In the new movie Cocaine Bear, a hearty collection of up-for-anything actors face one of Mother Nature’s most fearsome foes: a 500-pound black bear hopped up on sweet, sweet nose candy. And while Cocaine Bear may be one of the odder man-versus-beast cinematic showdowns, it’s hardly the first. Lions and tigers and bears (oh shit!) have chased, mauled, eaten, or otherwise dispatched Oscar winners and B-movie players alike. So with Cocaine Bear about to tear into the box office, now’s a good time to fill up your streaming queue with classics, cult favorites, and critically reviled duds where man faces off against all manner of animal and insect. Here, in chronological order, are 18 creature face-off films with real teeth—or tusks, beaks, claws, or paws.
The Birds (1963)
Alfred Hitchcock, with this 1963 horror-thriller, did for birds what he’d done for showers in Psycho: morph something familiar, nondescript, and seemingly harmless into objects of terror. Here, birds inexplicably go on the attack in the Northern California hamlet of Bodega Bay, and Hitch follows the event from the very beginning, focusing on several rather unlikable people (including characters played by Tippi Hedren, Rod Taylor, Suzanne Pleshette, and Jessica Tandy) as they contend with the crazed, feathered fiends. These people are loathsome enough to make you root for the birds, which was very likely the director’s goal. Believe it or not, The Birds is very loosely based on a Daphne du Maurier book, but retains one key element: the titular creatures attack for reasons that are unknown—and are never revealed. Though the Oscar-nominated special effects feel antiquated today, three major set pieces—birds gathering in a park, birds entering a house through a chimney, and birds terrorizing Hedren while she’s trapped in a phone booth—remain as effective as ever. Oh, and look for the requisite Hitchcock cameo early on in a pet shop.
There really is no further praise to be heaped upon Steven Spielberg’s Jaws. Since its 1975 premiere, it’s been showered with awards, obsessed over, written about, watched and rewatched and, most importantly, thoroughly enjoyed. Sure, one can argue that the film might have been substantially less effective without John Williams’ Oscar-winning score. But let’s not devalue the editing genius of Oscar-nominated Verna Fields (who cobbled together a thrilling and terrifying film from a famously troubled shoot) or the performances of Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw, and Richard Dreyfuss. They all helped convince us that a vaguely realistic looking and constantly malfunctioning rubber shark was the most fearsome creature on the planet. But Jaws isn’t just a masterpiece, it’s the film that launched the era of the blockbuster and Hollywood’s reliance on IP and endless sequels. OK, maybe that hasn’t always been such a great thing, but Jaws is still tremendously entertaining.
What happens when a jerk of a dad flushes his teen daughter’s baby alligator down the toilet in their Chicago home? Yup, it gets cozy in the tunnels of the Windy City, growing larger and larger, the result of chowing down on the remains of discarded animals that had been the subjects of a failed growth-formula experiment. The real problems start when the mega-gator, all 36 feet and 2,000 pounds of it, starts devouring humans, first underground and then on the surface. Robert Forster gives it his all as a down-on-his-luck cop who warns everyone about what’s happening, though no one believes him. Henry Silva hams it up as a big-game hunter who tries—“tries” being the operative word—to kill the beast. Directed by Lewis Teague and, oddly enough, written by indie-film darling John Sayles, Alligator is a near-perfect B-movie: cheesy, scary, fun, drenched in fake blood, and smart. Oh, is it smart. The best scene occurs near the end, as the (convincingly rendered) alligator rampages at a ritzy outdoor wedding, targeting everything and everyone, but especially some corporate types, among them the Big Bad portrayed by Dean Jagger. So, literally, the alligator eats the rich. Subtle? Nope. Entertaining as hell? Yup.
