Revolt of Nature Horror Films: The Must-Sees

31 Days of Horror

Writer Lee Gambin calls them Natural Horror films, other writers call them Revenge of Nature or Nature Run Amok films and writer Charles Derry considers them a type of Apocalyptic Cinema.

Of course we’re speaking of one of the great horror subgenres for which we’ll employ writer Kim Newman’s tag: The Revolt of Nature.

Since the end of the 1990s, lovers of animal attack films have been subjected to copious amounts of uninspired Nu Image, Syfy Channel and Syfy Channel-like dreck like Silent Predators (1999), Maneater (2007) Croc (2007), Grizzly Rage (2007) and a stunning amount of terrible shark attack films to name a few that barely scratch the surface of a massive list.

These movies fail miserably to capture the intensity of the unforgettable films they are imitating and the recent wave seems to carry with it the intent of giving the Revolt of Nature horror film a bad name.

The golden age of the subgenre was the 1970s and early 1980s with some recent gems standing out amidst the glut of horrendous films that have been cranked out in this field for almost a decade and a half now.

In terms of article criteria, no giants were considered.

Films that feature animals transformed by chemicals, radiation or a certain degree of mutation were eligible but films that feature animals that have become gigantic were not as they represent 1950s science fiction-based horror either directly or by influence and those areas are fertile ground for separate articles.

So, for example, Saul Bass’ Phase IV is in but Gordon Douglas’ 1954 classic Them is out.

Some might consider this to be a thin line but it is one that will be observed here.

That said, start questioning your place on the food chain as we take a chronological look at the best the subgenre has to offer…..with trailers!

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The Birds

Written by Evan Hunter

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

USA, 1963

After bringing Daphne Du Maurier’s novel Rebecca to the big screen in 1940, director Hitchcock returned to the author’s work, in this case the short story The Birds, to create a legendary apocalyptic film that still holds up as the classic it is.

A big influence on George Romero’s 1968 landmark Night of the Living Dead, The Birds is an often imitated film, providing the model for such avian horror films as Rene Cardona Jr.’s Beaks (1987), Sheldon Wilson’s Kaw (2007) and James Nguyen’s infamous Birdemic (2010) and its sequel.

A dismal, little-seen sequel The Birds II: Land’s End was made in 1994 for cable television and was disowned by its director Rick Rosenthal.

Note:  The above trailer is obviously not an original theatrical/television spot but since the orginal 1963 trailer featuring Hitchcock talking in a study-and nothing else- is incredibly dull, I chose to include a privately made trailer.

Phase IV

Written by Mayo Simon

Directed by Saul Bass

USA, 1974

Charlton Heston battled a miles long army of ants in Byron Haskin’s disappointing Naked Jungle (1954) but it took the 1970s to produce the greatest of all the man vs. non-giant ants films.

Brilliant and legendary film title designer made his first and regrettably last feature film with the superb Phase IV.

Certainly the most cerebral of the Revolt of Nature films, Phase IV features excellent performances by Michael Murphy and Nigel Davenport as a pair of scientists combating a colony of ultra-intelligent ants in the Arizona desert.

Even more visually stunning than one might expect from a highly accomplished visual artist, the film’s many memorable scenes include a sequence wherein an innocent family is killed by the unleashing of the scientists’ advanced liquid toxin called “yellow technology” and Nigel Davenport’s character’s ultimate fate as he finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time near the film’s end.

Phase IV’s trippy ending, clearly inspired by Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) was edited down by the studio against Bass’ wishes but the cut footage was found and screened at a number of theatrical venues in 2012.

Jaws

Written by Peter Benchley and Carl Gottlieb

Directed by Steven Spielberg

USA, 1975

Based on Benchley’s novel, there is very little that hasn’t been discussed at length about the mega-hit classic Jaws.

Suffice it to say that Jaws still holds up after repeat viewings and is far superior to its international cinematic spawn that makes up a very long list of films that includes three very poor direct sequels, Michael Anderson’s Orca (1977), Oliver Hellman’s Tentacles (1977), Rene Cardona Jr.’s Tintorera (1977), Harry Kerwin & Wayne Crawford’s Barracuda (1978), and Enzo Castellari’s The Last Shark (aka Great White, 1981).

Despite a partial softening of the source novel-the Hooper character dies in the book-Jaws has a real edge missing from the vast majority of Spielberg’s work.

Prime examples include the director’s “forget the ominous build-up, they’re the nice, cute aliens” film Close Encounter of the Third Kind (1977) and Spielberg’s transformation of the proposed darker and much more interesting alien invasion movie Night Skies into the family film E.T. (1982).

Criticisms about Spielberg’s subsequent filmography aside, the much-imitated Jaws remains his best film.

The Revolt of Nature film was alive and kicking before Jaws with movies like Daniel Mann’s Willard (1971) and George McCowan’s Frogs (1972) but the incredible success of Spielberg’s film kicked production in the subgenre into high gear.

