Films revolving around murderous, marauding and/or mutated insects – and arachnids – have been causing moviegoers to cringe, itch, scream and furiously clean their kitchens for decades now, starting with the classic giant bug sci-fi flicks of the 1950s continuing through the 1970s with a slew of animals-run-amok movies and peaking in the 1980s with exploitation films that marry super-icky special effects with entomophobia.
We’ve managed to hold it together (for the most part) and wrangled up a dozen notable (but not necessarily good) creepy-crawly horror movies from these eras and beyond, all involving arthropod antagonists: flesh-eating cockroaches, aggressive spiders, ridiculously large ants, killer bees and subway tunnel-dwelling termite/praying mantis monsters. In one instance, swarming insects turn out to be benevolent; in another extremely discomforting film, bugs don’t appear on screen at all.
Obviously, anyone with a specific — or generalized — fear of insects and/or spiders should proceed with caution. Is there an insect horror film that left you particularly traumatized that we left out? If you feel up to it, muster up the courage to tell us about it in the comments section. Do you enjoy scary movies but avoid the bug-centric ones?
1. “Arachnophobia” (1990)
“Eight Legs, two fangs and an attitude.”
When a film opens with the guy who played the titular role in “Warlock” poking around the Amazon rain forest, it’s a given that things are going to get real weird. Essentially a slasher film complete with the requisite shower scene in which killer spiders from South America replace a knife-wielding maniac with mommy issues, this humor-laden squirm-fest sports an executive producer who knows a thing or two about murderous wildlife: Steven Spielberg. But despite its gleeful tone and a handful of giggles, this self-described “thrill-omedy” proved to be an extremely traumatic film for those living with a crippling fear of spiders. In fact, 1990 was a rather nightmarish year in general for moviegoers with specific phobias including clowns (“It”), dolls (“Child’s Play 2”) rats (“Graveyard Shift”), worms (“Tremors”), being buried alive (“Buried Alive”) and, umm, wood (“Misery”).
2. “Bug” (2006)
“First they send in their drone … then they find their queen.”
Despite its name (certainly not to be confused with William Castle’s murderous beetle schlock-fest from 1975), this unrelentingly claustrophobic and difficult to categorize cinematic freak-out directed by William Friedkin (“The Exorcist”) and written by Tracy Letts (“August: Osage County”) in a film adaptation of his own play, is actually arthropod-free. No giant bugs, no little bugs, no medium-sized bugs, no fire-breathing bugs, just imagined microscopic bugs. Turning in bravura performances that really, truly get under your skin, Michael Shannon and Ashley Judd play two broken strangers locked away in a dingy motel room — a hotel room that they’re convinced is infested with insects (sent by the U.S. government as part of some nefarious medical experiment, naturally). A harrowing study in paranoid delusion, you’ll either want to don a tinfoil hat and decorate your den with flypaper or take a long, hot shower after viewing.
3. “Creepshow” (1982)
“The most fun you’ll have … being scared!”
True to its title, Stephen King and George Romero’s tag-team horror anthology is super-duper creepy. But it isn’t until the film’s last segment, “They’re Creeping Up on You” that things also take a turn for the, well, crawly. When a blackout strikes New York City, hateful germaphobe Upson Pratt (E.G. Marshall) suffers a cockroach infestation — we’re talkin’ big, aggressive and mean cockroaches — in his hermetically-sealed apartment that’s so extreme that even those with mild cases of kastaridaphobia may find themselves recoiling, retching and/or sleeping with a can of Raid under their pillows for at least a week. Of course, Pratt, a callous business tycoon who took great pleasure in squashing people, had it comin’ — this is cockroach-based comeuppance at its most grisly.
4. “Empire of the Ants” (1977)
“It’s no picnic!”