Cujo is the sweetest St. Bernard on Earth—at least until he’s bitten by a rabid bat and goes bonkers. Lewis Teague, who’d previously directed the low-budget man-vs-beastie gem Alligator, directed Cujo, the 1983 big-screen adaptation of Stephen King’s novel. The final showdown between protective mom Donna (Dee Wallace) and Cujo is solid, but predictable. More satisfying is the sequence in which Cujo—bloodied face oozing gunk—attacks Donna and her son Tad (Danny Pintauro of Who’s The Boss?!) as they sit helplessly in their broken-down Ford Pinto. Cujo snarls and snaps nastily as he sticks his head through the car’s window and repeatedly rams the car. It’s a violent, claustrophobic sequence that Wallace and Pintauro play to the hilt, which was pulled off with the help of several specially trained dogs, a mechanical pooch, and even a stuntman in a canine suit. And you’ve got to love the kicker line of dialogue: “It’s not a monster,” Donna says, trying and failing to calm Tad. “It’s just a doggie.”
Russell Mulcahy made his feature directing debut with the Australian horror flick Razorback. Yes, it’s about a massive murderous pig. Two scenes vie for best-of honors. The opening sequence starts with an older man sweetly putting his grandson to sleep in a crib when the boar wreaks havoc. It’s fast and fiery and violent, and Mulcahy immerses you in the explosive action. Even more powerful is the grand finale. The film’s central character, an American named Carl (Gregory Harrison), has already contended with the death of his wife, and attacks by wild pigs and the killer boar, when it all boils down to a battle between Carl and the raging razorback in a cannery filled with hanging animal carcasses. The oversized pig is a practical wonder, and Mulcahy doesn’t stint on the gore, thereby making the film’s ending, as noted, even better than its exhilarating beginning.
Monkey Shines (1988)
One of George A. Romero’s best non-zombie fright-fests is this adaptation of Michael Stewart’s novel about Allan Mann (Jason Beghe), an athlete who becomes a quadriplegic following a car accident. Allan’s scientist friend Geoffrey (John Pankow) gifts him a capuchin monkey named Ella, which is trained to feed, shave, and otherwise support him. Allan and Ella bond. More than that, they become telepathically linked. How? Geoffrey’s been conducting experiments on Ella and it goes haywire from there, as the monkey feeds into Allan’s darkest impulses, first turning on people around Allan and then on Allan. Truth be told, the beginning moves too slowly, the ending borders on the absurd, and Beghe makes Allan an unsympathetic protagonist. Still, Monkey Shines is beautifully shot, intermittently absorbing and scary, and Boo, who played Ella, is a wonder to behold. Anyone who thinks Romero only directed walking dead movies should definitely check it out.
Moviegoers have been treated to lots of movies pitting man against arachnids and their genetic cousins, including Kingdom Of The Spiders, Eight-Legged Freaks, Big Ass Spiders, and Lavalantula. But if we’re talking about the most memorable movie moments/scenes, we’re team Arachnophobia. Frank Marshall, making his directing debut, never quite decides if his movie is a horror tale or a comedy—Disney billed it as a “thrill-omedy.” He builds tension in scene after scene as an old man puts on his slippers, a football player dons his helmet, until eventually, spiders burst through a bathroom sink, pop up in a toilet, and terrorize a teen as she showers. But best and creepiest of all is the final sequence in which Dr. Ross Jennings (Jeff Daniels), who’s spent most of Arachnophobia cowering at the sight of spiders, takes on masses of them in the cellar of his home. Marshall shot most of the scene in the dark, in a tight set, with real and fake spiders creeping along, and he captures Jennings’ fear beautifully, including the a-ha moment: “Oh shit, I’m in the goddamn nest.”
Man’s Best Friend (1993)
TV journalist Lori Tanner (Ally Sheedy), sick of inconsequential stories, gets her shot at the serious stuff when she investigates accusations of vivisection and genetic engineering on dogs at EMAX Laboratories. The accusations are legit, and one particular dog, a Tibetan mastiff named Max, escapes and is adopted by Tanner. He adores her and she adores him, but the big guy is a threat to pretty much everyone and anything around her: a boyfriend, a local cat, the mailman, and that cute female dog next door. Max can understand human conversations, climb trees, and pee acidic urine. The villainous Dr. Jarrett, head of EMAX, wants the dog back ASAP, in part because he routinely drugs Max to keep him docile, and the latest dose is about to wear off. Man’s Best Friend isn’t quite a dog, and the eminently watchable Lance Henriksen plays Dr. Jarrett, but it’s good, clean (OK, slobbery and dirty) fun.
