The Best Shark Attack Movies You've Probably Never Seen

(Welcome to The Best Movies You've Never Seen, a series that takes a look at slightly more obscure, under-the-radar, or simply under-appreciated movies. In this edition: the best shark attack movies you've probably never seen!)

Shark attack movies bit into the public consciousnesses in 1975 with Steven Spielberg's Jaws, and while no other film has come close to matching its quality or sheer entertainment value, that hasn't stopped filmmakers from trying. That's a good thing. Because when done right, shark attack films can be terrifying and/or immensely fun to watch, but when done wrong, we get most of the shark movies that have been produced in the past decade. I'm looking at you Sharknado, 3-Headed Shark Attack, and Snow Sharks.

It's worth wading through the bad to get to the good though, as Jaws 2 is an okay sequel, Deep Blue Sea is a ton of fun, and Open Water is an utterly harrowing experience. Last year's The Shallows was a hugely entertaining surprise too, and this week's 47 Meters Down is hoping to follow in its sandy footsteps. I'm staying optimistic, but seeing as the film was released on DVD ever so briefly last year before being pulled for an eventual theatrical roll-out, I don't think I'll be holding my breath on it.

So there are the good to great shark attack movies you already know and love and abysmal ones with cheap, intentionally (?) terrible CG effects and zero effort towards suspense or thrills. (There's also the Bollywood shark movie, Aatank, which I so wanted to include here but couldn't bring myself to do in good conscience. It's a two hour movie, and only about five minutes of it is shark related... but what a five minutes. Oh my.) There are also good to great ones that somehow slipped through the cracks, and while I expect a couple of the ones below have already graced some of your eyeballs, I'd recommend seeking out the others for some good old-fashioned elasmobranch fish fun!

jaws of death

The Jaws of Death (1976)

A man discovers an affinity with Mako sharks and is gifted with a special medallion signifying that bond. (I should point out that it's a mystical old man who gives him the necklace, not the sharks. That would be silly.) Now able to communicate with the sharks he puts the skill to good use by working with them to stop people who mean to do the creatures harm.

The middle film in Richard Jaeckel's unofficial "animal attack" trilogy doesn't get the (well-deserved) love bestowed upon 1976's Grizzly and 1977's Day of the Animals, but that's what makes it a perfect contender for this week's column. Jaeckel gives a sympathetic performance as Sonny, a shy man who bonds better with beasts than he does with people, and while he's not quite as awkward as the rat-loving Willard, he's quick to anger when his friends are being mistreated. He tries to get along, he really does, but with people being what they are, a bloody end seems inevitable. It's every bit a riff on director William Grefé's earlier snake-focused film, Stanley. Sonny kills a few people himself and tosses several others towards the gaping maws of death beneath the waves, and he's not afraid to put on a show in the process as he crashes boats, sets a shark loose on a swimming showgirl, and drags Odd Job (Harold Sakata) behind a speeding fishing boat.

Sometimes known as Mako: The Jaws of Death, the film was one of many hoping to cash in on Jaws' success the year prior, but it's somewhat unique in its approach. People are attacked and eaten as the sub-genre demands, but they're typically jerks whose demises we're not exactly torn up over. The sharks are the victims and "good guys" while people are the aggressors in need of a nice bite in the ass. As such there's not much in the way of suspense -–we're not worried the shark will get someone, we're hoping they do it soon – making for more of an agenda-driven thriller with a message. It's a good message...even if it's a mixed one when you take into account the dozens of real dead sharks used in the movie.

Where can you watch The Jaws of Death? Not readily available, but still worth seeking out.

cyclone

Cyclone (1978)

A small plane crashes into the stormy Caribbean waters, and the survivors are lucky enough to find rescue aboard an even smaller tour boat. They're in no better shape, as the storm incapacitates the boat and sends it further out to sea. As the days pass, thirst, fear, and hunger take their toll, leading to aggression, cannibalism, and some well-fed sharks.

This English-language production from Mexico is probably more of a survival tale than specifically one about shark attack, but the swimming death dealers play a big enough role here to warrant its inclusion. Sharks make their presence known early on as they pick at plane crash survivors floating in the sea, and they return later as the population of the overcrowded boat grows more weary and ornery.

Even beyond the sharks, the film delivers more than enough conflict and story turns to make for a pretty fascinating watch. Sure, the acting's rough at times, but the ups and downs of this miniature society lead them in frightening and harrowing directions. One woman's pet dog is first to go, and it's not long after that they begin slicing up a dead man, drying out his flesh, and nibbling on the resulting jerky. It only gets worse for them from there, as the group begins eyeballing the next person in line to die. If your concern grows when a pregnant woman gives birth...well, that's probably a smart call. Director Renè Cardona Jr. also made the more infamous (and nudity-filled) shark attack movie, Tintorera, the year prior.

Where can you watch Cyclone? Buy it on DVD.

night of the sharks

Night of the Sharks (1988)

An American beach bum living in a shack on the shore of a Caribbean island sees his sweet life interrupted by a trio of unwelcome guests. One's his ex-wife, one's his brother who arrives only to die in his arms, and the third is a two-eyed shark named Cyclops. This is the story of the compact disc that brought them all together.