Loosely based on a 1905 short story by H.G. Wells, this late 1970s offering from schlockmaster Bert I. Gordon (“Attack of the Puppet People,” “Picture Mommy Dead”) stars a pre-“Dynasty” Joan Collins as an unscrupulous Florida real estate developer who, along with a group of
giant insect hors d’ oeuvres hapless clients, is terrorized by a small army of super-sized ants that, naturally, hell-bent on world domination. With a ludicrous sub-plot revolving around mind control via ant pheromones, this is a howler best viewed alongside “The Food of the Gods,” another Wells-inspired, Gordon-directed guilty pleasure that concerns a more diverse assortment of gigantic rampaging critters: wasps, chickens, worms and, last but not least, rats. Or for non-humongous ants, there’s the made-for-TV “Ants!” — tagline: “The picnic is ruined” — also released in 1977, a banner year for killer ant movies, apparently.
5. “Eight-Legged Freaks” (2002)
“Let the squashing begin!”
If you automatically retreated to your “safe place” 40 minutes through “Arachnophobia,” you might fare a bit better with this cheeky spoof of 1950s B-movies where really big spiders and bugs — and, randomly, mollusks as seem in “The Monster that Challenged the World” — terrorize and feast upon the unsuspecting (and largely dumb) denizens of small town America, which, in this case, includes David Arquette, Doug E. Doug and a young Scarlett Johansson. Because really, when it comes to arthropod-based horrors, bloodthirsty critters the size of SUVs are so much easier to accept than the real deal, right? As to be suspected, exposure to toxic waste is the culprit behind the self-consciously campy movie’s rampaging CGI arachnids which, in a fun departure from the norm, aren’t limited to just much-maligned tarantulas — oversized orb-weavers, jumping spiders, trapdoor spiders, spitting spiders and fearsome Australian funnel-web spiders all make appearances as well.
6. “The Fly” (1986)
“Half Man. Half Insect. Total Terror.”
While the 1958 adaptation of George Langelaan’s pulpy short story of the same name is a classic nugget from the golden age of sci-fi horror, David Cronenberg’s gross-out vision of a
mad, excuse us, eccentric, scientist who, after a mishap involving a housefly in his teleportation machine, develops some rather alarmingly bristly body hair, a voracious sexual appetite and some rather impolite dining habits (read: vomiting digestive enzymes directly onto his supper), is a far more disturbing film — a tragic love story with some truly gag-inducing set pieces (the film won an Academy Award in the Makeup and Hair category). Produced, randomly, by Mel Brooks and starring Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis, the film was Canadian body-horror specialist Cronenberg’s most successful to date although we’re of the opinion that 1979’s “The Brood” remains the scariest.
7. “Kingdom of the Spiders” (1977)
“There’s no escaping their web of terror…”
This itch-inducing bit of cinema is one of the more highly regarded creature features with blatant environmental undertones (i.e. when destructive human activity, in this case the heavy use of chemical pesticides, causes the natural world to strike back in the most terrifying of ways). Plus, it has William Shatner in it so how could you go wrong? Well, anyone with a fear — or love — of fat, hairy spiders will probably want to skip over this one, if only for the realism involved. Like in “Arachnophobia,” these swarming tarantulas don’t come from outer space and aren’t the size of Buicks – there’s just a whole lot of them. Scary! But also keep in mind that this was filmed in the pre-CGI era when animal cruelty laws were more lax. So aside from the use of a few rubber stunt spiders, the eight-legged extras that appear in the movie are indeed real animals — and this includes the numerous tarantulas that are squashed, run over and otherwise exterminated on screen.
8. “Mimic” (1997)
“Evolution has a way of keeping things alive”
Sure, encountering a 6-foot tall arthropod boogeyman wearing a trench coat would be highly upsetting just about anywhere, but in the drippy and dank bowels of the New York City subway system? That’s pretty much a recipe for a lifetime of nightmares. In the uneven but unnerving English-language debut from Guillermo del Toro, Mira Sorvino plays an entomologist who genetically engineers the Judas Breed, a hybrid insect (praying mantis/termite) capable of fully wiping out disease-carrying cockroaches that have claimed the lives of hundreds of children across the city. Fantastic! Flash-forward a couple of years: While the disease has been eradicated, the Judas Breed, however, are still very much lurking about in subway tunnels deep beneath Manhattan — bigger, badder and, as it turns out, capable of mimicking the appearance of their predators, which in this case, are humans. Beware, Mr. Funny Shoes.