The Ghost And The Darkness (1996)
The Ghost And The Darkness, Stephen Hopkins’ 1996 adaptation of the non-fiction book The Man-Eaters Of Tsavo by John Henry Patterson, pits Michael Douglas and Val Kilmer against the title characters, a pair of male lions that terrorized workers in and around Tsavo, Kenya, in the late 1800s. There’s a cool scene in which the Ghost and the Darkness—those are the lions’ names—attack Douglas and Kilmer, and another well-executed sequence in which the lions massacre a makeshift hospital. It’s exciting stuff, nimbly cut together, and complemented by sound editing so good it won an Oscar.
Luis Llosa knew his way around a good action scene, as he’d proven with Sniper and The Specialist. And he delivered a bunch of them in the surprise hit Anaconda, in which the biggest effing snake you’ve ever seen attacks the crew (Jennifer Lopez, Ice Cube, Kari Wuhrer, Eric Stoltz, Owen Wilson) of a documentary being shot in the Amazon. Supposedly helping the crew is a jerk of a snake hunter named Paul (Jon Voight). Wilson dies a pretty good death, squeezed by the snake and pulled into the water, but Voight’s demise is one for the ages. Anaconda is the kind of movie that gives audiences exactly what they want and does it with professionalism, sheen, and a bit of a B-movie wink.
Deep Blue Sea (1999)
Relentlessly entertaining and utterly predictable—well, except for that insane scene which we won’t spoil—Deep Blue Sea compels audiences to oooh and aaah and scream and laugh in all the right places. Directed by Renny Harlin, on the comeback trail after the disastrous Cutthroat Island and the so-so The Long Kiss Goodnight, the story unfolds in a remote underwater research facility where genetically engineered sharks causes all manner of mayhem. Harlin rarely lifts his foot off the gas and delivers an action-horror movie so fast-paced and fun, it’s easy to forgive the fact that it’s a B-movie on steroids. Thomas Jane heads up a solid cast that also includes Samuel L. Jackson, Saffron Burrows, Jacqueline McKenzie, Stellan Skarsgard, Michael Rapaport, and LL Cool J. The visuals and sets are top-notch, while Trevor Rabin’s eclectic score hits the mark, and LL Cool J steals the show as Preacher, the facility’s industrious chef, who just won’t die despite the sharks’ best efforts.
Lake Placid (1999)
There are plenty of great kills in Lake Placid, which earned its R-rating and then some. Steve Miner, whose other horror outings include Friday The 13th Part 2, Friday The 13th Part III, and Halloween H20: 20 Years Later knows his way around dismembering people. To be fair, the best scene in Lake Placid is probably one in which dear, sweet, psychotic Betty White beckons the film’s monstrous 30-foot-long crocodile to come and get its supper—a cow that gets devoured in a glorious wide shot. But among its human victims, we’ll go with a scene on a boat where Deputy Burke (Jed Rees) leans over the edge and loses his head to the croc while poor Bridget Fonda screams in terror. It’s an impeccably shot sequence built on the misdirection that Fonda or Bill Pullman or Oliver Platt will actually be croc food. Meanwhile, anyone remember who wrote Lake Placid? It was none other than esteemed television writer David E. Kelley!
Snakes On A Plane (2006)
Remember this one, folks? The title alone spurred an internet sensation that led to insane hype ... and a dud of a movie. Really, though, it seemed soooooo promising: Sam Jackson. Mutherfucking snakes on a mutherfucking plane. Action and horror director David R. Ellis (Final Destination 2) behind the camera. A supporting cast that included Kenan Thompson, Julianna Margulies, Bobby Cannavale, and David Koechner. And did we mention mutherfucking snakes on a mutherfucking plane? Basically, someone wants a passenger on a plane very, very dead, and thus unleashes lotsa snakes on the aircraft, which sends Jackson’s FBI character into action mode. Reacting to the public swell of anticipation, New Line and Ellis added new, more violent, footage to jack Snakes On A Plane from a PG-13 to an R, making the film silly fun. Intriguingly, though, it only grossed $15 million in its opening weekend. If it launched huge, that’d be one thing, but it proved to be a box office hiss, er, miss, from the get-go.
