20 of the Best Man-Versus-Animal Movies of All Time

20 of the Best Man-Versus-Animal Movies of All Time

In the trailer for his new film Beast, opening today, Idris Elba punches a lion. It sounds like the stuff of pulp trash, but the survival thriller/animal attack genre is wide-ranging, encompassing prestigious Oscar bait movies, extreme gore-fests, and lots of low-rent trash (both good and bad).

These disparate films are united in exploring the idea that nature is uncontrollable and can turn on us at a moment’s notice, upending our camping trips, jungle excursions, and surfing safaris alike. There’s pleasure to be had in watching our protagonists find ways to survive (if they do) in the face of animal fury, or the opposite; personally, I’m rarely sold on the idea of rooting for the humans.

These are 20 of the best examples of this weirdly specific sub-genre. We’re sticking to real animals that you might actually come across in nature, so no dinosaurs or talking apes. Which isn’t to say these are nature documentaries — don’t go looking too hard for accuracy when it comes to the animals’ size or behaviour.

Lake Placid (1999)

Kindly widow Delores Bickerman (Betty White) is living a quiet life in rural Maine, doing her best to take care of her beloved pet. Which, in this case happens to be a 3o-foot-long saltwater crocodile. True, it’s developed a bit of a taste for human (and bear) flesh, but that’s hardly an excuse for the local Fish and Game officer (Bill Pullman) and a visiting paleontologist (Bridget Fonda) to hassle the poor old lady.

Backcountry (2014)

Adam MacDonald made an impressive directorial debut with Backcountry before going on to make an even bigger splash (at least in horror circles) with Pyewacket a few years later. Here, Alex (Jeff Roop) and his girlfriend Emma (Missy Peregrym) set off on a camping trip for which, you know…they don’t really need a map. Because Alex has it figured out. And they don’t really need to follow the warnings of the park ranger. Because Alex knows better. And he doesn’t even need to mention that bear paw print in the mud. You can see where this is going. This is a movie that takes the threat of uncontrollable nature deadly seriously.

Jaws (1975)

The movie that defined the summer blockbuster and made Steven Spielberg a household name, Jaws is the animal attack movie ne plus ultra. It’s not just a shark-infested thrill ride; it piles on solid performances from a cast of impressive actors, all of whom take the pulpy material absolutely seriously. Whether by design or not, the movie has also taken on added resonance in the decades since its release — the open-the-beach-and-hope-for-the-best mayor serving as a stand-in for any number of politicians who’d rather we look the other way when facing down an inconvenient truth.

Anaconda (1997)

The perfect blend of A-list talent and B-movie sensibilities, Anaconda rather brilliantly knows exactly what kind of movie it is without ever dipping into the realm of parody. Jennifer Lopez plays a documentary filmmaker shooting in the Amazon when she and her crew are beset by the biggest snake anyone’s ever seen. At the risk of spoiling a 25-year-old movie: you haven’t seen anything until you’ve seen a giant anaconda swallow Jon Voight whole.

The Grey (2011)

Liam Neeson is, once again, a man with a very particular set of skills. This time, it’s shooting wolves from a helicopter, and later, punching them in the face. A sharpshooter working for an oil company, John Ottway (Neeson) finds himself among the small number of oil workers to survive a plane crash. It’s a particularly harsh winter, and the local wolf population is particularly desperate. Director Joe Carnahan conjures an unrelentingly bleak atmosphere that draws us in as well as any horror movie. Given the circumstances, I’d be almost inclined to side with the wolves, but The Grey’s surprisingly believable characters draw us in.

The Birds (1963)

The Birds is the closest that Hitchcock ever got to supernatural horror, with the behaviour of the various attacking creatures never really explained (except in their being drawn to human conflict). Still, it speaks to not-unreasonable phobias about the ability of our feathered friends to turn threatening, should they choose. And could you blame them if they did?

Open Water (2003)

Even for those of us with no particular fear of the water, the set-up

is pretty horrifying: missed during a head count on scuba-diving trip, a couple are left behind in the middle of the water. Which: bad enough. Then the stinging jellyfish show up, right around the time the couple notices the sharks have begun to circle. Spoiler: the sharks are not friendly.

Cujo (1983)

Cujo isn’t a great movie, even among Stephen King adaptations, but it does speak to a deep, well-founded fear that our four-legged best friends might turn on us. Particularly in the days before rabies vaccinations were readily available, there existed the strong possibility that the disease could turn a beloved pet into a slavering monster with no chance of recovery. As scary as the dog is here, even more horrifying is the fact that he was once a kid’s pal.

The Ghost and the Darkness (1996)

You have to go back to 1996 to find the last major American movies about lion attacks, suggesting, I suppose, that we’ve had other things on our minds since (sharknados, mostly). It’s set in 1898 and based on the true story of a pair of lions referred to as the Tsavo man-eaters, who terrorised railway workers in Kenya. Val Kilmer plays the British Colonel assigned to deal with the threat, joined by a famous hunter played by Michael Douglas. Critics at the time were justifiably split on the movie, and it is yet another movie set in Africa that centres white people, but director Stephen Hopkins conjures an atmosphere of palpable danger.

