Copyright 2018 by Gary L. Pullman
Chrissie Watkins, about to meet her fate
To make their characters more vulnerable, horror movies often not only isolate them, but also take them out of their element. One of the most effective ways to accomplish both these goals is to have them do battle with an undersea monster. There's nothing, except another planet, as remote as the bottom of the ocean, and, as air-breathers, human beings are totally out of their depth when they're submerged thousands of feet below the surface of the great deep or, sometimes, in shallower, but still challenging rivers, bogs, or lakes.
Chrissie Watkins (still) about to meet her fate
Over the years, as the sheer number of the following titles indicates, quite a few horror movies have featured underwater creatures, a few of which are the Jaws series, Tentacles, the Piranha series, including Piranha 3-DD, the Megalodon series, the Crocodile series, Orca the Killer Whale, Barracuda, Leviathan, Endless Descent, Beneath Loch Ness, The Lock Ness Terror series, the Octopus series, the Megashark series, Demeking the Sea Monster, Sea Beast, The Beast, Monster from the Ocean Floor, the Shark Attack series, Ghost Shark, Creature, Proteus, the Moby Dick series, Malibu Shark Attack (even the rich aren't safe!), 2-Headed Shark Attack, Bait, Black Water, The Crater LakeMonster, The Creature from the Black Lagoon series, The Rig, Deep Rising, Deep Blue Sea, Tintorera . . . Tiger Shark, The Eye of the Beast, Behemoth the Sea Monster, Island Claws, Bering Sea Beast, SheCreature, The Host, Attack of the Giant Leeches, Deep Evil, Dinoshark, Sharktopus, SwampShark, Blood Waters of Dr. Z, Sector 7, The Thing Below, The Deep, The Neptune Factor, Supershark, the Lake Placid series, Shark Night, Red Water, The Last Shark, Primeval, Croc, the Dinocroc series, Snakehead, Frankenfish, Kraken: The Tentacles of the Deep, Jurassic Shark, TheReef, Shark Zone, OpenWater, Shark Swarm (never mind the fact that sharks don't “swarm”), Marina Monster, 12 Days of Terror, Amphibious 3-D, TheBermuda Depths, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Shark Week, Up from theDepths, Demon ofParadise, Bloodtide, the Humanoids from the Deep series, Gamera vs. Zigra, Razertooth, Alligator, Island of the Fishmen, The Fishmen and Their Queen, Pacific Rim, Atlantic Rim, Attack of theCrab Monsters, Hammerhead, Shark Attack in the Mediterranean, The Jaws of Death, Shakka, TheMonster That Challenged the World, Dagon, Rogue, and Deep Shock.
As the titles to these movies suggest, fighting an underwater monster takes characters out of their element; isolates them; plunges them into darkness; subjects them to intense pressure, both physical and emotional; endangers them; and introduces a strange realm full of bizarre and fascinating, but massive, powerful, and monstrous, creatures.
Of course, such an approach also offers an opportunity for scenes of nudity or near-nudity, especially with regard to female characters. There are female skinnydippers and plenty of bikini babes whose curves and bare skin suggest women's power to replenish life, through sex, but this possibility is often quickly and decisively prevented by the menace of the maritime monsters, as dead women can't conceive, bear, or (with rare exceptions) deliver children. Death, embodied in the beasts from below the sea, is victorious over life, for male and female characters and the latter's potential progeny.
Human beings, who, on land, are apex predators, are, in the water, easy victims. They who, on dry land, prey on every other creature, become the prey of underwater creatures which, although less intelligent than they, are typically bigger, faster, stronger, and more agile. They have great stamina, breathe in water, and are difficult to injure of kill. The predator-prey table is turned, much to the shock, horror, terror, anguish, and destruction of the helpless men and women who find themselves at the mercy of merciless maritime monsters. It's one thing to horrify and terrify; to do so after having stripping one of the confidence, power, and status that he or she takes for granted is nothing less than devastating.
Tentacles is out to get you!Horror movies about underwater monsters can offer additional commentary on the human condition and, occasionally, on society or civilization itself. In Tentacles, a 1977 movie, a seaside resort is the scene of horror when a giant octopus attacks the beach. A place of pleasure becomes a place of pain, a vacation retreat a site of horror and suffering. The cause of the anguish is technology: the octopus is driven mad by illegal “levels” of radio signals. The theme seems clear: unregulated technology can have a devastating effect on natural locations that, otherwise, would be like paradise. Steven Spielberg's classic Jaws (1975) also provides some social criticism, suggesting that, for some powerful people, the bottom line is more important and valuable than human life.
Unknown (i e., imaginary) creatures of the sea can become even more terrifying because of their horrifying appearance and their bizarre abilities. In Stephen Sommers's Deep Rising (1998), a never-before encountered, tentacled maritime monster covered in spikes liquefies its prey, the passengers and crew members aboard a disabled luxury liner that's been attacked by pirates who later plan to destroy the vessel. Three of the survivors of the monster's attack, Finnegan, Trillian, and Joey, take refuge on an island, only to discover it's not deserted: a thunderous roar from the forest alerts them to the fact that the island they've landed on is primeval and, apparently, inhabited by other fierce, unknown creatures. In this film, the ocean setting allows the surviving characters to flee from one to yet another danger, as trapped on the island, they have nowhere to go.
In another creature feature with an underwater setting, Paul Joshua Rubin's Deep Shock (2003), the USS Jimmy Carter, a nuclear submarine, is attacked by a monstrous beast armed with an electromagnetic pulse. As a result of the attack, researchers in an underwater station observe, the Polaris Trench has become hot enough to melt the polar icecap and to incinerate the men and women in the research station, without having damaged the facility itself.
As these examples suggest, the permutations on the underwater monster menace are vast. Not only are there many natural freshwater and maritime predators from which to choose—alligators, barracudas, crocodiles, kraken, octopi, piranhas, sharks, and whales—but there are as many imaginary beasts as one can imagine, including those which result from congenital cephalic disorders (2-HeadedShark Attack), fantasy beasts (the Loch Ness Monster, fishmen, and humanoids), and hybrid monsters (Sharktopus, Dinocroc, and Dinoshark).
The underwater setting can be used again and again, each with a new plot twist, theme, and, to some extent, cast of characters. The underwater monster, long a staple of both sci fi and horror stories, cinematographic and literary, is here to stay, it seems.