomenal as a virus spreads through crew members who have no choice but to accept what they’ve discovered. Hardiman finds the right balance between gruesome body horrors and the beautifully illuminated terrors that cling onto the ship’s hull, in what some would call a slow-burn at sea. To me? It’s a Celtic Alien set afloat with an underwater monster ready to trigger massive thalassophobia reactions.
The Lure (Criterion, Kanopy)
Agnieszka Smoczynska’s feature debut, The Lure, is miraculous. A Polish horror musical about cannibal mermaids who join a European synth-pop band as the main attraction. A disco-bomb of nightclub aesthetics and fairytale darkness, with some endlessly repeatable tracks. It’s a confident “first effort” with a nuclear amount of energy, and the way lyrics tell a story flows like the most soothing current. It’s the only Criterion release I own, my favorite vinyl soundtrack on my shelf, and will be talked about whenever possible anywhere I’m present. It’s worth the Criterion Channel subscription alone as an introduction to what other goodies await.
The Pool (Midnight Pulp, Shudder)
I’ll let you decide if I’m cheating with my inclusion of The Pool. Ping Lumpraploeng’s Thai survival thriller is about an art director on a commercial shoot who gets stranded in a drained 6-meter deep swimming pool. Oh, and a gigantic crocodile falls in with him at a certain point? His dog is also chained above-ground? There are somehow even more twists? I don’t know how better to sell The Pool than this primer from my Fantastic Fest review on /Film: “The Pool is a pro-life crocodile attack flick that is incredibly mean-spirited towards its main character, improbably audacious…and sponsored by Pizza Hut?” It’s absurd, it loves abusing the lead protagonist, and I’m sorry dog lovers, there’s a super hard scene to stomach – but holy hell you’ve never witnessed a single-location fight against nature like this.
Jaws (HBO Max)
Every aquatic horror film post-1975 is indebted to Steven Spielberg’s big-screen adaptation. Peter Benchley’s novel leaves readers in suspense as a marine alpha predator stalks Amity Island. Spielberg’s secret weapon is this sustained sense of dread without surfacing Bruce the Shark for long durations. What’s imagined by our brains is far worse than whatever’s typically shown. Jaws plays the “long game” by focusing on the socio-political horrors of ignored warnings and greed over humanity, which are themes that are pretty goshdarn relevant right about now! Duh-nuh. Tell me you didn’t just hear that two-note hit in your head?
Crawl (Hulu, Amazon Prime)
Aquatic horror has been finding its way into theaters with a bit more frequency over the last few years (The Meg, 47 Meters Down), Crawl being one of the latest. Alexandre Aja traps Kaya Scodelario and Barry Pepper as a daughter/father team fighting against alligators in their crawlspace during a Category 5 hurricane. Hence, it gets a shout-out in my Bait 3D entry! The creature aspects are gnarly as ‘gators swarm unlucky prey, but Aja doesn’t sacrifice scares. Somehow, given the size of these realistically animated beasts, we’re still surprised by legitimate jump-out moments where reptiles bust through staircases or whatnot. Plus, everyone needs more Barry Pepper (although Scodelario steals the show).
Anaconda (Amazon Prime, Netflix)
It’s hard to think of a more influential masterpiece where Jennifer Lopez and Ice Cube fight an animatronic rubber snake. Anaconda is part of a quintessential 90s aqua-animal-horror trifecta that includes Deep Blue Sea and Lake Placid. A time when National Geographic survival flicks were about popcorn-poppin’ entertainment and midnight movie vibes, which Jon Voight represents very much. Did you know that veteran voice actor Frank Welker is credited as “Anaconda?” Yes, they had someone, in a booth, record the audio. It’s nowhere near perfect, but there’s a reason why TNT played the hell out of Anaconda in cable syndication – because the people get what the people want.
Deep Blue Sea (Hulu)
Speaking of Deep Blue Sea! LL Cool J said it best through the lyrics, “Deepest, bluest, my hat is like a shark’s fin.” Or maybe he didn’t. Those are lyrics from his hit original “Deepest Bluest (Shark’s Fin)” about the now cult-classic where he plays a chef who must fight genetically-enhanced mako sharks in an underwater research facility. The 90s were wild times. Thomas Jane? Samuel L. Jackson? Stellan Skarsgård? Saffron Burrows? Michael Rapaport? The cast is loaded, and most meet graphic fates at the hands (fins?) of their experimental aquatic assassins. Any genre fan knows Sammy’s death monologue by heart because that’s the brilliance of Deep Blue Sea. No one is safe, you’re here for the sharkies, and you’re going to get a mouthful.
Zombeavers (Amazon Prime, Tubi)
If you’re into horror-comedies, Zombeavers is a… wait for it… DAM GOOD TIME! Inexcusable puns aside, Jordan Rubin wants to make you laugh but not without honoring what horror fans are promised in the title. All the staples of summertime horror are present (isolated cabin, horned-up characters, toxic waste that mutates wildlife). Beaver puppets with beady, glowy eyes thump their thwacker-tails while trying to eat the locals, swimming about like undead torpedoes. Then things get even zanier when—um—“transformations” are thrown into the mix. There might or might not be a werewolf component, and by werewolf, I mean werebeaver? I adore this big stupid buck-toothed goofer. Watch out for those Bill Burr and John Mayer cameos.
