Ice shelves dropping like prehistoric dominos into the ocean. Heat waves roasting climate records. Sea levels bursting. Storms crashing. Microplastics embedding the oceans, its species, and even our bodies. Compared to all this, is a knife-wielding senior citizen in a 1970s William Shatner mask really so scary? Nevertheless, Michael Myers is again returning with the latest slasher sequel Halloween Ends — along with a legion of ghouls, demons, ghosts, slashers, mutants, and creepy children, all destined for any number of movie marathons during this spooky season.
If you’re in the mood for terrors a little less supernatural, consider sampling one of the many eco-themed thrillers out there in which nature rampages against humans and our pollution, pesticides, and corporate corruption.
Some will make you scream. Some will have you laughing (unintentionally). And maybe one or two will make you remember to recycle — or risk the planet’s wrath.
The Birds (1963): Alfred Hitchcock’s fowl-gone-fiendish thriller chronicles a series of unexplained, random, and bloody attacks by birds on the inhabitants of an idyllic California community. By modern standards, the film is a crawl for the first third, but the escalating sense of dread — and the attacks themselves — remain effectively harrowing. Adding to the mystery and unease is that, despite speculation that the winged avengers are lashing out at humankind’s cruelty, the movie refuses to spell out a reason for the bird-brained behavior, leaving it up to the audience to imagine why.
Day of the Animals (1977): The tagline for this thriller sums it up: “For centuries they were hunted for bounty, fun and food… Now it’s their turn!” Unlike The Birds, this movie — one of many about avenging animals in the wake of Jaws’ monstrous success — does offer a pseudo-scientific, eco-themed explanation for its events. With the ozone layer diminished because of CFC aerosols, UV rays have transformed animals above a certain altitude into blood-thirsty aggressors. Cue the hikers, who are terrorized by everything from rattlesnakes to mountain lions to swooping hawks.
Kingdom of the Spiders (1977): Another entry in the “nature’s revenge” sub-genre of the 1970s, this time, a rural Arizona town is savaged by tarantulas. Apparently because pesticides have killed their food supply, the spiders have amassed to hunt larger prey — including humans. William Shatner — in between the Star Trek series and subsequent films — stars as the veterinarian who discovers the arachnid plot. If the sight of Shatner swarmed by spiders isn’t spine-chilling enough, you can also check out 1990’s Arachnophobia, about a similar small town menaced by wall-crawlers, albeit without the explicit eco-themed motivation.
The Happening (2008): The world’s plant life decides to wipe out humankind, releasing a neurotoxin into the air that causes people to kill themselves. Because it’s impossible to visualize neurotoxins, much of the film is spent watching the cast — led by Mark Wahlberg and Zooey Deschanel — fearfully avoid the breeze. Some of the deaths are satisfyingly gruesome, but otherwise, it’s difficult not to snicker. Our advice? Go in knowing it’s a bad movie, and you’ll be surprisingly entertained.
The Ruins (2008): Go trampling into environments you don’t belong, and you might end up cornered and consumed by memorably murderous vines. Such is the fate of a group of entitled vacationers who decide to check out a secluded temple in the depths of the Mexican jungle only to realize too late that they’ve booked themselves on a one-way trip.
The Day After Tomorrow (2004): While the stars of other disaster movies outrun volcanic fireballs and torrential waves, the heroes of this climate change thriller are always barely one step ahead of … the cold? As silly as outrunning an afternoon breeze, but at least it’s more effectively realized thanks to the earnest bombast of director Roland Emmerich, who ended the world a few years earlier in 1996’s Independence Day. You can forgive him for essentially packing a century of climate change into a few days. After all, nobody wants to sit through a movie that’s paced like a glacier.
The Bay (2012): Barry Levinson (Rain Man) directed this found-footage eco-horror thriller about a small town in Maryland menaced by an outbreak of the parasitic crustaceans known as isopods. The culprit? A chicken farm that’s been dumping chicken excrement and other poisons into the water.
Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster (1971): If you really want to battle a creature who feeds off toxic pollution, who better to beckon than Godzilla — himself a product of the atomic age and its nuclear radiation? Here, the opposing titan is Hedorah, a kaiju monster named for Hedoro — which translates from Japanese to mean slime or sludge. (Just in case, even after reading the film’s title, you weren’t sure what his deal is.)
The Host (2006): Another polluted waterway, another rampaging mutant. This time, it’s South Korea in the grips of a man-made monstrosity that has emerged from the Korean river Han. Hilarious at times, but also effectively horrifying, this eco-horror hit was directed by Bong Joon-ho, who would go on to make the Oscar-winning satirical thriller Parasite.
Mimic (1997): To eradicate a child-killing disease spread by cockroaches, scientists led by Mira Sorvino genetically engineer a roach of their own to wipe out its own kind. But you know what always happens whenever humanity tampers with nature — the cure is as bad, or worse, than the disease itself. In this case? Human-sized bugs with a grudge. Mimic is best remembered as an early work from horror maestro Guillermo del Toro.
Soylent Green (1973): In a bleak, resource-depleted future ravaged by climate change, pollution, and over-population, a detective (Charlton Heston) discovers the stomach-turning truth about “Soylent Green” — a processed food substitute created to offset global food shortages. Any guesses just what Soylent Green is?