If you're going to make an "animal attack!" movie, there are two ways to go: you can take the "serious" route and try to emulate at least a fraction of the cool class and calm intensity of Steven Spielberg's Jaws (1975), or you can plant your tongue firmly within your cheek and try to be silly and scary at the same time. One would argue that the former approach is decidedly more difficult to pull off than the latter, and that you need only to switch over to Syfy for proof. That's where you'll find all the Crocosauruses, the Giant Octopi, and of course the Sharknadoes: frequently chintzy and sometimes willfully bad movies that ask you not to play along with a silly premise, but to actually laugh at the ineptitude being splattered across the screen.
With that in mind, let's shine a small spotlight on some of the crazier animal B-movies that, while frequently quite silly, all strive to be seen as legitimate comedic thrillers; films that ask to be laughed with, not at.
1. Squirm (1976)
Squirm, the directorial debut of Jeff Lieberman—a low-key horror hero who went on to helm Blue Sunshine (1978), Just Before Dawn (1981), and Satan's Little Helper (2004)—is about a small Georgia town that finds itself overrun by electrified, carnivorous earthworms. Yes, they pour out of shower heads, flood cellars, and get into the food supply. It's all pretty gross.
Although frequently quite straight-faced, Squirm seems to get a bit more silly and self-deprecating as the worm feast lurches on, plus you'll get to see some great early work from FX master Rick Baker, a few wonderfully over-the-top acting performances, and more worms than you'd ever want to experience in real life.
2. Piranha (1978)
When it comes to filmmakers who love movies, you simply won't find anyone like the genre-blendin', fun-lovin' child-at-heart known as Joe Dante. Long before he gave us matinee classics like The Howling (1981), Innerspace (1987), and both of the undeniably awesome Gremlins movies (1984 & 1990), Dante was hired by the legendary Roger Corman to do something kinda, sorta just like Jaws.
Fortunately the director was way too creative to construct just another tiresome rip-off. Backed by a clever screenplay by John Sayles, in which ravenous fish invade a summer resort, Piranha is clearly inspired by Jaws (and its massive financial success) but also has its own distinctly satirical edge. It's arguably the best of the Jaws copycats, specifically because it's already poking some fun at the genre's various tropes, themes, and cliches. Plus it's got some memorably creepy kills.
3. Prophecy (1979)
It would be an understatement to call the late John Frankenheimer an eclectic filmmaker, but it seems that the director of The Manchurian Candidate (1962), Seven Days in May (1964), and Grand Prix (1966) had a little trouble tackling the "animal attack!" sub-genre back in 1979. Although clearly intended as a dead-serious statement about pollution and the plight of Native Americans, Prophecy is a bit too stone-faced for its own good, and the result is an earnest but goofy monster movie in which an impressive cast is left wandering around in a forest while a freakish mutated bear picks them off one by one.
While the set-up is a bit slow, and the screenplay by David Seltzer (The Omen) often takes itself way too seriously, it's still sort of fun to see a basic B-level monster movie that was put together by Paramount, Frankenheimer, and a cast that includes Robert Foxworth, Talia Shire, Richard Dysart, and Armand Assante. Also there's a death scene involving a sleeping bag that you simply must see to adequately disbelieve.
4. Alligator (1980)
Although director Lewis Teague would go on to direct a considerably more intense killer animal flick with 1983's Cujo, it's the weird wit and sardonic tone of 1980's Alligator that elevate it beyond most movies of its ilk. Like Piranha, Alligator is both a full-bore nature-run-amok horror flick and also sly parody of horror movies in which nature runs amok, which only makes sense since both films were written by screenwriting demigod Sayles (he also wrote 1981's The Howling).
In addition to its colorful balance of nasty horror and wise-ass humor, Alligator also boasts some pretty decent special effects and an acting ensemble that includes Robert Forster, Robin Riker, Dean Jagger, and Henry Silva having a great time in the "Quint" role. Keep your eyes peeled for the infamous swimming pool sequence, which inspired nightmares in at least a million pre-teens throughout the 1980s.
5. Roar (1981)
Although best known for her work in a movie about killer birds, Tippi Hedren should also be remembered for producing a film that required her to live alongside wild lions for the better part of a decade. Although all but forgotten these days (though it's about to get a re-release), Roar was relatively notorious for being a monumental flop at the box office—but it's easily one of the most insane films you'll ever see.