The Shallows (FX Now)
Jaume Collet-Serra doesn’t get enough credit for the easily enjoyable mainstream fare he’s directed. The Shallows is such a title, positioning a surfer played by Blake Lively against an animated great white. Tension runs thick since Lively’s vacationer only has minimal surfaces to leap atop as waves crash around, some two-hundred yards from shore. The shark looks fantastic, terror is all-too-real, and Collet-Serra never loses tonal command as Lively’s survivor fights with every last ounce of strength. All that and Steven Seagull’s supporting performance? A newish aquatic horror mainstay to be remembered for years to come.
The Boat (Hoopla)
This isn’t the first movie on this list with a seafaring vessel named “Aeolus,” so you should know what to expect in terms of thematic narratives—but The Boat ain’t Triangle. Joe Azzopardi’s nameless fisherman finds an abandoned sailboat adrift in fog, he boards, and it becomes clear that the ship does not want him to leave. A lengthy duration of the film finds Azzopardi locked in the bathroom, which hilariously enough isn’t the first movie I’ve seen that takes place in a washroom location (Stalled). I know that doesn’t sound super intriguing, but the Aeolus’s autopilot navigation and supernatural entrapment make The Boat this mysterious melding of Sisyphean futility and aquatic escape room doom.
Deep Rising (Hoopla)
Remember how I said 90s aquatic horror is a golden period in the subgenre’s history? Deep Rising, released in 1998, bolsters my claim with exquisite B-movie confidence. Not to copy-and-paste in an attempt at filling word count, but the IMDB synopsis says all you need to know. “A group of heavily armed hijackers boards a luxury ocean liner in the South Pacific Ocean to loot it, only to do battle with a series of large-sized, tentacled, man-eating sea creatures who had already invaded the ship.” Directed by Stephen Sommers of The Mummy fame, starring Treat Williams and Famke Janssen plus a host of character actors you’ve seen on-screen countless times (Jason Flemyng, Wes Studi, Cliff Curtis, Djimon Hounsou, etc.). It’s explodey, action-packed, and again, so infectiously 90s—aqua-horror comfort food.
Black Water (Hoopla, Tubi)
Andrew Traucki, half of the directorial team behind Black Water (alongside David Nerlich), has made a career out of aqua-terror between Black Water, The Reef, and the upcoming Black Water: Abyss. The former takes a Jaws approach to Australia’s growing crocodile population by turning a fishing trip into a swampland plea for survival. Three tourists, a guide, and their croc pursuer who capsizes their dinky motorboat. There’s not a tremendous amount of “action,” hinting at the Jaws route. In no way am I insinuating that Black Water is on the same level, but there’s enough hunting-grounds thorniness worth Mother Nature’s fury.
47 Meters Down: Uncaged (Amazon Prime)
Johannes Roberts returns to direct a sequel to his vastly superior shark-attack stunner. 47 Meters Down: Uncaged aims to blend The Descent with finned frights, and somehow creates a slasher film in a submerged Mayan city with the sharks as the villains. It sounds ridiculous until you watch a sequence where this grinning big-boy “sneaks up” behind a diver without any awareness then lunges. It isn’t perfect, but a cast including one Foxx and one Stallone daughter make this one more fun than expected. 47 Meters Down makes a serious bid for shark-night notoriety, while Uncaged is its more outlandishly rebellious sibling.
Piranha (HBO Max)
Having watched Piranha 3D before Joe Dante’s Piranha, I’m now rethinking the “remake” classification of Alexandre Aja’s Lake Victoria chow-down. Dante’s working with late-70s era effects, so gore is mostly just blood-red water clouds, but his piranha puppets’ ferocity isn’t lost. Also, there are mutated stop-motion lab critters? It’s not exactly as “lovable” as Gremlins, but very much fits into Dante’s body of genre work that borderlines on “wholesome.” Then the third act hits at a summer camp, and we’re right back into the horror deep-end. Then a guy has to waterski for his life shortly thereafter, and something explodes?! Yeah, Piranha is as good as Dante gets.
Rob Grant charts a course that is hateful and hilarious in Harpoon. Three “friends” are stranded on their yacht, and before long, secrets turn the besties against one another in a confined space. It’s narcissistic, bleak, blackhearted, and precisely the uncivilized breakdown that tickles my curiosity. These characters *despise* each other, yet rely on teamwork to survive. No foreseeable escape measures nor privacy. “Harpoon is one nasty fishhook that’s impossible to yank out, pulling at emotional wounds that only ever worsen.” Sorry, I keep quoting myself, but these are the gems I love discovering during film festivals. A movie that drifts between Edgar Allan Poe references and squeamish, scabby gore while still scoring plenty of belly laughs.