There's something extra creepy about nautical horror stories. Perhaps it's the isolation, or the unforgiving nature of the seas, or all of the supremely icky creatures who reside within its depths -- but yeah, water-logged horror is one of the genre's coolest theme parks in which to wander around. Here's just a sampling of some of my own favorites.
This old-school Val Lewton production was unavailable for decades thanks to a lawsuit, but it re-emerged in the 1990s and found itself some comfortable shelf space next to the producer's The Curse of the Cat People and Isle of the Dead. It's a tale of death and paranoia aboard a merchant marine ship, but we're not entirely sure if the horrors are man-made or supernatural in origin. Well, we know, but the ship's crew does not, and that's what provides much of the fun in this starchy ol' potboiler.
A fantastic Hitchcock thriller that takes place entirely upon, you guessed it, a lifeboat. (One left adrift with nine survivors following a horrific WWII sea battle, to be more specific.} The hook is what pulls you in, but it's the masterful writing, colorful performances of duplicitous characters, and the director's playful obsession with upping the tension at every possible turn that keeps you tuned in. Hitchcock experts may not rank Lifeboat among the man's very best films, but I'm here to assert that it was his most nautical. So there.
Walter Slezak, John Hodiak, Tallulah Bankhead, Henry Hull, William Bendix, Heather Angel, Mary Anderson, Canada Lee, and Hume Cronyn in Lifeboat (1944) - publicity still
This A-tier B-movie helped create an entire sub-genre that we're still talking (and writing) (and reading) about today! It's an enjoyably simple tale of an Amazon expedition on the hunt for a humanoid fish-man. Spoiler: they find one, and many of the crewmembers live to regret it. Backed by a super-cool monster suit, a few solid jolts, and some really fantastic underwater cinematography, this drive-in classic is so adorably kitschy and fun that we can forgive its role in the brief 3-D craze that reared its goofy head back in the mid-1950s.
One of the best movies ever made, and the second half is one of the most intense and entertaining water-based thrillers you'll ever see. We all know it. No need to list the nine dozen reasons this movie still kicks all sorts of ass. Moving on.
A goofball excursion produced for ABC, as some sort of cross-section between the King Tut craze, the Bermuda Triangle buzz, and The Love Boat, with maybe a dash of The Poseidon Adventure! But that description makes this dated yawnfest sound more entertaining than it actually is. Still, it's worth a look for genre junkies if only for a top-tier b-movie ensemble that includes Ray Milland, Dirk Benedict, Stella Stevens, Lynda Day George, and her husband Chris.
This amusing rush-job of a sequel doesn't hold a candle to the original film, but I'd be lying if I said this movie didn't give me a few nightmares back in the day. The plot this time around? A bunch of goofy teenagers decide to party in the wrong part of the ocean, a hungry shark takes notice, and it's up to good ol' Chief Brody to save the day... again. And would you believe Amity Island still has that same jerk as the mayor? What the hell?
A quaint little coastal town is besieged by undead leper zombie pirates who arrive draped in cool, glowy fogbanks. John Carpenter's follow-up to Halloween might not have blown the box office doors down but it still holds up as one of the horror master's most easily enjoyable terror tales, thanks mainly to a tight script, a fun cast, a beautifully ominous atmosphere, and a generous parcel of jumps, jolts, and shivers. And that score!
This grungy obscurity played in heavy rotation on HBO back in the 1980s, and that's how I grew to love it -- despite it not being a very good film. That's just how nostalgia works. This icky Canadian production is about a bunch of shipwreck survivors (including greats like Richard Crenna, George Kennedy, and the great Saul Rubinek!) who climb aboard a rusty old ship that's not only deserted; it's also haunted by the spirit of Nazi ghosts. Icky stuff, to be sure.
Also rather icky is this mostly forgotten horror flick that proposes a fascinating premise: what if a gross gang of old-school pirates had somehow survived into modern day? And what if they’re as violent as Jason, Michael, Freddy, and Chucky combined? Forget the prestigious production company and the always-classy Michael Caine in the lead; this is one nasty piece of b-movie horror.
Justy your basic Alien knock-off set on a remote oil rig, which sounds like an amusing premise, but be warned: this is another one of those super-starchy network TV movies that were banged out for exhibition when there were no big sporting events worth broadcasting. This one did scare me as a kid, but aside from a few cool / icky moments, it bored me as a grown-up.