That synopsis probably has you ready to rush off and blind buy this low budget Italian-made film, but before you do let me just say this... it's not a very good movie.  I know I know, the column title says "best" so where do I get off including a movie featuring a boat-stealing shark that roars when he's angry? Objective tastes being what they are, I'm confident saying that while this isn't necessarily good, it is still entertaining. The story is just endlessly ridiculous and enjoyably so. Did I mention that the CD has recordings on it of conversations with the U.S. president and that it's being used as blackmail in exchange for diamonds? Or that our hero, David (Treat Williams), hides the CD from assassins in Cyclops' stomach?

David and Cyclops' relationship is the crux of the film in many ways. Even after the shark proves himself to be a deadly menace David still treats its antics like those of a puppy who just chewed its owner's slipper. He says "F**k you" to the shark at one point early on, but it's with equal parts anger and amusement. That tone and temperament are part of the film's charm, and it goes a long way toward forgiving the numerous other shortcomings. Add in a playful performance by Williams, an '80s electronic score, and some shark action that's merely okay and the result is this low budget Italian-made film.

Where can you watch Night of the Sharks? Buy it on DVD, watch it on Amazon Video.

the reef

The Reef (2010)

Five friends sailing a yacht to Indonesia end up in the drink when the boat hits a reef and capsizes. Four of them decide to swim towards an island they're pretty sure is "this way" while the fifth remains on the overturned boat hull because he's afraid of sharks. Smart man. A Great White shark is heading their way.

All of the films on this list are entertaining in some fashion or another, but this is the one that builds true suspense and nail-biting tension in addition to offering up some genuine thrills. Writer/director Andrew Traucki has a knack for crafting terror and exhilarating set-pieces out of our shared fear of nature's predators, and if you like this one, I recommend his earlier killer crocodile flick, Black Water. The shark here isn't an exaggerated monster given unnatural motivations or abilities – he's just a big, hungry shark. That alone is terrifying, and Traucki pairs it well with the characters' increasing fears and hopelessness.

One of the film's greatest strengths, and something that even improves on Open Water, is that the characters feel realistic in their fears and frustrations. They never cross the line into pure obnoxiousness where viewers start to maybe wish the shark would succeed and instead behave and respond as we most likely would. None of them are painted as jerks for the sake of earning viewer support when they die, and instead they come across simply as people trapped in an unthinkable situation.

Where can you watch The Reef? Buy it on Blu-ray, buy it on DVD, watch it on Amazon Video.

shark night

Shark Night (2011)

A group of young adults head to an island in a Louisiana lake for a weekend of fun, sun, and water sports, but something in the water has other plans. The friends discover too late that the water is filled with sharks and that soon, the sharks will be filled with their friends.

David R. Ellis' shark thriller is a goofy little number you really need to be in the right mood for. But when that mood strikes, its blend of silly plotting, skimpily-dressed twenty-somethings, and dynamic shark action guarantees a deliriously good time. It's similar in tone to Renny Harlin's Deep Blue Sea in that it presents its plot turns with a half serious, half knowing wink to the audience, and we're meant to be having fun even as the character roster is trimmed one unlucky swimmer at a time. Unlike The Reef, these aren't characters meant to feel real, so we can smile and cheer as some of them just make it out of the water and others become lunch.

Like Harlin's film, this one uses a mix of animatronic sharks and CG to bring the beasts to life, and it's more than effective in Ellis' hands. It's the rare shark movie to go nuts with the variety of species represented, meaning we're not just watching the same Great White or Tiger shark circle its prey. The film tosses various ones into the lake, and while none of them belong there (obviously), the plot's explanation of their presence is just another layer of ludicrous fun. Again, if you're looking for a smart thriller, this is not the film you want, but if you just want to kick back and enjoy some fast-swimming action, it delivers the goods.

Where can you watch Shark Night? Buy it on Blu-ray, buy it on DVD, watch it on Amazon Video.

bait

Bait (2012)

A young man who watched his friend be eaten by a shark a year prior now spends his days away from the sea and stocking shelves in a supermarket, but when a tsunami floods the oceanside town, he quickly realizes the sharks have come to him. Trapped in the waterlogged building with a handful of other survivors, he's forced to face his fears and help lead them to safety.

This Australian thriller walks a fine line between the silly and the serious in its premise, but it plays the actual action and thrills with a straight face throughout. It even manages a rare moment of pathos during one death, something genre films too infrequently achieve, as it allows the characters to have emotional arcs beyond the life and death situation they're currently facing. It's still a movie about sharks making a mess on aisle five though, so don't expect anything resembling a somber drama. Once the shark action starts, the film moves at a solid pace, dispatching good and bad people alike. It's a relatively restrained location, but the film still finds some terrific set-piece opportunities as the survivors move through chest-high waters on their way towards the exit.

Part of the appeal of the film rests too with the leads, as both Xavier Samuel and Sharni Vinson will be familiar to genre fans. Samuel starred in the incredibly intense The Loved Ones, and Vinson played one of the decade's best final girls in You're Next. The cast in general is fine, but these two make you wish they'd find another project they can do together. The sharks lean heavy towards CG, but it's good work more often than not that won't leave you distracted by pixels when you should be focused on the pieces of flesh hanging from their teeth. It's fun.

Where can you watch Bait? Buy it on Blu-ray, but it on DVD, watch it on Amazon Video.