Produced by Hedren and her then-husband/thoroughly inept writer-director Noel Marshall, and starring all of their kids (including a young Melanie Griffith), Roar is a virtually plotless mish-mash of barely-connected sequences in which the filmmakers frolic, romp, and wrestle with a wild menagerie of lions and tigers and elephants. (Oh my.) Despite some beautiful cinematography, Roar frequently feels like a horror film that thinks it's a family film. The combination of good intentions, (mostly) bad filmmaking, and outrageously misguided tenacity make Roar one of cinema's most WTF!-worthy films.
6. Slugs (1988)
In the annals of Spanish cinema history, Jean Piquer Simón is a true original, as evidenced by this wildly unpredictable tale of garden slugs who suddenly turn homicidal. Of course it would be absurd to spin this type of yarn with a straight face, and Slugs does not disappoint in the over-the-top department.
Not only does the film offer the obvious threat—that being "slugs that eat people"—but it also features some truly disgusting moments involving slug salads, exploding heads, and all sorts of random carnage that has no logical place in this type of movie, but sure is fun to witness all the same.
7. Man's Best Friend (1993)
Written and directed by John Lafia (Child's Play 2) and starring Ally Sheedy, Lance Henriksen, and a genetically-modified Tibetan Mastiff, Man's Best Friend plays a little bit like 1986's Short Circuit (which also starred Sheedy), only instead of a sweet-natured robot with a crush, the plot centers on a super-smart, super-strong, and frequently ferocious mega-dog who escapes from a lab, befriends a nice woman, and quickly starts eating people left and right.
The humor stems from a clever skewering of dog-related clichés and a slyly satirical tone that pops up in between moments of canine-related carnage. Man's Best Friend might not be the best killer dog movie you'll come across, but it might just be the most (intentionally) amusing.
8. Willard (2003)
Film buffs love to scream about how remakes are always inferior to the original film. Until you mention something great like The Fly (1986) or something good like Glen Morgan's stylishly nasty reboot of the (not very good) 1971 rat-laden Willard. Then they'll concede that, OK, sometimes remakes aren't all that bad.
What is it that elevates Willard beyond the trappings of a typical remake? Its dark sense of humor, fantastic Shirley Walker musical score, some nifty rodent-related visual effects, a supremely villainous R. Lee Ermey, and (of course) an admirably weird—but also sort of touching—performance from the patently unique Crispin Glover. The 1970s were rife with "misfit strikes back" horror movies (the original Willard even predates Carrie, which is sort of the template for this type of horror tale), but this unexpectedly clever remake adds a welcome dash of dark humor, which makes the admittedly bizarre premise feel just a little more accessible.
9. Black Sheep (2006)
Now here's a perfect example of a movie that strikes a balance between horror and humor: obviously it'd be impossible to make a "serious" movie about man-eating sheep, but that doesn't mean you have to deliver something overtly broad, stupid, or sloppily made. In fact, the New Zealand import known as Black Sheep was impressive enough to earn itself a spot in the Toronto Film Festival's prestigious "Midnight Madness" slate.
Writer-director Jonathan King strikes a great balance between character-based humor, sheep-related lunacy, and enough over-the-top gore to keep any horror fan appeased, but what works best about Black Sheep is its self-mocking tone and energetic presentation. It's all very silly, of course, but it's also very well made, and it stands as a great example of how to go broad, silly, and even ridiculous—without skimping on quality or treating viewers like imbeciles.
10. Big Ass Spider! (2013)
Although frequently (and erroneously) lumped in with junk-drawer movies like Mega Shark and Dinocroc, this low-budget, high-energy giant spider romp is actually an admirably on-point homage to a sub-genre that spawned The Giant Spider Invasion (1975), Kingdom of the Spiders (1977), and the still-fantastic Arachnophobia (1990). (If you haven't seen Arachnophobia, queue that one up immediately.) And feel free to toss Eight Legged Freaks (2002) onto the list as well.
Although obviously broad and frequently silly, Big Ass Spider! is also a B-movie in which a surprisingly witty cast tries to save Los Angeles from—you guessed it—a big ass spider invasion. And while it certainly shows a few budgetary constraints and typical low-budget glitches, Big Ass Spider! still earns a lot of points for asking the audience to laugh with its goofy antics, but never at them. Which is the main the difference between low-rent pop culture "product" and an actual "movie." (Also, the spider FX are really cool.)