We recently cast our critical eye on horror films set in deep space. This week, we’re back on Earth, actually deep underneath it, as we survey some of the most notable fright flicks where the terror lurks underground.
Death Line (1972)
Also known as Raw Meat, this early entry in the “monsters under the city” genre offers the intriguing idea of a group of humans who survived a London railway tunnel collapse 80 years ago. Trapped underground, they created their own subterranean society, feeding on the meat of their own dead…that is until there’s only one left. That’s when the unwitting commuters start to disappear in the tube stations. Directed with style, and some nice gore by Gary Sherman, who also gave us the vastly underrated Dead & Buried.
WHY WATCH IT: Terrific premise, wonderful performance by Donald Pleasance as a sardonic Scotland Yard inspector, plus a guest cameo by Christopher Lee to give the film that “Hammer” touch.
Blood Beach (1980)
Not a good film, but you’ve got to give it an award for sheer “chutzpah” on how it utilized the campaign for Jaws 2 to sell itself. In a California seaside town, a variety of beachgoers discover they don’t have to worry about giant sharks in the water. Something under the beach itself is pulling them down and devouring them before they ever get to the waves. Sadly, the reveal of the monster is pretty lame. But the ad campaign is legendary, featuring a shrieking babe in a bikini being sucked under the sand, framed by the copy: “Just when you thought it was safe to go back into the water…you can’t get to it.” Classic.
WHY WATCH IT: It has its humorous moments, both intentional and otherwise. Plus, there’s a solid B-movie performance by Burt Young (Rocky).
Another “under the city” horror tale, but a superior one, about a giant alligator on the loose in the sewers of Chicago (yup, it got there via a toilet). This well plotted monster movie features a very witty script from John Sayles (who also penned Piranha and The Howling), and a nice lead performance by Robert Forster as a down on his luck cop who has to catch the creature to save his job.
WHY WATCH IT: Great monster attacks, sharp dialogue from Sayles, and a fun turn by Dean Jagger as an arrogant big game hunter.
Say it with me: “Cannibal Humanoid Underground Dwellers”. That’s what you get when vagrants and street derelicts are exposed to toxic waste and begin devouring entire neighborhoods of homeless folk. This is a true “80’s” movie, filled with a lot of Reagan references and big hair, but unfortunately no real scares. Like Blood Beach the best part of the film was the ad campaign, which played particularly well in Manhattan.
WHY WATCH IT: It’s fun in a tacky, “bad movie” sort of way, the monsters are cool, and there are some surprising familiar faces in small roles.
An homage to the great sci-fi monster films of the 1950’s, and a rip-roaring one at that. Tremors hits all the right notes, right from its opening moments of mysterious deaths, including a terrified Bibi Besch (Star Trek II) being pulled screaming underground while inside her station wagon. That’s followed by one terrifying chase scene after another as giant carnivorous worms stalk the sparse citizenry of a dusty western town. Kevin Bacon and Fred Ward are extremely funny as two macho but lunk-headed handymen who try to save the day. But the film is stolen by Family Ties star Michael Gross and Reba McEntire as a married pair of gun-crazy survivalists.
WHY WATCH IT: This is one of those classic monster movies that mixes humor and horror in equally entertaining portions, and the creatures are icky and awesome.
Back to the “under the city” category, this time to battle giant man-sized cockroaches that move about town and feed on New Yorkers undetected, because they’ve learned to mimic the look of humans. Stylishly directed by Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth, Blade 2, Hellboy), the film moves through a labyrinth of subway and sewer tunnels as our brave band of scientists, cops and one grandfather try to destroy the nest before the creatures can spread.
WHY WATCH IT: A terrific Se7en like title sequence that sets up the story, truly scary set pieces (including the shocking scene of one of the giant insects savagely attacking two young teen boys), and really good creature design. It’s a winner all the way.
The Descent (2005)
That rare horror film that is popular and also critically acclaimed. It’s a claustrophobic thriller about a group of women who decide to go cave exploring at a remote Appalachian site only to discover they’re not alone. There’s as much psychological baggage as monster mayhem, which is why the critics latched onto it, but ultimately, it’s about mutant “bat people” (who mostly resemble an albino Iggy Pop) hunting down the women one by one. Well done, with many scary set pieces.
WHY WATCH IT: Because it is well done, and features stylish direction, creepy creatures, and strong cast. Also the novelty of an all women cast in what is generally a man’s milieu is refreshing.
The Cave (2005)
This was the year’s big budget “cave” horror film (versus The Descent) but despite the bucks, it’s very much a pedestrian monster movie affair. A macho group of cave explorers plunge into a once forbidden Romanian cave system, and soon learn the errors of their way as they are hunted down by dragon-like creatures. One interesting twist is that the creatures exude a parasite that can turn humans into one of them, which opens the intriguing premise of whether all of the monsters were at one time humans exposed to the parasite in the cave. Unfortunately, the movie never delves into that answer.
WHY WATCH IT: The underwater sequences are luminously filmed, and there are some good action sequences as our heroes battle the monsters.
The Burrowers (2008)
A strange mix of western and monster mash, The Burrowers borrows a page from The Searchers: when a frontier family disappears, apparently at the hands of a Native American tribe, a posse is formed to find them. But instead of Indians, the men discover a race of creatures that paralyze their victims, bury them in the ground, and then feast on their innards. It should have been more interesting, but the slow pace and lack of monster action keeps the film firmly in the category of curio versus must-see carnage.
WHY WATCH IT: The western setting is a nice change from subways and caves, and the spider-like monsters themselves are pretty cool (too bad they’re not given more dynamic screen time).
The Midnight Meat Train (2008)
We began on the subway with 1972’s Raw Meat, and we end on the subway with this very recent and fairly faithful adaptation of one of Clive Barker’s most famous tales from his Books of Blood. Directed with gusto by noted Japanese director Ryuhei Kitamura (Versus), this story of a monstrous butcher (with a secret clientele) who haunts the late night subways of New York is filled with creepy imagery and lots of gushing gore.
WHY WATCH IT: Vinnie Jones strong performance as the butcher, plus the furious intensity of the film itself, which provides plenty of shocks, carnage and bodies hanging on meat hooks.