A highly underrated and nah just kidding. This is not good.
If you like your low-budget horror movies a little on the “unapologetically insane” side, go dig up this colorful obscurity. George Kennedy (yes, again) stars in this tale of a genetically mutated kitty cat who causes all sorts of bloody mayhem aboard a yacht. Yes, really. This one’s full-bore b-movie cheese across the board, but it still holds a place in the heart of horror nerds the world over. Somehow.
How we got from Jaws to this in only three movies is insanely wacky and absurd to me.
Not exactly a horror film, but it’s close enough when the alien tentacle shows up and that one Marine starts acting like a psycho.
Enjoyably intense psycho thriller in which Billy Zane chases Nicole Kidman and Sam Neill all the hell over two boats.
Lots of Hollywood producers thought The Abyss was going to be a monster movie, so we got a few fun knock-offs right around the same time. This one’s got Peter Weller, Richard Crenna, and Ernie Hudson battling a genetically-modified monster on the ocean floor.
And this one has Greg Evigan, Miguel Ferrer, and Nia Peeples struggling to survive against a prehistoric monster on the ocean floor. Yes, DeepStar Six and Leviathan do make for a perfect double feature, if underwater monster mayhem is your thing, that is.
Stephen Sommers directed this “monster on a cruise ship” cult classic right before he hit the big time with his remake of The Mummy, and it’s easy to see why this ,movie still has lots of fans: it strikes a great comic book tone, leading man Treat Williams is having a great time as the cocky hero, the entire ensemble is great, and the monster is extremely icky and very tenacious.
Based on the popular Michael Crichton novel, this one feels a bit like The Abyss at its best moments, but it also gets silly in key moments and I just have trouble buying Dustin Hoffman in the hero role. Sorry. A few moments are enjoyably creepy, but the movie itself is just so darn forgettable.
Rottentomatoes / Sphere (1998)
For shark nerds only, which is like everyone. Lots of fun, great cast, cool brainy sharks and that legendary Samuel L. Jackson death scene.
Jamie Lee Curtis and Donald Sutherland do battle with a monstrous alien robot on board a massive Russian research vessel. Yes I am serious.
Most of the movie is a collection of standard ghost cliches set on a super-cool old cruise ship, and it’s fine at being that, but everyone remembers that wildly intense and rather disturbing prologue. And we always will.
A haunted WWII submarine? One loaded with great character actors and several creepy occurrences? Yep. And it holds up, too. Director David Twohy delivered this one between Pitch Black and Chronicles of Riddick, and of course it made no money. But horror fans still dig it.
There are way too many shark flicks out there that could certainly qualify for inclusion in this list, but one would be foolish to not mention this one. It’s a fact-based thriller about a married couple who end up being inadvertently left behind when their scuba tour boat leaves without them. And yes there are sharks.
A group of young assholes try to cover up an accidental death whilst yachting, and things get even worse from there. Contains some nasty sexual abuse that ruins the fun of the proceedings, at least for me, but there’s also some quality thriller filmmaking on display.
A dark and trippy mindbender horror flick from a director who knows his stuff (check out Christopher Smith’s Creep, Severance, and/or Black Death). Without spoiling anything, let’s just say a group of young partiers suffer a yacht wreck, and then discover a completely deserted ship, and have no choice but to climb on board. Free tip: do not read up on this one before watching it!
Blake Lively kicks all sorts of ass while trying to stay out of the mouth of a massive shark whilst stuck on a rock. I said I wouldn’t include too many shark flicks but this one’s really good. I think we may need a full shark movie breakdown after this article.
This low-key but entirely gripping Irish thriller takes a different approach to nautical horror: what if the malicious life form on board was not a big monster, but a tiny parasite?
Only tangentially related to horror, but it’s got Nicolas Cage, terrorists, and wild animals fighting to death on board a gigantic cargo ship, so I’m including it!
There’s one deeply fascinating section in chapter 7 of Bram Stoker’s classic horror novel Dracula that has delighted horror fans for generations: what happened during the count’s overseas journey from Transylvania to London? Well, now we have the movie that covers it, and it’s quite a lot of good, gory fun.
The personalities of two former baseball players clash as they traverse the rural back roads of a post-plague New England teeming with the undead.Stream Now
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