Crawl (2019)

Particularly in our age of out-of-control climate change, flooding has become a growing fear, ever for those who located in traditional in flood zones. Director Alexandre Aja (High Tension) takes that concern and cranks the dial up about as far as it will go in telling the story of a family trapped on the ground level of their house in the wake of a hurricane. The town is flooded and otherwise deserted…and the basement is full of alligators who found their way inside. Did I mention that the movie is set in Florida? Home to well over a million of the creatures?

Frozen (2010)

Best not confused with the other Frozen, this one from writer/director Adam Green finds three friends on a ski lift, having convinced the operator to let them go for one last run. The ski lift operator promptly forgets about them, and shuts everything down while they’re well off the ground. When one of them decides to jump, it only serves to let a nearby wolf pack know that there’s meat dangling just over their heads. As gross-out horror movies involving ski-lifts go, it’s pretty fun.

The Shallows (2016)

Like Open Water, The Shallows finds us trapped in shark-infested water, though in this case it’s a single great white. Which is plenty. Blake Lively plays a medical student struggling with the recent death of her mother who makes an ill-advised trip to a secluded beach to surf alone, and finds herself trapped on a rocky outcrop with a hungry shark circling. Where Open Water was almost pure adrenaline, this one pulls back to dive into the psyche of the film’s only character. Ex-Gossip Girl Lively gives a surprisingly effective performance.

Revenant (2015)

The bear attack is really only the inciting incident in Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s Oscar-winning adventure drama. Leonardo DiCaprio plays Hugh Glass, a real-life frontiersman who was mauled by a grizzly bear and left for dead by his companions back in 1823. The movie then becomes an endurance test for Glass, and occasionally for the audience, as Glass fights his way back to civilisation (and revenge). DiCaprio (who won Best Actor for his performance) commits to the role with a compelling single-mindedness.

Piranha 3D (2010)

From the nearly-sublime to the intentionally ridiculous, 2010’s Piranha serves as a rough remake of Joe Dante’s 1978 original, itself intended as a bit of a parody of Jaws and its copycats. This one brings in New French Extremity director Alexandre Aja (High Tension, Crawl) for an uncharacteristic bit of comedy, ramping up the gore and increasing the number of bare chests exponentially. The surprisingly impressive cast includes Elisabeth Shue, Adam Scott, Ving Rhames, Christopher Lloyd, and Richard Dreyfuss. It’s a lot of fun if you’ve got the stomach for it, though it admittedly doesn’t have a whole lot to do with the behaviour of actual piranhas.

Alligator (1980)

The late, great Robert Forster plays Detective David Madison, whose character apparently Max Cherry in Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown. A Florida family flushes an unwanted baby alligator down the toilet. In an ode to the many legends of giant sewer alligators, this one grows big and strong over the course of a dozen years, first munching on maintenance workers before making its way aboveground. It’s all in good fun, perfectly content to revel in B-movie tropes.

The Edge (1997)

David Mamet wrote this story about a photographer (Alec Baldwin) and a rich businessman (Anthony Hopkins) forced to work together following a plane crash in the Alaskan wilderness. It doesn’t help that the two have a history: Baldwin’s photographer had been spotted putting the moves on the rich man’s wife (Elle Macpherson); it helps even less that they’re being stalked by a hungry bear. That bear gets his own credit in the film, as he was played by Bart the Bear, a trained Kodiak who’d been in over a dozen major productions.

Burning Bright (2010)

As 2019’s Crawl would see alligators show up in a basement following a hurricane, Burning Bright involves a tiger who follows much the same game plan. The set-up is a little more convoluted, but still fairly effective once it gets going: the father of Kelly (Briana Evigan) and her brother Tom (Charles Tahan) spent all the family’s money on a tiger (as one does), with the goal of building a safari park. With a hurricane approaching, a mysterious figure traps the two inside their boarded-up house with the big cat on the loose. Probably not a scenario that any of us need be particularly frightened of, but scary on its own terms.

Boar (2017)

The seams show a bit in this low-budget Australian thriller, but there’s plenty of fun to be had with the story of a wild pig that’s loose in the outback and, naturally, out for blood. The movie’s mission to generate boar-related thrills and kills is pretty straightforward, but that’s not such a bad thing.

Ben (1972)

A slight improvement over 1971’s Willard, to which this movie is a sequel, Ben finds a young boy with a heart condition taking solace in the company of his new pal: Ben, the leader of a colony of rats that grew violent (not without provocation) in the previous film. There’s plenty of “ravening hordes of rodents” action here, but a surprising sweetness, as well, in the relationship between Ben and his adopted human. And dig that Michael Jackson title track.

White God (2014)

Finally, a movie that teaches us to fear animals for all the right reasons. Hungarian stunner White God follows a mixed-breed dog named Hagen who befriends a 13-year-old girl. After her father forces her to get rid of the dog, Hagen is forced to join a dog-fighting ring, and is starved and abused in scenes that will be tough to dog lovers to stomach. Hagen isn’t done, though, eventually leading his fellow abused and abandoned dogs on a glorious journey of revenge against the humans who’ve wronged them. For all the (often very enjoyable) movies about the dangers of nature, it’s good to remember that, in any battle of humanity vs. nature, we’re rarely deserving heroes.


One response to “20 of the Best Man-Versus-Animal Movies of All Time”

Leave a Reply