A guide to eco-horror movies

The eco-horror genre in cinema shows us how we really feel about nature. And it isn’t pretty.

Text—Jason Anderson

Illustrations—Estée Preda

Eco-horror films have been terrorizing moviegoers since the Creature from the Black Lagoon first crawled out of its swamp in 1954. Or, perhaps more memorably, since a horde of angry seagulls blew up a gas station in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, nearly 10 years later.

Once the domain of the fantastical and bizarre, the genre has evolved over the years to reflect our very real feelings of guilt and anxiety over the harm we’ve perpetrated against nature, not to mention our dread over the consequences we’re already experiencing. With many more films capitalizing on these fears, our alarming epoch is proving to be a cash cow for eco-horror movies. Here, we’ve catalogued just some of the freaky tropes from across this vast, unnerving genre.

When animals attack

Out in the real world, most of us feel pretty secure about humankind’s place atop the food chain. Yet many movies remind us just how tasty we may be. Steven Spielberg’s 1975 blockbuster about a New England beach town terrorized by a great white shark, Jaws, inspired countless nightmares about what lurks underwater while unfairly maligning a sea creature that largely prefers other menu items. Nevertheless, the influence of Spielberg’s megahit wasn’t only palpable in the many drive-in copycats that vilified other wildlife, from killer whales (Orca) to killer bees (The Swarm), but in recent shark-baiting successors like The Shallows too. Then there’s Sharknado, which brought the marine terror far beyond the shoreline, to ridiculous, if highly memorable, effect. The 2019 film Crawl took a more earnest approach to the same theme of invading seaborne predators — this time with alligators — who ride in on a Category 5 hurricane. An outlandish story, sure, but it’s a premise that could be lifted straight from the latest news about climate change.

Jaws: Steven Spielberg

Revenge of the plants

We may be cautious about poison ivy and thorny rose bushes when it comes to the dangers of flora, but we’re never cautious enough. The eerie 1962 movie version of John Wyndham’s science-fiction novel The Day of the Triffids portrays a world ravaged by sentient, carnivorous plant life that arrives on earth via a meteor (Soviet bioengineers were the culprits in Wyndham’s original). Further examples of horticultural horror include The Ruins, the big-screen adaptation of Scott Smith’s bestseller about American tourists menaced by old growths at a Mayan temple, and The Happening, M. Night Shyamalan’s alternately cheesy and creepy tale of plants that develop a nasty neurotoxin as a means of payback.

The Ruins
The Day of the Triffids

Don’t mess with Mother Nature…

… Because she won’t take our abuse forever. That’s the takeaway from Barry Levinson’s thriller The Bay, in which contaminants from a desalination plant near a coastal Maryland town cause the outbreak of a parasite that has unpleasant effects on its unlucky human hosts. Genetic experiments on animals don’t produce any better results in Guillermo del Toro’s Mimic, in which a bioengineered breed of cockroach develops disturbing new appetites, or the New Zealand horror-comedy Black Sheep, which showcased an especially shaggy new threat that didn’t mind a few bloodstains on its wool.

The Bay
Black Sheep
Mimic

Climate Catastrophes

As the world’s weather becomes increasingly unpredictable, we have to decide how we’ll cope with its heightening challenges. But if Snowpiercer is any indication, it’s not looking very good. In this cult favourite by Korean director Bong Joon-ho, the earth is locked in a deep freeze due to a botched effort to reverse global warming. Now the only survivors live on a high-speed train where the division between haves and have-nots could not be any starker.

Snowpierce

Other movies capitalize on anxieties about dwindling water supplies in the face of apocalyptic events, such as in Waterworld (1995), The Day After Tomorrow (2004), and Mad Max: Fury Road (2015). Though Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049 follows around Ryan Gosling as a sad-sack “replicant,” the movie’s pretext is all about climate change fallout: the trees are dead, dry land is walled in by massive dikes to defend against sea-level rise, and the air is so polluted that most of the non-bioengineered humans have quit the planet for colonies in space.

Waterworld
Mad Max: Fury Road

And when there’s no more Earth to ruin…

Judging by the dystopian conditions that already blanket this planet, our track record suggests we may repeat the same mistakes when we go looking for our next home. Douglas Trumbull’s 1972 science-fiction classic Silent Running imagines a future in which all plant life on earth is nearly extinct, compelling our descendants to preserve what they can in greenhouselike spaceships in orbit.

Silent Running

The same kind of ruination also compels earthlings to blast off in hopes of colonizing and exploiting alien planets in Avatar and After Earth. But as the inhabitants of these fictional worlds soon learn, humans won’t be the only ones competing for the real estate.

Raised in Calgary and based in Toronto, Jason Anderson is a writer, lecturer and film programmer for the Toronto International Film Festival, The Kingston Canadian Film Festival and Aspen Shortsfest.

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