Grizzly

Written by Harvey Flaxman and David Sheldon

Directed by William Girdler

USA, 1976

Girdler started with career with the low-budget horror films Asylum of Satan (1972) and Three on a Meathook (1973) and the blaxploitation films The Zebra Killer (aka Combat Cops, 1974), Abby (1974) and Sheba Baby (1975).

With Grizzly, the director achieved a much higher level of quality with his Jaws-like story of a lethal bear wreaking havoc on a state park.

The film features some very memorable sequences including a very stylish opening attack scene and a later scene wherein a bear expert played by Richard Jaeckel tries to draw the beast out into the open by dragging a half-eaten deer carcass through the site of a recent attack by the titular killer.

All of William Girdler’s work contains some goofy moments but Grizzly is incredibly entertaining and deserves to be thought of more highly than the simple Jaws rip-off some detractors claim it to be.

Adding to the quality of the film is the presence of the talented veteran actors Christopher George, Andrew Prine and the aforementioned Jaeckel, who form a monster-hunting trio with real on-screen chemistry.

Prine’s character’s excellent speech about the long-lasting effect his experiences as a pilot during the Vietnam War had on him is a great example of one of the many ways good casting raises the level of any film.

John Frankenheimer’s major studio mutant bear film Prophecy (1979) pales in comparison to Grizzly despite an exponentially higher production budget.

Long after the 1970s/early 1980s golden age of Revolt of Nature films, ursine horror is still with us.  Lee Tamahori’s enjoyable but only fitfully successful The Edge (1997) features Anthony Hopkins and Alec Baldwin pursued by a killer bear after being stranded in the wilderness by a plane crash and Thomas Jane and James Marsden star as brothers targeted by the same in director David Hackl’s upcoming Red Machine.

Day of the Animals

Written by William Norton and Eleanor E. Norton

Directed by William Girdler

USA, 1977

After his hit film Grizzly, director Girdler made the little-seen spy/action film Project: Kill with Leslie Nielsen and Gary Lockwood then returned to the Revolt of Nature for another subgenre classic Day of the Animals.

In this film, a group of hikers are besieged by multiple animal species that have been driven to kill by the effects of a depleted ozone layer.

The film reunites Girdler with Leslie Nielsen and his Grizzly stars Christopher George and Richard Jaeckel and like that film features some fantastic scenes including a very intense and well executed dog attack sequence.

As mentioned in the Grizzly entry, all William Girdler films contain some unintentionally comic elements and in this case the scene wherein Leslie Nielsen’s character goes insane definitely elicits some laughs due to its over the top nature.

Girdler made the supernatural horror film The Manitou in 1978 before his death in a helicopter crash at the age of 30.

The Pack

Written by Robert Clouse

Directed by Robert Clouse

USA, 1977

Not to be confused with French director Richard Franck’s 2010 rural massacre film of same name and sometimes referred to as The Long Dark Night, The Pack is the best of the killer dog films.

Based on the Dave Fisher novel, the film was directed by Robert Clouse of 1973’s Enter the Dragon fame.

Joe Don Baker stars in this story of a vacationing family under attack from a group of aggressive strays.  The film is a far more effective take on the subject than Burt Brinckerhoff’s Dogs (1976) with David McCallum and also leaves Lewis Teague’s more highly regarded Stephen King adaptation Cujo (1983) in the dust along with the later and very similar Wes Craven-produced film The Breed (2006).

Particularly memorable is The Pack’s climax, centering on an attack on the family’s rented house.

Interestingly, Martyrs director Pascal Laugier was at one time attached to a film called Dogs about a war veteran defending himself against a pack of wild dogs in the desert-a concept that absolutely harkens back to canine horror of the 1970s.

Kingdom of the Spiders

Written by Richard Robinson and Alan Caillou

Directed by John Bud Cardos

USA, 1977

Asking if Kingdom of the Spiders is stupendously entertaining would be like asking if William Shatner can overact.

The actor plays a veterinarian investigating a string of animal deaths and finds the rural town he’s in to be the target of an arachnid invasion.

The film achieves an apocalyptic feel never dreamt of by the makers of Arachnophobia (1990) and the final shots that make up the great ending of Kingdom of the Spiders are still highly effective.

And yes, as you might guess from the trailer, there are some classic Shatner moments.

Piranha

Written by John Sayles

Directed by Joe Dante

USA, 1978

Based on a screen story by Sayles and Kingdom of the Spiders co-screenwriter Richard Robinson, Piranha is the best of the aquatic post-Jaws Revolt of Nature films.

A school of piranha is accidentally released into a river system that leads to a summer resort and mayhem ensues.

The film features Kevin McCarthy in a brief but very memorable performance and contains   some early career makeup effects work by Rob Bottin.

While many praise screenwriter Sayles’ insertion of humor into his horror-oriented scripts, it is actually a detriment to all of them: Piranha, Lewis Teague’s Alligator (1980) and Joe Dante’s The Howling (1981).

