The second Gary Jones film on the list, Death Swamp, also known as Crocodile 2: Death Roll -- whatever that means -- is an unrelated sequel to a low point in Tobe Hooper's career: the movie Crocodile. This film is corny (The heroine's treasured keepsake is a lighter engraved with the words "You light up my life.") but features solid acting and plenty of action, with bank robberies, explosions, shoot-outs, airplane and helicopter crashes and, of course, croc munching. In the film, rejects from Die Hard rob a bank, then hijack a plane on its way to Acapulco. However, bad weather causes it to crash into swamplands inhabited by a monster crocodile. Martin "Sweep the Leg" Kove's presence is icing on the cake.
Written with a deft comedic touch, Lake Placid delivers more on the humor end than on the horror end. The tale of a 30-foot Asian crocodile that somehow finds its way to a rural Maine lake features great comic turns by Bridget Fonda, Oliver Platt and particularly Betty White as the foul-mouthed local widow who treats the crocodile as a pet.
In Gary Jones' magnum opus, an experiment to mix spider and alien DNA (Does it matter why?) results in a mutant spider being let loose in a government facility, killing everyone in its path. Spiders has "cult classic" written all over it, from the gooey special effects of gore guru Robert Kurtzman (From Dusk Till Dawn, Army of Darkness, Cabin Fever, Scream) to the cheesy spirit of '50s monster flicks to wonderfully awful lines like "That spider is a killing machine!" and "My name is John Murphy, of the United States government." As cheap as it is, though, it's remarkably large in spectacle, featuring a space shuttle, a helicopter, car crashes, bazookas, explosions and a rampaging 50-foot spider trampling people in downtown Los Angeles.
From the director of Spawn comes this direct-to-video creature feature about genetically engineered, amphibious snakehead fish (meaning they can walk on land) that escape from a shipwreck and begin terrorizing a Louisiana swamp. Fun, gory and thrilling with strong acting and direction, it's one of the few giant animal films airing on the Sci Fi Channel that actually delivers non-ironic thrills.
The urban legend of the parents who flush the kid's pet alligator down the toilet, only to have it grow to full size in the sewer, comes to life in this early '80s hit. In the film, the gator's enormous size is explained as the result of a pharmaceutical company's hormone experimentation on stray dogs, whose carcasses are dumped into the sewer and eaten by the alligator. Clever use of camera tricks and miniatures make for a fairly realistic animal attack experience, given the time period. You have to have a perverse admiration for a movie willing to show an alligator eat a child in a swimming pool.
5. Them! (1954)
The cream of the crop of 1950s radiation-spawned monster movies, Them! is unusually well-acted and intelligent for a movie about giant, man-eating ants. In fact, the rampaging insects are almost an afterthought to the detailed plot about Army scientists studying ant tendencies, strategizing and locating a couple of lost children. It's a bit like Law & Order: Special Insects Unit, even ending with a sobering moral about the repercussions of living in the Atomic Age.
Renowned director John Frankenheimer (The Manchurian Candidate) helmed this tale of an EPA worker conducting a study on the environmental impact of a paper mill in the Maine wilderness. It turns out that the factory is dumping pollutants into the river, poisoning the fish and causing anything that eats them to become deformed and super-sized. It's not such a big deal when they find poodle-sized tadpoles, but a gigantic mutant bear with a chip on its shoulder causes some problems. The somber, eco-conscious first two-thirds of the movie gives way to a wild and wooly final third featuring a guy in a bear suit running around on his hind legs, shot at elongated angles like a surreal, backwoods Godzilla.
Is this cheating? So be it. It's hard enough coming up with 20 giant animal movies worth watching without trying to filter through the specifics of whether or not this fits neatly into the category. I mean, Jeff Goldblum does turn into a giant fly by the end -- albeit only for the last five minutes. Plus, you get to see his acidic projectile vomit.
1. Jaws (1975)
Repeat after me: da-dum, da-dum, da-dum, da-dum... Jaws' legendary stature reaches beyond its legendary theme music to every facet of the film: acting, direction, writing, action, scares -- it delivers on all levels. Every giant animal horror movie -- including Jaws' increasingly bad sequels -- strives to make just a percentage of the impact that this shark tale has had.