Don’t Go Near the Water: Film Beneath the Waves

Written by Film

With the release of the James Cameron-produced Sanctum looming, Popdose takes a look at other waterlogged big-screen terrors.

February 4th sees the arrival of the James Cameron-produced Sanctum, just in time for Valentine’s Day. Nothing  goes together quite like “I love you” and terror beneath the sea.

Cameron’s got more than a little bit of an issue with H2O. Aside from producing Sanctum, he’s helmed The Abyss and Titanic and produced films about deep-sea dives to the real shipwreck, including the bet-hedging Ghosts of the Abyss. He’s not the only one though. You still have to reckon with Joe Dante’s Piranha, Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, and if you’re really a masochist, Barry Levinson’s Sphere. Then there were the knockoffs like Leviathan and DeepStar Six starring Greg Evigan (sans Bear or another Dad).

Here are some of the Popdose Staff’s favorite moments thrashing about in those dangerous cinematic waters.


20,000 Leagues Under The Sea (1954) – When the term “underwater terror” is uttered, perhaps the last film that immediately springs to mind is 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, but I guarantee you that if you were an eight or nine-year-old kid in the ’70s, and you flipped through the channels to tune into the Wonderful World of Disney TV show and got this, you’d be impacted. Howling storms on the sea! Giant man-eating squid! Kirk Douglas’ singing! Save us all!

Leagues was originally set to be an animated feature, but coupled with good notices for Treasure Island and pre-production sketches that lent themselves more to standard filmmaking, Disney jumped in with both feet. The film was directed by Richard Fleischer, son of Betty Boop creator and Disney competitor Max Fleischer.

The classic scene when the Nautilus, the ship of Captain Nemo (played by James Mason), is under attack from a monstrous squid may be an indelible moment in film history, but it was the second chance for the movie makers. The first, with a goofy-looking squid on strings with a tiny retractable beak-like maw, set in front of a sickly pink backdrop, nearly destroyed the production. After viewing the dailies, all hands on deck were drawn to the same conclusion: it was godawful.

Disney, never one to willingly throw up hands and admit defeat, trudged forward when screenwriter Earl Felton suggested the setting needed more natural tension. Out went the first squid, in came the second in a nighttime, roiling maelstrom of a storm setting. Disney’s brother Roy, who was in charge of the studio’s financial side, probably had several choice words when it was suggested they attempt this scene not once, but twice. In the end though, the scene worked, the effect of it being that generations afterward would experience the movie and lose their minds, if not their bladder control, upon discovery.

It’s a whale of a tale, but it’s all true. I swear by my tattoo! –Dw. Dunphy


The Horror of Party Beach(1964) While water can be sensuous in movies (think Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr lolling in the surf in From Here to Eternity) the tide usually turns to dread: floods, tsunamis, perfect storms, drownings. And all sorts of aquatic things wash up in cinemas: The Creature from the Black Lagoon, Godzilla, Attack of the Crab Monsters, Jaws, Frogs, Humanoids from the Deep, etc. My favorite bottom dwellers, though, are the “atomic zombie” stars of The Horror of Party Beach (1964).

Long before MST3K immortalized the pickle-pussed predators they had secured a slot in Harry and Michael Medved’s 1978 book The Fifty Worst Films of All Time and had audiences rolling in the aisles at Northwestern University’s Annual B-Fest, a 24-hour Mayhemthon (still crazy after all these years) that always perked up when the fabulous “Del-Aires” launched into “The Zombie Stomp,” which was apparently all the rage among the kids who made the surf scene in exotic Stamford, CT.

A somewhat challenged answer to Frankie and Annette’s colorful Beach Party romps on the West Coast, this black-and-white schlocker really made waves with its maid character, “Eulabelle,” a stereotype who slipped in under the wire of the Civil Rights Act. “It’s the voodoo, I tells ya!” -Robert Cashill


Jaws (1975) – We love to splash and play in it, but water is inherently pretty freaky on account of how it can, you know, kill us, and our vulnerability is only compounded by the fact that we tend not to be wearing much while we’re in it. Throw an enormous killer shark in the mix, and what do you have? A psychological nightmare and a stroke of evil genius. The proto-summer blockbuster, Jaws was Spielberg’s great leap forward, the film that presented him to a greedy world as a filmmaker uniquely capable of plugging directly into our deepest childhood fantasies (or, if the mood struck him, our fears).

