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The obscure animal horror movies that led us to Cocaine Bear

Nature, red in tooth and claw - here are some of the obscure animal horror movies that paved the way to Cocaine Bear and solidified the genre as we know it.

Grizzly 1976

Bears on cocaine. Snakes on a plane. No, this isn’t the start of a slightly questionable children’s nursery rhyme. These are just some of the madcap antics that those pesky animals have gotten themselves into.

The ‘natural horror’ movie: it’s a genre that we know and love, but perhaps one in which we don’t quite fully understand how deep the roots are buried. After all, we all know why we can’t so much as dip our toes into the ocean for fear of being torn apart, or why we really hope that some eccentric millionaire scientist doesn’t actually attempt to bring prehistoric beasts back to life. But do we know which underappreciated animal horror movies came before the powered-nosed bears and the flying reptiles?

We’ve analysed just some of the good, bad, and the ugly when it comes to obscure animal thriller movies that led us up the furry path and landed straight on Cocaine Bear‘s recent success. Don’t expect to see the likes of Jaws, Anaconda, or Lake Placid here. 

We’re going right down the evolutionary line, and it’s going to get freaky.

Grizzly 1976

Grizzly (1976)

Cocaine Bear’s less doped-up cousin, Grizzly, came out in the mid ‘70s and did for the forest what Jaws did for the water. Just…made it really, really unappealing.

It goes like this: a horrifically large grizzly bear goes on a rampage in a state park, meaning the local park ranger must protect the inhabitants and himself as he fights off this monstrous 18-foot beast. 

Although this monster movie might not have stood up in name against it’s more successful animal counterparts over the years such as Jaws, or Anaconda, it was notable in its own right. Grizzly actually became one of the most financially successful independent films of 1976, and earned $39,000,000 in box office revenue. Those are some pretty impressive optics. This bear is clearly a star.

The Grizzly-to-Cocaine-Bear pipeline here is obvious, and we can see why. Bears are one of the most frightening predators on a good day, let alone when they’re all coked-up, or fuelled by some incessant desire for blood. It makes sense that they have become an ideal subject for a truly terrifying animal rampage.

Orca 1977

Orca (1977)

Let’s do the maths: if Jaws came out in 1975, and Orca came out in 1977, then how many years did it take to repurpose the ‘monster movie in the sea’ concept and turn it around into a somewhat successful but entirely obvious rip-off? 

We didn’t need any additional convincing that killer whales are the apex predators of the sea — we’ve all been emotionally scarred by the Blackfish documentary. But Orca seems to take it one step further, trying to topple the Great White as the ocean’s ultimate predator. In a tale that follows an orca hellbent on revenge after witnessing the death of its mate at the hands of a fisherman, this whale will stop at nothing in order to even the scales. 

Perhaps the one thing Orca has over its grey-finned predecessor is the pure villainy of the mammal itself. The film goes about setting up an undeniable sense of malevolence in the Orca, who seems to actively relish the chaos it creates. Whilst Amity’s sharp-toothed carnivore is portrayed as a black-eyed mindless entity, you can almost feel the delight rippling off the water as Orca’s marine-based murderer stalks prey and joyfully leaps in front of explosions. Free Willy this is not.

Plus, with a cast that includes Richard Harris, Charlotte Rampling, and Bo Derek, as well as an eerie musical score created by Hollywood luminary Ennio Morricone, the creative spine behind the film gives this rip-off a surprising sense of authenticity.

Alligator 1980

Alligator (1980)

If bona fide saint Steve Irwin taught us anything, it’s that alligators are, actually, pretty cool dudes. And the entire state of Florida is right, it’s that appearances of said alligators are unusually common occurrences. Prehistoric relics, these magnificent beats are bold and beautiful. Still, if it came down to you and an alligator, guess who would win every time?

When 1980’s Alligator came out, it had an easy goal: to make the species terrifying. Did it succeed? It’s hard to say. This schlocky action movie relied heavily on the natural terror that alligators create. Long tooth-filled jaws and sharp scaly spines make this animal the perfect villain, and Alligator knows it.