Piranha 3D (2010)
Alexandre Aja went balls to the wall with Piranha 3D, his 2010 remake of Joe Dante’s 1978 Piranha, delivering a delirious mix of horror and comedy that’s exemplified by the scene in which kid-hating, coke-snorting, porn-making, world-class asshole Derrick Jones (Jerry O’Connell) finds himself in the water, gushing blood, as a swarm of piranha devour his body. With the help of a nubile babe, Danni (Kelly Brook), he drags himself onto a boat—and we get the big reveal. He’s been chewed to the bone from his waist down, and Danni uses an oar to swat the still-eating piranha off him. O’Connell then delivers the line of the movie: “They took my penis!” Gory and twisted and funny as hell, this is a rare 3D movie that’s actually worthy of an extra D.
The Grey (2011)
Everything great about Joe Carnahan’s The Grey comes together in its final scene: Everyone around John Ottway (Liam Neeson) is dead, picked off one by one by wolves after their plane crash-lands in the wilds of Alaska. Ottway realizes he’s sitting in the middle of a wolves’ den, with the alpha wolf eyeballing him. It’s been his job to kill wolves, and now they’re ready to return the favor. But this is Liam Neeson, and he won’t go down without a fight, right? Wisely, though, we don’t see the fight. Carnahan shows Ottway making his peace, flashes back to memories of his wife and his childhood, lets him quote a poem (“Once more into the fray/Into the last fight I’ll ever know/Live and die on this day/Live and die on this day”), and depicts him grasping a knife and strapping broken mini-bottles of liquor onto his hands. Then, Ottway’s eyes narrow, he begins to lunge forward, and … fade to black. It’s a stunning final scene, unrushed, elegiac, and given added emotional heft by Marc Streitenfeld’s spot-on score. It’s a surprisingly existential ending to a muscular, exciting, and riveting film.
Bears, like spiders, are a big-screen staple and they’ve served as particularly formidable antagonists in Grizzly, The Edge, and Cocaine Bear. But nothing, and this bears repeating, nothing beats Backcountry. Young couple Jen (Missy Peregrym) and Alex (Jeff Roop) head into the woods for an adventure he plans to cap with a marriage proposal. But when he injures his leg, suddenly he’s bear bait. Director Adam MacDonald gives viewers time to know and like Jen and Alex before putting them through a climatic seven minutes of hell. This final scene, realized with a combination of a real bear and puppets, delivers a master class in ratcheting tension. MacDonald shot it hand-held in a Blair Witch/shaky-cam style with a mix of close-ups and wide shots, and from inside and outside the tent. And he doesn’t stint on the gore which is, don’t judge us, mostly why we’re here.
Idris Elba versus a lion sure sounded great on paper, but it more or less falls into Snakes On A Plane territory: Be careful what you wish for, as expectations can be a beast to live up to. What we get in Beast is 93 minutes of Elba battling a pissed-off lion—and bravely, desperately trying to protect his daughters (Iyana Halley and Leah Savason) and an old biologist friend (Sharlto Copley)—on the grounds of a South African game reserve. Even at such a lean running time, Beast grows a bit predictable despite gorgeous cinematography (by Philippe Rousselot), strong performances (by everyone), an effective score (from Steven Price), and mostly convincing visual effects.
Cocaine Bear (2023)
Elizabeth Banks steps back behind the camera for her third film as a director with Cocaine Bear, which follows Pitch Perfect 2 and 2019’s Charlie’s Angels. We love the bonkers premise, which is actually based on a true story about a massive black bear that ingested 70 pounds of coke … and died. Cocaine Bear cranks up the narrative considerably, with Banks’ digital animal eating bags of coke, then brutally killing lots of people as it seeks its next hit. The film spins the story as a jet-black comedy, with blood spurting everywhere. Weta FX created the bear and Banks wrangled an ace cast that includes Keri Russell, O’Shea Jackson Jr., Alden Ehrenreich, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, and the late Ray Liotta. History will determine if Cocaine Bear scores at the box office or disappoints, a la Beast and Snakes On A Plane. At least one thing is certain: for one brief, shining moment, the bear was having a good time.