Jaws‘ runaway success changed the film industry, but not necessarily for the better; in the mad rush for profit, the next generation of studios and filmmakers forgot that it wasn’t really the shark that made the movie so great. It was the idea of the shark, inflated to gargantuan proportions by skillful storytelling and judiciously parceled glimpses of the beast — a fin here, a few rows of teeth there — that made the damn thing so delightfully terrifying. Roy Scheider needed a bigger boat; the rest of us needed a clean pair of pants. -Jeff Giles


Tentacles (1977) – It is a longstanding cinematic tradition that virtually every box office success will subsequently spawn no end of sub-par ripoffs. Oh, wait, that sounds kind of harsh. Instead, let’s call them imperfect duplicates…y’know, kind of like what Bizarro is to Superman? And if we’re to be honest, they aren’t always sub-par. Certainly, there are plenty of the so-called “spaghetti westerns” which, while often decried by fans of the John Wayne / Alan Ladd / Randolph Scott realm of the genre, still stand strong as classic films, a fact which can be proven with seven words: “The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly.” In 1975, however, the arrival of “Jaws” led to some seriously craptacular attempts at reproducing the success of that film…some of which didn’t even take place in the water! I mean, go on, tell me that “Grizzly” isn’t just “Jaws” with a bear instead of a shark…

Unfortunately, when you’re a kid and you’re still in the single digits (I was 5 years old when “Jaws” was released), you’re decidedly more prone to fall prey to the ads for these sorts of flicks, convincing yourself that, clearly, the title character of a movie called “Orca” truly is going to put the “killer” in “killer whale.” Or that piranhas are even more frightening than sharks, whether they’re being fought by Bradford Dillman and Heather Menzies or Lee Majors and Karen Black. Heck, the Germans even tried to make barracudas a contender for Best Reason to Stay Out of the Water…but, then, they also tried to convince us that David Hasselhoff was a pop star, and you see how far that got them.

It’s ironic that one of the posters to promote 1977’s “Tentacles” actually says, “When famed author Jules Verne first introduced the giant octopus in his novels, people laughed at his vivid imagination. This is nothing to laugh at!” Make no mistake: there is a great deal to laugh at in “Tentacles,” partly from the way they steadfastly avoid showing the octopus’s victims, particularly from how they desperately try to make the creature look threatening. It’s hard to know if the participants in the film had their tongues placed firmly in their cheeks when they worked on this production. This was, after all, the same year that Jimmy Stewart appeared in “Airport ’77,” so it’s clear that many Hollywood icons had reached a point where they were taking work either to amuse themselves, to keep active or, quite frankly, just to continue getting paid. Personally, I like to think of John Huston as a man who just enjoyed having a good time, given that, in addition to his directorial efforts, he also portrayed The Lawgiver in “Battle for the Planet of the Apes” and popped up in the unbelievably awesome “Jaguar Lives!” Somehow, though, I feel like Henry Fonda spent the ’70s and ’80s just grabbing fistfuls of dough and never looking back. (“You want me to play The President of the United States in ‘Meteor‘? I’ll call you back when the check clears.”) In fact, there’s a theory on the ‘net that they filmed his parts in “Tentacles” in his backyard…and, frankly, I believe them.