While some believe horror and humor fit together like hand and glove-they don’t-Sayles’ approach makes the films less intense than they should be and suggest a situation wherein the screenwriter believes that a completely serious take on a horror film is somehow beneath him.

That said, Piranha remains a highly entertaining film and one that, flaws and all, is vastly superior to its absurd and pointless 2010 remake.

Alligator

Written by John Sayles

Directed by Lewis Teague

USA, 1980

Chicago residents are threatened by a huge alligator living in the sewers in this very enjoyable Revolt of Nature film starring Robert Forster.

Despite the typical John Sayles misplaced humor, in this case a big game hunter played by Henry Silva being portrayed mainly for laughs, Alligator still works very well and features some great attack sequences.

Jon Hess directed a very weak sequel Alligator II: The Mutation (1991) that features a great performance by veteran character actor Richard Lynch as a professional alligator hunter.

If Lynch and his much more serious character could’ve replaced Silva and his character in the original, Alligator would be an even more successful film.

Director Teague’s work here got him the helming job on the 1983 Stephen King adaptation Cujo, a far lesser Revolt of Nature film.

Even after many years and many advances in special effects, Alligator remains the cinematic king in a crowded international field of alligator/crocodile horror including Sergio Martino’s The Great Alligator (1979), Sompote Sands’ Crocodile (1980), Arch Nicholson’s The Dark Age ( 1987), Steve Miner’s Lake Placid (1999) and Greg McLean’s Rogue (2007).

Frozen

Written by Adam Green

Directed by Adam Green

USA, 2010

Screenwriter/director Green, creator of the 1980’s horror film love letter Hatchet (2006) and its sequels, delivers his most mature and accomplished work by far with Frozen.

The film tells the story of a trio of friends who get stranded on a chair lift during a ski park closure and face the prospect of freezing to death or trying to make it down to the ground far below.

The problem is the ground below is full of hungry wolves.

Light years beyond the Hatchet series in quality, this tight and well-made film seemed to promise bigger and better things from Green that have yet to materialize.

The Reef

Written by Andrew Traucki

Directed by Andrew Traucki

Australia, 2010

Severely underrated and vastly superior to Chris Kentis’ similar and more successful shark attack film Open Water (2003), screenwriter/director Traucki’s tale of a group of swimmers trying to make their way to land after their boat capsizes is a highly suspenseful and well-made film.

The Reef is a big improvement over Traucki’s previous crocodile horror film Black Water (2007) and the director heads back into the wild for the upcoming The Jungle.

The Grey

Written by Joe Carnahan and Ian Mackenzie Jeffers

Directed by Joe Carnahan

2011, USA

Based on Jeffers’ short story Ghost Walker, co-screenwriter/director Carnahan wisely chose Liam Neeson for his lead actor instead of the initially announced choice Bradley Cooper.

Neeson gives one of the best performances of his career as a suicidal oil company worker who winds up surviving a plane crash along with a handful of others.

The group attempts to cross the frozen wasteland they are trapped in and find themselves under attack from a pack of highly aggressive wolves.

This intense and suspenseful film features one of the most harrowing depictions of a plane crash and its immediate aftermath you will ever see on film followed by some superbly directed wolf attack scenes.

The direct reproduction of a scene from Paul Newman’s Sometimes a Great Notion (1970) late in the film is bit disconcerting and some weren’t satisfied with the film’s ending, but The Grey is a gripping genre film that also manages to be a quite thoughtful meditation on life and death.

Just as Adam Green grew leaps and bound as a screenwriter and director with Frozen, Carnahan delivers his most mature work to date with The Grey and we can only hope he continues in that direction.

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Other Notable Revolt of Nature Films: 

These are films in the subgenre that, despite failing to make the main portion of the article, have many positive attributes and are well worth seeking out or revisiting.

Long Weekend (Colin Eggleston, 1978):  This is widely considered a classic of Australian horror and is not to be confused with the pointless 2008 Jamie Blanks remake.

Deep Blue Sea (Renny Harlin, 1999):  Bad CGI and the inexplicable survival of LL Cool J’s character aside, this is still a very entertaining film with some unique twists and a very good Thomas Jane lead acting performance.

Prey (Antoine Blossier, 2010):  This rare French foray into the subgenre, though underdeveloped, is a more compelling piece of porcine horror than Russell Mulcahy’s more popular Razorback (1984).

****

Most Overrated Revolt of Nature Films:  

These are films in the subgenre with substantial followings that ultimately do not hold up to repeat viewings.

Willard (Daniel Mann, 1971)

Frogs (George McCowan, 1972)

Squirm (Jeff Lieberman, 1976)

Cujo (Lewis Teague, 1983)

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-Terek Puckett

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By Terek Puckett

Terek Puckett is an actor, screenwriter and film writer based in Los Angeles, California. He is a graduate of Wright State University in Ohio and his areas of pop culture expertise include horror cinema and 1980's new wave & alternative music.

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