‘Cocaine Bear’ and the Wild, Ridiculous History of Horror-Movie Beasts

Photo Illustration by Kelly Caminero / The Daily Beast / Alamy
Photo Illustration by Kelly Caminero / The Daily Beast / Alamy
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Not since Leonardo DiCaprio wrestled a bear to win an Oscar has ursine cinema been this hot. Last weekend, Elizabeth Banks’ Cocaine Bear shredded box-office expectations with a $28.4 million opening—a high enough haul to grant us a follow-up about another drugged-up animal. Meth Gator is now reportedly on the way, and no, that is not a joke.

But not everyone snorted up Cocaine Bear with a smile. Our very own critic, Nick Schager, found Cocaine Bear hollow and self-satisfied. He’s really not wrong; the film is excessively quippy even though most of its jokes boil down to “It’s a bear… on COCAINE!!!”, and its gratuitously talented cast members do all play two-dimensional, farcical characters. But isn’t that part of the fun? I mean, Alden Ehrenreich hasn’t looked this alive on screen since Solo flopped, and as ridiculous as her role was, Margo Martindale seemed to have a blast playing it.

Still, how did Banks and her team succeed at the box office where other films have floundered? Idris Elba went mano a mano with a damn lion last year in Beast, and that movie didn’t exactly blow up the box office. The secret might just lie in Cocaine Bear’s tone and scale. By acting as both an homage to natural horror and, in some moments, as a comedic spoof on the genre, Cocaine Bear splits the difference—ensuring that everyone in its audience (or at least most of it) gets a good high. Then again, aren’t most of these movies pretty satirical already?

Killer animals go back at least as far as 1925’s The Lost World, a silent film in which a professor journeys into the Amazon convinced dinosaurs remain alive there. Giant monster movies like King Kong (1933) and Tarantula! (1955) paved the way for Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds in 1963 and Steven Spielberg’s Jaws in 1975. As with most man vs. nature struggles, many of these movies feature some commentary on humanity’s relationship with the natural world at the time they were made. Many also love to have a good laugh at their own expense.

The Best Part of ‘Cocaine Bear’: Margo Martindale Screaming About a Bite in Her Ass

Although all manner of creatures have gotten their features in this genre, some species dominate directors’ nightmares more than others. Bears are no stranger to the genre, thanks mostly to 1976’s Grizzly (basically Cocaine Bear without the cocaine, as a park ranger hunts down an 18-foot grizzly bear who’s been rampaging at a state park), but sharks, alligators, and snakes seem to be the real apex predators in this genre. Here, for your perusal, are some more of the greatest entries—all of which would make excellent Cocaine Bear chasers. (Warning: spoilers ahead!)

SQUIRM (1976)

Animal: Man-eating worms

Location: Georgia

What happens when an electrical storm causes man-eating worms to begin devouring their way through rural Georgia? Nothing good! Director Jeff Lieberman has cited Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds and his own childhood experience with earthworms as inspirations for this cult classic. The director recalled that during his childhood, his brother once drove an electrical current through the mud to make the earthworms rise to the surface so that they could use them as bait while fishing. Combine that memory with the knowledge of real-life carnivorous “bloodworms,” and you’ve got an infestation story for the ages.

PIRANHA (1978)

Animal: Genetically altered piranhas

Location: The fictional town of Lost River Lake

A beloved B-horror comedy inspired by Jaws, Piranha tells the story of a giant mutant strain of piranha that terrorizes a summer resort. As we learn, the fish are left over from an abandoned Vietnam War military project called “Operation: Razorteeth.” And ironically, while Steven Spielberg might not have directed Piranha, he did reportedly step in to save the horror comedy when Jaws producer Universal Studios considered an injunction. As the Los Angeles Times noted in a 10-year retrospective, the film’s director, Joe Dante, also went on to direct the Spielberg-produced Gremlins.


Animal: Giant sewer gator

Location: Chicago

Animal experimentation is the real villain in this playfully satirical romp, which stars a 36-foot alligator that's spent its life feasting on the carcasses of dead test subjects for an experimental growth formula meant for agricultural livestock. The film culminates in a diabolical scene in which the giant gator tears its way through a lavish wedding. The moral of this bonkers tale? Never let your teenage daughter go to Florida and buy a baby alligator–and even if you do allow this to happen, definitely don't go and flush that baby alligator down the toilet!

CUJO (1983)

Animal: Rabid Saint Bernard

Location: Castle Rock, Maine (fictional)

As a very disturbed Rachel Green once asked in Friends, “Seriously, what is wrong with that dog?!” Among the most famous entries in the natural horror genre thanks in part to its original author, Stephen King, the film tells the story of a lovable dog who, after a bite from a rabid bat, becomes a monster even his doting owners grow to fear. Dee Wallace, a horror stalwart famous for her turns in films like The Hills Have Eyes and The Howling before her career-defining role in E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, turns in a particularly skillful performance.


Animal: Giant wild boar

Location: Australian outback

Razorback is not the only wild boar-based horror movie—the aptly titled Boar, which was not a remake but also shared a good bit of DNA with this 1984 novel adaptation, debuted in 2018. Razorback, with its considerable budget and production scope, signaled a peak in Australia’s horror boom during the 1980s. The film remains a coveted entry in the Aussie horror canon, thanks to its accomplished camera work and undeniably amusing premise of an oversized hog that gobbles down everything in its path.

