For those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, spring is finally hitting its stride. April’s showers are starting to give way to warmer, sunnier weather; the days are getting longer, and everyone’s excited to spend more time outside!
Well, most people, anyway. I don’t like to go outside because when I was nine years old, I watched Jaws and have been terrified of sharks—and by extension, the natural world—ever since. Never mind the fact that I lived in the decidedly freshwater state of Michigan until my mid-twenties and didn’t even see the ocean until moving to North Carolina. Jaws taught me that nature can’t be trusted, and that The Outdoors wasn’t so much great as it was eerie.
So as the weather turns warm and the birds begin to sing, my friends and neighbors don shorts and t-shirts and head outside. But personally, I prefer to sit indoors and watch these movies, each of which reminds me that I’ve made the right decision.
If you’d like to join me in not joining the outdoor kids, here are some of the best movies about the dangers that lurk in the eerie outdoors. But before I get into the list, I need to make a few clarifications. I’ve left Jaws off the list because you’ve all probably already seen Jaws (and if you haven’t, you’re very lucky because that means you get to watch Jaws for the first time!). I’ve also tried to limit myself to movies about the outdoors itself—animals, plants, etc.—being scary, which means no witches, demons, or serial killers lurking in the forest (but The Witch, Evil Dead 2, and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre are all amazing films!). I’ve also kept off movies about absurdly mutated creatures, so there’s no Godzilla or The Prophecy here.
Even with those restrictions, I still had a hard time limiting myself to just ten movies. Do you know why? Because the outdoors is scary, and we movie fans know it!
The Birds (1963)
I’m sure that you’ve all heard of The Birds. The Alfred Hitchcock-directed classic is the grand-daddy of all “nature attacks” horror movies, shifting the genre away from movies about giant mutant creatures to more mundane (but still terrifying) horrors. But as firmly as the movie sits in the cultural imagination, many have not seen it.
As someone who only recently saw The Birds for the first time, I can say that it’s a shame that people only know the film for its basic premise and special effects because the movie is a blueprint of how to present a story with an unpersonified threat. The human characters in The Birds are just as interesting, and you cannot help but get caught up in the machinations of bored rich girl Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren), the self-satisfied lawyer Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor), his controlling mother (Jessica Tandy), his ex-girlfriend (Suzanne Pleshette), and his little sister (Veronica Cartwright, already establishing herself as a scream queen). Hitchcock indulges his fondness for Freudian touches, including a round of reaction shots between Melanie, Mitch, and his mother that underscore the threat mom sees in her boy’s new squeeze. But all this serves to bring stakes to the chilling central story about the birds suddenly, violently going mad.
Scene to Keep You Sealed Inside: The reveal of the birds’ first victim, kept completely silent by sound supervisor Bernard Hermann.
If The Birds is the grandfather of animal attack movies, then Jaws is his favorite son, the blockbuster that followed Hitchcock’s lead in inserting a relentless killer animal into a compelling human drama. The success of Jaws set off a whole new round of killer animal imposters, but my favorite of the bunch is 1976’s Grizzly, directed by William Girdler (who also made the solid scary nature movies Day of the Animals and The Manitou). Grizzly stars ’70s B-movie great Christopher George (no relation) as a park ranger who must hunt down the 18-foot man-eating bear terrorizing a state park that the supervisor (Joe Dorsey) refuses to close down.
Yes, it is a Jaws rip-off. No, it is not as good as Jaws. But is it a satisfying movie about a giant freakin’ bear? How could it not be?
Scene to Keep You Sealed Inside: In the opening scene, the grizzly mauls a camper with a brutality that would make even Jason Voorhees feel uneasy.
In my opinion, Grizzly is the best Jaws knock-off film. But in the opinion of Stephen Spielberg, the best Jaws knock-off/parody is Piranha, produced by Roger Corman. Like many movies of the late Seventies, Piranha has all the hallmarks of a post-Jaws animal attack movie, including an opening death involving late-night skinny-dippers, experts desperate to warn the locals of the immediate danger (Bradford Dillman and Heather Menzies), and a duplicitous capitalist who refuses to heed the warning (Dick Miller). But in the hands of director Joe Dante (who would go on to make Gremlins and The ‘Burbs) and writer John Sayles (writer of Alligator and The Howling), Piranha is equal parts madcap energy and critique of America, as these man-eating fish are the result of the U.S. military experiments to create a new weapon in the Vietnam War.
Scene to Keep You Sealed Inside: When the little razor-fanged fish reach a summer camp, Piranha triples the havoc of the “Kitner boy” death scene in Jaws.
Not only did nine-year-old me see Jaws for the first time, but I also was exposed to Cujo at that age, thanks to my older cousin. Although I soon got over the fear of dogs this film instilled in me, scenes from Cujo stuck with me long into adulthood. And although I did not re-watch the movie again until I was researching for this piece, I’m pleased to announce that adult me still found it incredibly scary. Adapted from the novel by Stephen King, Cujo features a lovable Saint Bernard turned rabid from a bat’s bite. But director Lewis Teague follows the novel’s lead by focusing largely on the troubled marriage and family life of Donna and Vic Trenton (Dee Wallace and Daniel Hugh-Kelly) and their young son Tad (Danny Pintauro). But when it’s time for Cujo to go nuts, Teague ratchets up the tension with a third act that almost exclusively focuses on Donna and Tad trapped in their car by the huge dog.