Here’s the thing, though: as disconcertingly derivative as “Tentacles” may be…and, man, your jaw will drop when you see the precision of the reproduction of the scene with the mother calling for her child who’s yet to come back from a swim…it still would’ve scared 7-year-old me to death. As such, it’s still fun to revisit the film once in awhile, have a few drinks and a few laughs, and think, “Ah, was I really ever so young?” –Will Harris


Splash (1984)Splash ranks among the most depraved, morally repugnant movies of all time, the Human Centipede of the 1980s. The plot: the spawn of some sort of unholy human-fish copulation (Daryl Hannah) attempts to kill and eat a drowning boy (young Tom Hanks), before the only shard of a soul in the hideous creature surfaces, leading it to return the boy to land, physically unharmed but now cursed with the unnatural, decadent sexual urge to lay with fish people, such as whatever that was. This attraction, nay, impulse, rears its head when the boy returns to the scene as an adult (regular Tom Hanks) to relocate and claim the sea monster for his own, and for his own sick pleasure. (Spoiler alert: I have never seen Splash.) – Brian Boone



“The Raft” from Creepshow 2 (1987) – I’m a sucker for old school horror, so it goes without saying that I love the first two Creepshow movies.  “The Raft,” the second tale from the sequel, is adapted from a Stephen King short story published five years earlier.  Like the most effective King stories it has a brutally simple premise and straightforward execution (get it?).  Four teenagers, scofflaws and stoners all of them, drive out to chill on a raft in the middle of a nearby lake.  But only after they get on do they notice that something isn’t right.  Isn’t that always the way?

I haven’t read the source material for “The Raft” but the film version plays like every gloriously cheesy horror flick you’ve ever seen from the ’80s.  It features a gang of pretty, sex-crazed white kids (including favorites like The Jock® and The Nerdy Guy®) served up on a platter for our enjoyment.  But instead of the usual psychopathic slasher, it’s a killer aqua-blob that looks more like a giant garbage bag made out of seaweed.

Cute girl #1 (Rachel) is the first to go, followed by hunky Deke and his banana hammock in a particularly gruesome kill scene.  Let me tell you, nothing harshes a buzz quite like watching your girlfriend and best bud get sucked into a murderous oil slick (“It hurts!“).  So that leaves the scrawny guy (Randy), who even in the midst of a tense standoff can’t keep his mitts off the cute girl #2 (Laverne).  Too bad she attracts more than just horny guys and ends up victim #3.  Randy, his last chance for some action denied, swims for shore and appears to make it until he stops to gloat.  Dumbass. – Chris Holmes



The Abyss (1989) – It takes a special kind of lunatic to volunteer for assignment on an underwater oil platform, where the bends, paranoia, claustrophobia and death lurk around every corner. Now throw in some water aliens, shake well (courtesy of a hurricane happening at sea level), and voila, you have James Cameron’s 1989 sea epic The Abyss. The livelihood of the crew is threatened on a number of occasions, from the above-water crane sinking and nearly dragging them into the trench, to the head Navy SEAL losing his shit due to the air pressure and pulling a gun on the crew. (It is not the subtlest of metaphors when said SEAL’s mini-sub later implodes.) It’s a where-people-go-to-die kind of job, and one that you couldn’t get us to do for all the money in the world.

The movie itself was Cameron’s biggest box office disappointment – it cost a then-unheard-of $70 million, and grossed $54 million — but it remains his most heartfelt work. That scene where Ed Harris fights to keep Mary Elizabeth Mastrontonio alive? Devastating. -David Medsker



Deep Rising (1998) We were already disinclined to spend time boating in the South Pacific – pirates, tsunamis, close proximity to Yahoo Serious – but Deep Rising officially sealed the deal. Great, now there are giant sea creatures to worry about, too.

Treat Williams is Finnegan, a morally ambiguous sailor who ships a group of thieves to an exotic cruise liner so they can hijack it, only to discover that something else has beaten them to it. Something big, and tentacle-y, and hungry. Or is it thirsty? Either way, it’s a hell of a way to die, and writer/director Stephen Sommers, who would go on to make more successful movies than this but nothing nearly as fun, embraces the good/bad nature of the plot and runs wild with it. Even better, he captures the helplessness of their predicament; do you dare enter the ocean to escape a bunch of sea creatures that have attacked your ship? How do you know there aren’t more of them waiting in the water?