9. “The Nest” (1988)
“Roaches have never tasted meat … until now”
While horror films in the 1980s primarily revolved around homicidal maniacs, flesh-eating zombies and franchise-friendly boogeymen, there were a few notable killer insect/nature run amok flicks including this low-budget offering from producer Julie Corman (wife of legendary B-movie maestro Roger Corman) with a VHS cover that no doubt turned heads/alarmed parents at local video stores: an illustration depicting a giant cockroach attacking a buxom female victim in her underwear. Gory, silly and filled with some incredibly squirm-worthy sequences (the opening scene with a cockroach swimming in a cup of coffee is bad enough but the birthday cake scene … we can’t even think about it), this one may leave you sleeping with the lights on for a few nights. Also, what is it about quiet New England fishing villages that attract such bad juju?
10. “Phenomena” (1985)
“It will make your skin crawl”
Well, here’s a refreshing change: A supernatural slasher film from Italian giallo maestro Dario Argento where swarms of insects end up saving the day. Trimmed of gore and originally released in the U.S. as “Creepers,” this atmospheric and exceptionally bonkers outing from Argento stars a young Jennifer Connelly as a troubled teenager sent to study at an all-girls boarding school in the Swiss Alps. And by troubled, we mean that Connelly’s character, also named Jennifer, has a wicked sleepwalking problem and can telepathically communicate with insects. When a maniac starts offing her classmates and lost tourists, Jennifer teams up with a wheelchair-bound entomologist and his chimpanzee assistant (yes, you read that right) to uncover the identity of the deranged killer. Things get pretty harrowing — and maggot-y — in the film’s final stretch when Jennifer squares off against the killer. But not to worry, the bugs totally got her back.
11. “Them!” (1954)
“Kill one and two take it’s place!”
If you’re going to sit down with a bowl of popcorn and indulge in just one giant killer insect flick (and there are many) from the 1950s, do make it this B&W sci-fi classic that’s actually, shock, pretty darn good — the acting isn’t laughable, the suspense is top-notch and the special effects, for their time, are actually pretty decent. Heck, they were even nominated for an Academy Award. Hugely influential, this cautionary tale of what happens when you mix unchecked atomic testing with ants (spoiler: giant mutant members of the family Formicidae) has, mercifully, not been given the loud, expensive and expletive-riddled remake treatment as of yet. But if you’re looking for loud, expensive and expletive-riddled, we recommend pairing with Paul Verhoeven’s over-the-top giant insect extravaganza, “Starship Troopers.”
12. “The Swarm” (1978)
“Monsters by the millions … and they’re all for real!”
In which noted disaster movie specialist Irwin Allen (“The Poseidon Adventure,” “The Towering Inferno,” “Flood!”) does killer bees. A box office dud and critical failure that frequently pops up on “the worst films ever made” lists, not even some serious star power — Michael Caine, Henry Fonda, Lee Grant, Patty Duke, Jose Ferrer, Fred MacMurray and Richard Chamberlain all appear in starring or supporting roles — could save this apiarian riff on Hitchcock’s “The Birds” set in the fictional Texas town of Maryville. Despite its less-than-stellar reputation, the film isn’t all that bad; it’s actually a ton of fun provided that you’re okay with the camp meter being cranked up to high: The effects are decent, the music is effective and the overacting is rampant. Plus, where else will you see Academy Award-winning screen legend Olivia de Havilland turn out some top-notch scream-moaning?
For further creepy crawly-ness, check out:
“The Deadly Mantis” (1957)
“Earth vs. Spider” (1958)
“Killer Bees” (1974)
“Phase IV” (1974)