Scene to Keep You Sealed Inside: Every single time Donna contemplates opening her car door, while little Tad cries in terror.
The Nest (1987)
Some people might take issue with the films on this list for demonizing creatures that do not in reality tend to target and attack humans (great white sharks, more than all others). But I don’t know that many people would get angry with director Terrence H. Winkless for making a movie about killer cockroaches. Like many of these films, it follows a fairly familiar plot structure, in which a small-town sheriff (Frank Luz) and his lady friend (Lisa Langlois) try to save people from an onslaught of man-eating roaches, created in part by a greedy mayor (Robert Lansing). But you don’t go to a movie like The Nest for a plot. No, you watch The Nest because it manifests everything you intrinsically fear about roaches, making them far squirmier and gooier than their real-life counterparts.
Scene to Keep You Sealed Inside: Roaches devouring an old-timer, spilling blood all over his long underwear.
Where Winkless deserves credit for making a scary movie about an unsettling insect, it takes a true genius to make a creature normally known for terrorizing only tomatoes into a killing machine. Based on the novel by Shaun Huston and directed by Juan Piquer Simón, Slugs is exactly what it sounds like: a movie about killer slugs. Yes, these slugs are mutated by toxic waste, which does slightly bend the restrictions I laid out at the top of my piece. But as anyone who has accidentally touched a slug can tell you, those little streaks of slime have haunted our imaginations for years. Whatever it takes to get them a starring role in a horror movie is worth it.
Scene to Keep You Sealed Inside: A woman falls into a pile of carnivorous slugs, which promptly burrow through her skin.
It’s amazing that Hollywood got spiders wrong for so long. Spiders had shown up in horror films before Arachnophobia, but they were often massively mutated or altered, as in the MST3K classic The Giant Spider Invasion. But as plenty of folks can tell you, spiders don’t need to be big to be scary. And that’s the point that super-producer Frank Marshall made in his directorial debut, Arachnophobia. The spiders who menace new doctor Ross Jennings (Jeff Daniels) and his wife Molly (Harley Jane Kozak) may be slightly larger than the average arachnid you’d find in the small California town where the movie takes place, but Marshall finds plenty of cringe-inducing hiding places for these little killers to lie in wait, including beneath a toilet seat and in a football player’s helmet.
Scene to Keep You Sealed Inside: A spider slowly crawls up the leg of a camper trying to sleep.
The Ruins (2008)
Like Hostel and Turistas, The Ruins is a movie about ugly American teens making fools of themselves abroad. But unlike those films, their punishment comes not in the form of clichéd sinister foreigners that the movie wants us to fear, but from the land itself. When the Americans, who include Jonathan Tucker and Jena Malone, ignore the locals’ advice and visit Mexican ruins, they find themselves beset by sentient vines. Director Carter Smith takes what could have been a goofy premise and builds an atmosphere of genuine dread and suspense. (And if you think that’s easy, may I remind you of the way M. Night Shyamalan once handled a similar plot?) The Ruins will not only make you want to stay inside; it will make you throw out all of your houseplants.
Scene to Keep You Sealed Inside: A living vine enters an open wound. Whatever you’re picturing, the movie is worse.
Willow Creek (2013)
Directed by comedian-turned-provocateur Bobcat Goldthwait, Willow Creek manages to overtakes The Blair Witch Project as the world’s best sylvan found footage horror movie. Shot from the perspective of a would-be cryptozoologist (Bryce Johnson) and his girlfriend (Alexie Gilmore), Willow Creek follows the couple’s trip into the titular woods to search for a sasquatch. And then they find it. The movie harnesses the best that found footage technique has to offer, complete with realistic (if sometimes irritating) characters and the immediacy of vérité filmmaking. But unlike so many movies (*cough* Blair Witch *cough*), it builds horror by showing instead of telling. We see the terror on the protagonists’ faces and hear the eerie, inexplicable sounds surrounding them.
Scene to Keep You Sealed Inside: A long unbroken take in which the couple sits in their tent, listening to the creature come closer and closer…
In the Earth (2021)
In this recent release from British director Ben Wheatley, two scientists (Joel Fry and Ellora Torchia) enter a forest looking for their lost mentor (Hayley Squires), who had been working on a cure for the devastating virus gripping the globe. Conceived and shot during the pandemic, In the Earth’s best parts admittedly do involve a crazed man in the woods (delightfully played by Reece Shearsmith) more than the terror of the forest itself. But because it’s the forest that drives him to the point of violence—a process Wheatley illustrates with psychedelic visuals—I’m counting it on this list. The lore doesn’t entirely come together, nor do all the visuals. But they don’t need to, in the end, because the movie is set in the woods and the woods are scary. Period.
Scene to Keep You Sealed Inside: After losing his shoes, Fry’s character must walk barefoot through the forest. The injury he sustains is gnarly, made all the worse by its realism.
Originally published April 2021.