Under the sea! Underwater horror movies

I love horror movies that play in confined spaces. And before any serial killer thinks that this is the best way to scare me: no, I am actually not very claustrophobic but anyone who doesn’t think that being trapped in a little metal box at the bottom of the ocean is not scary might be Cthulhu himself.

Anyways, so obviously, the underwater setting already is a good one. Submarines come with creepy sounds because of the pressure on the metal and also the stuff that goes bump in the night water. However, weirdly enough, there are not that many really great horror movies out there that play with this concept (somehow, space is more interesting – I beg to differ, though). So, here’s a list of a few favourites and a few meh-movies just to not make this list look sad and shabby.

Ah, the horror of discovering Disney racism in movies that framed our childhood…

There may be Spoilers ahead:

The Good

  1. Below (2002)

Ok, so this is a lovely creepy ghost story set during WW2. It’s about an American submarine that gets a rescue signal from a British hospital ship and takes in the only three survivors … and possibly a ghost!

I have to say, this is maybe not the most terrifying movie ever made but it is so well made that I would still rank it quite high. I love to rewatch it. The cast is pretty stellar with the amazing Olivia Williams as the token woman, Holt McCallany as wonderfully arrogant Lieutenant (with a yoyo!), Bruce Greenwood as normal Lieutnant and Jason Flemyng (who is always fun to watch) as a guy named “Stumbo” – make of that what you will. You’ll also get Zach Galifianakis in an unusual but actually not that unusual role (and sorry for spoiling the moment of “OMG, is that Zach Galifianakis in a horror movie?”).

The scares are subtle but expertly plotted and timed. The whole feeling is great because you get the humid, cold and creaky atmosphere of a submarine due to amazing set and sound design. The story is kind of classic, kind of ok but again, everything is so well made with this one, that it simply works. It’s a winner, this one.

  1. Leviathan (1989)

If you like gorefests like “The Thing” with amazingly gross monster designs then “Leviathan” will be a riot. I love this movie more than all those high fallutin’ artsy horror movies like “Sphere” (who, quite honestly, don’t give me much). The plot is simple: it’s basically “Alien” but underwater (and, ok, less iconic). But it is very well made, the set and especially the make-up effects are bananas and the acting is surprisingly good ok for such a movie. It might not be as atmospheric as “Alien” (which is hard to achieve because that’s one of the scariest and best horror movies out there) but it has no lengths and is creepy/gross enough to enjoy a lot.

Underwater (2020)

After an earthquake, the crew of an underwater drilling company have to go deeper to the bottom of the sea to make it back to the surface. You will not believe what they encounter there!

Now, first things first: I really enjoyed this movie and I will probably watch this again. I love Kristen Stewart in this, the movie looks amazing, the cinematography is quite striking at times, although it can be a little confusing at others. It has a real “Cloverfield”-feeling to it because some scenes are deliberately obtuse to make you wonder what you just saw. However, the story is ok and I like the overall arc.

I could have lived without TJ Miller (another reason for the “Cloverfield”-comparison but not in a good way). And in my opinion, by trying to very slowly develop the story and tease the viewers, the story loses some sense. It’s super confusing at times to keep those people apart, get their backstories straight and find out what the hell happened with the drilling station. Maybe I was just a little dense watching this movie but it felt a little scatterbrained.

That being said: it is a decent entry of this genre and despite some nods to “Alien”, which is such an inspiration for many underwater horror movies, it keeps its own.

The Bad

  1. The Abyss (1989)

I know, people love it, even critics adore it but I just can’t get into this long ass movie that is James Cameron’s first ode to the ocean. Generally, I love it when a movie takes its time to get going. Heck, I loved both “The Stand” book AND the movie, even though the movie is such a wreck (and even though the book has its own problems, cough, “Magical Negro”, cough). But for me, “The Abyss” was too esoteric for me to really qualify as horror. And that’s just it. In another genre, this movie might do well but this is simply not the kind of chest-pumping, sweaty, hands shaking underwater-horror that I am looking for.

Also: the special effects aged horribly. Considering that “Leviathan” was made in the same year, this is yet another example why puppeteering and actual physical make-up works better for movie monsters than any computer animated stuff.

  1. Sphere

So, I guess because “Leviathan” worked so well as the “Alien” of underwater horror movies, “Sphere” is kind of like “Solaris”. Well, not really but it is trying to be philosophical (and it doesn’t work for me but you are welcome to enjoy it as I never could). The story is about a team of scientists (including Samuel L. Jackson who loves being a scientist in any Michael Crichton adaption which this is) that goes down to explore a weird spaceship or something. But – you guessed it – not everything is as it seems.

For me, the most scary thing nowadays is seeing Dustin “boiled clitoris” Hoffman in it and not thinking of that most horrid of all pick-up lines (it’s disgusting, that’s what it is).

I am not saying that this movie is bad (although, admittedly, I put it in that category but only because of the movie reference). But I remember watching it back then and never really wanted to watch it again. Somehow, it’s not as exciting for me, although I would actually consider reading the Chrichton-novel.

The Ugly

  1. Deep Star Six

I might not like “The Abyss” but I get its appeal and view point. “Deep Star Six”, also released in 1989 (apparently the only true year for underwater horror movies) is a big pile of lame. It’s about a scientific underwater station that gets bullied by a sea monster.

The acting is b-movie-quality, the sets remind me of live audience sitcoms and the plot is – really boring but also confusing at the same time. There are character conflicts that I can’t wrap my head around because they seem to come out of nowhere. And given that this is a b-horror movie, there shouldn’t be any character conflicts over the level of daily soaps anyway.

Also – and this is a biggy – even though the monster design is alright – it takes about 4/5th of the movie until you finally get to see the big bad and then it’s like for a few seconds. For a movie that is THAT bad/confusing/cheap, that’s not good.

Underwater horror to read:

Because there’s not that many movies that are set underwater, I’d also like to suggest a book. Craig Davidson writes pretty amazing horror novels under his pen name Nick Cutter. “The Deep” is psychedelic, dark and deeply unsettling. I also have to warn you: I love Nick Cutter but he is incredibly depressing. Like, if you had a bad week or even a bad year, I suggest you don’t read any of his books because everyone is miserable and everything is horrible and there’s always this one scene involving an animal that is just too sad.

But it’s a really good book, you guys!

How about gaming?

Also, there’s quite a few pretty decent horror games out there, especially “Soma” and “Narcosis”. Whereas “Soma” has a pretty big, very existential storyline, with a lot to swallow on the way, “Narcosis” is a bit more straightforward. Both games are claustrophobic, incredibly lonely and very scary.

Do you have any movie or book suggestions for underwater horror? I’d like to add them to the list. Simply drop me a message in the comments!

More horror movie lists with varying quality can be found here, click, enjoy the selections and even find some horror-themed music playlists, booray!

2 thoughts on “Under the sea! Underwater horror movies

  1. Thank you for the ideas! I personally really really really disliked The Abyss, but for suggestions: Have you read Jinn by Matthew Delaney? I read it a long time ago and remember an intriguing beginning that, by the way, inspired my short story collection Gebunden, but unfortunately segues into a very very uninspired middle and ending without any connection to the sea at all. So I wouldn’t recommend it, I’m just curious.


    1. No, I haven’t, even though I usually like mythical beings in horror (when done in a good way). I was quite disappointed with Baba Jaga in “Don’t knock twice” because at least from my German point of view, they completely misrepresented her. But then again, how creepy is a house on a chicken leg anyway?


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