Granted, Sommers probably didn’t put that much thought into it, considering the movie contains loads of ammo, an in-boat WaveRunner chase scene (you read that right), and he ends the movie the way that director Brian Helgeland told us he was taught to end a movie when he wasn’t sure what else to do: set everything on fire. It’s big and silly, but it has a surprisingly good cast (Williams, Famke Janssen, Djimon Hounsou, Wes Studi, Cliff Curtis, and Sommers regular Kevin J. O’Connor), and to date stands as the only Stephen Sommers movie that matters. And as a monster movie, it stands no chance of happening in real life…but we’re still not willing to put ourselves in the position of finding out that we’re wrong about that. -David Medsker


Deep Blue Sea (1999) – “Now, you’ve seen how bad things can get and how quick they can get that way. Well, they can get a whole lot worse.” Oh, Sam L. Jackson, you have no idea how right you were.

That was a set up line for what was this movie’s “I nearly just shit my pants,” arm rest clenching, popcorn spilling moment. It could also have  been an audience warning twenty minutes into the flick as to where Deep Blue Sea was going. This movie had me more afraid of dipping my toes into the theater again than it did dipping them into the ocean.

Deep Blue Sea had all the same old water movie scare elements: extraordinary water beast (really smart sharks), the self-absorbed protagonist (hot  corporate research chick), ethical antagonist (the shark wrangler),  dispensable humans (B-level actors you know will get killed early),  comic relief (the bumbling cook) and the ever present ominous character (the dark and cloudy ocean).

This formulaic Hollywood crap can make you lazy. You follow along as the  movie plods it’s way to the credits. You lose focus, you zone out, you think about wanting more milk duds, and then, ZANG! You nearly shit your pants. Smack dab in the middle of one of cinema’s most un-motivating “we can do it speeches” to the troops, ol’ Sam gets chomped into chum by one “bad mother fucker” shark.

Sucky movies fade into the either. Sucky movies with one killer scene live on in infamy. Deep Blue Sea is infamous for the scene where someone finally shut up Sam L. Jackson in the 1990’s. -Judd Marcello


Open Water (2003) – A reviewer over at IMDb describes Open Water as being “more like a good piece of theater,” which rings pretty true; if you’re looking for unsuspecting victims thrashing in the waves as they’re devoured by a mighty hunter of the deep, this is not your movie. It’s more an intense, intimate psychological thriller that happens to take place in the water. Based on a true story, Open Water follows a couple on vacation (Blanchard Ryan and Daniel Travis) as they are accidentally left behind in the ocean after a scuba diving expedition. There’s some cursory attention paid to the scuba crew and others on land as they eventually discover the missing passengers, but the main focus of the film is squarely on the abandoned couple, whether or not they will be rescued, and how they will cope with surviving in a patch of ocean that rapidly becomes filled with deadly sharks. The documentary-style filmmaking stays in close on the couple and manages somehow to capture them for long periods of time floating alone with no land or boats in sight; the production on this movie must have been as intense as the predicament onscreen. It’s reminiscent of The Blair Witch Project in that Open Water takes a single strand of tension and stretches it tightly over a short but excruciating running time. And like Blair Witch, it’s the best kind of excruciating — the kind you feel when you’re being masterfully manipulated by a great suspense flick. – Matt Springer



Piranha 3D (2010) – There’s never been a shortage of shitty movies that are awful without trying to be; once in awhile, we’re lucky enough to get a shitty movie that’s actually aiming for “so bad it’s good” territory. But Piranha 3D is that rarest of film fish: A movie that not only knows it’s bad, and is happy to be bad, but is really pretty goddamn great at being bad. A storyline that mashes up a natural disaster with thousands of morons in an enclosed area? Check. Lovingly gratuitous full-frontal female nudity? Check. A senselessly eclectic cast? Check, check, and check. James Cameron can have Avatar — I say if you’re going to make a 3-D movie, it might as well include laughable special effects, fish with giant teeth, and Elisabeth Shue as a no-nonsense small-town sheriff. Oh, and how many times do you think John Stamos rewound the part where Jerry O’Connell groans “They took my penis” as he bleeds to death? -Jeff Giles


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