The film, which follows a local cop (played by Robert Forster) investigating a series of gruesome crimes in Chicago, plays on your childhood nightmare of something coming up from the bathtub drain. After a girl’s pet baby alligator (okay??) is flushed down the toilet, it finds a home in the sewers and grows up fast…and hungry.

The ‘allude, don’t show’ visual methodology of Jaws is completely ignored in Alligator, which instead shines a fond spotlight on the reptilian fiend. Though set in the grimy darkness of the underground network of pipes, the film wants to show off its star, which results in a garden wedding rampage scene that serves as one of the most beautiful hand-held crash-zoom fiascos you’ll ever see.

Arachnophobia (1990)

Arachnophobia (1990)

Sorry spiders, we’ve never loved you.

It’s not hard to utilise people’s natural fears for these spindly freaks, but Arachnophobia does an adequate job of mixing up the genre. With a stellar cast that includes the comedic prowess of Jeff Daniels, John Goodman, and Harley Jane Kozak, Arachnophobia puts a hilarious spin on the animal horror filmography, choosing to prioritize lightness and vaudeville-style silliness over sincere scares.

When a South American spider species is accidentally transported to the USA alongside a dead body, it settles in a small Californian town and terrorises one particular family as they pluck off the residents one by one.

Not quite as beloved or successful as Tremors, the other animal horror ’90s movie, Arachnophobia, presents the same sense of audacity and fun as Cocaine Bear. A guilty pleasure, for sure.

Piranha (1995)

Piranha (1995)

There have been a few iterations of this particular sharp-toothed fish over the years, ranging from the original 1978 version to the poetically named tit-fest known as Piranha 3DD. Because of this, you’re probably wondering why we’ve landed on the relatively less popular 1995 version. In short, it’s everything a film about flesh-eating little fish should be: corny, camp, and completely brilliant. This movie knows exactly what it needs to do, and does it. 

The small-time horror inflicted on the lush campsite setting isn’t too far gone from how Cocaine Bear tackles its own surroundings, turning the beauty of nature into something vicious.

Centred around a summer campsite that finds itself saddled with mutant piranha-infested rivers after an army facility pool is drained, this movie doesn’t separate itself much from the plot of the original ’78 outing, though it has all the charm of a cheap ’90s made-for-television creature feature and, importantly, doesn’t take itself too seriously.

Piranhas bred for military purposes, a young Mila Kunis in her feature film debut, and an overuse of watery fake blood are just some of the reasons that this version of the story is integral to the storied legacy of animal horror. But its most effective moments come in the desire to create a sense of dread, which it succeeds in doing.

The screeching, wailing sound which forebodes the approach of the piranhas, plus an honest-to-god dog death, had a profound effect on how we’ll look at friendly-looking rivers for as long as we’ll live.

Black Sheep 2007

Black Sheep (2006)

Not all of these animal horror stories came from a time gone by. Modern filmmaking can also be attributed to some excellent contributions to the genre, but most obviously, in this New Zealand-bred black comedy movie – that takes the fluffy barnyard animal and turns it into a farmer’s nightmare.

Having grown up on a farm, Henry has been rattled with a deep fear of sheep following a childhood incident. When his brother experiments with a new breed of sheep, things take a turn for the worst as the animals turn evil post-genetic engineering and run riot violently across the farms.

It’s not the most artistic horror film ever made, but its influence can certainly be seen in the likes of Cocaine Bear and the like, choosing to strategize effect and excess rather than depth or visual quality.

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There’s a precious and lengthy history behind what’s known as the ‘natural horror’ movie. For as long as we can remember, animals that we once thought to be under our control have been turning their backs on us in fictionalised rampages. (So much so, that we’re starting to think we deserve it.)

So next time you settle in to watch giant serpents chase after J.Lo, or observe Betty White raise some killer crocs, take a moment to remember those who came before them. Maybe then you’ll really feel Mother Nature’s wrath.

Don’t forget to check out our thoughts on the newest animal flick in our Cocaine Bear review, as well as our deep dive into the true stories that could inspire Cocaine Bear 2. Or if bears aren’t your bag, then take a look at the best shark movies you can dive into or see what there is to offer in the new movies coming out this year.