SLUGS (1988)

Animal: Mutant slugs

Location: Upstate New York

Slugs takes things a bit further than some of the other entries on this list. A classic horror exploitation film from Spanish director Juan Piquer Simón, also known for the gruesome 1982 slasher Pieces, Slugs invites us all to imagine what it would be like to be eaten alive by a teeming puddle of carnivorous slugs. Once again, humanity finds itself hoisted by its own petard in this movie, as the slugs are only this deadly because of some improperly dumped toxic waste. Slugs’ plot might be paper-thin, but its sick humor and killer special effects make it a must-watch for horror devotees who want something a little more gleefully grotesque.

SHAKMA (1990)

Animal: Angry, drugged baboon

Location: School research building

If the baboon in this hilarious slasher looks familiar, that might be because you’ve seen him before. Typhoon the baboon also starred alongside Jeff Goldblum in The Fly. What a career! In Shakma, the primate turns in a haunting performance as a stressed-out, drugged-up lab animal on a rampage. Thanks to an unfortunately timed live-action role-playing game happening in the same research building, our furry villain has no shortage of victims. The film’s attacks are as brutal as its situation is funny—and after several glimpses of Shakma’s bloody face, you’ll never look at those baboons at the zoo the same way again.


Animal: Aggressive, prehistoric spiders

Location: California

This one’s for the weenies among us, in the best possible way.

Arachnophobia, the debut film from Disney’s Hollywood Pictures, was produced by Steven Spielberg and often contains more comedy than horror, thanks in large part to its stars, John Goodman and Jeff Daniels. Goodman plays an exterminator, while Daniels plays the doctor whose home becomes Ground Zero for the infestation. Once again, we see a town—this time in California—overrun by an army of invasive creatures. This time, a prehistoric spider from Venezuela has bred with house spiders to produce droves of killer arachnids. Stick around long enough, and you’ll get to watch Daniels kill them all with some fire and a nail gun.

TICKS (1993)

Animal: Mutant ticks

Location: California wilderness

Ticks is one of those unusually accomplished direct-to-video B horror films that absolutely demands to be viewed. Its characters are unusually considered, its special effects are as gruesome as they come, and its cast—which includes both Seth Green and Fresh Prince of Bel-Air star Alfonso Ribeiro—is nothing to scoff at, either. This time, our killer animals have mutated thanks to steroid run-off from a pot farm. Come for the delightfully predictable plot, and stay to find out whether Cousin Carlton ever makes it out of the woods OK. (Spoiler: He really, really does not.)


Animal: Giant green anaconda

Location: Amazon river

The Jennifer Lopez film canon does not contain too many action movies, but Anaconda is a hell of an entry for any résumé. Viewers will never forget where they were when they first saw the giant snake squeeze a panther so hard its eyeball pops out. From its frantic tracking shots to the hair-raising sound design, Anaconda delivered on all its promises and then some. And then there are the performances—the believable chemistry between Lopez and her co-star Ice Cube, and a typically “out there” turn from Jon Voight. It’s always fun to slither back to this one.


Animal: 30-foot crocodile

Location: Black Lake, Maine (fictional)

If only there had been a 30-foot crocodile around during Cocaine Bear. Remember when the croc in Lake Placid made an afternoon snack out of that huge bear? (Maybe Meth Gator will begin with the meth gator eating the cocaine bear!) Years before David E. Kelley began to explore the terrors of suburban Northern California in Big Little Lies, he gave us an unforgettable horror-comedy about a big-daddy crocodile. The movie is not, strictly speaking, good, but it does feature an excellent performance from Betty White, who curses up a storm. Just one question: Why is there no Lake Placid in the movie Lake Placid?


Animal: Sharks

Location: Underwater research compound

I know what you’re thinking: “Finally, a shark movie makes the damn list!” But do you really need another person to tell you about Jaws? (Other shark movies you will not see on this list but are welcome to revisit: Open Water, 47 Meters Down, and The Meg.) We’re here instead to talk about Deep Blue Sea, the only shark movie to pit LL Cool J and his character’s best friend (a parrot) against a new breed of ultra-smart sharks. Also in the mix? Samuel L. Jackson, whose comedic death in the film is one of its most memorable moments—second only to LL Cool J’s. (No spoilers here, but it involves an oven and one seriously sadistic shark.)


Animal: Snakes

Location: On a plane

Like Cocaine Bear, Snakes on a Plane announces its appeal through its title alone. It’s also the first movie to become a meme during its promotional cycle, complete with fan art and amateur trailers. New Line altered its film to meet the demands of what it believed to be a huge fan base, only to watch the film flop at the box office like a decapitated serpent. A delirious combination of CGI and rubber snakes, Snakes on a Plane deserved better than it got. It’s an unabashedly silly film with little on its mind beyond making its audience laugh, a challenge it rarely fails to meet.

The Shallows (2016)

Animal: Shark

Location: The ocean near Mexico

What more could you ask from a post-Jaws shark movie than Blake Lively battling a huge, acrobatic shark while also forming a deep friendship with a seagull whom she names Steven? The Shallows is exhausting to watch in the best possible way, as the Gossip Girl star literally flights for her life in a surprisingly brutal survival horror. The film seemed easy to dismiss early on; Lively donning a bikini to do battle against a shark did not exactly seem like revolutionary cinema. As ridiculous as the premise was, however, the movie’s gruesome execution—and Lively’s indefatigable performance—left an impression and buoyed the film to become a box office sensation.

CRAWL (2019)

Animal: Alligators. So many alligators.

Location: Florida

M3GAN fans should all check out Alexandre Aja’s hurricane horror, which pits a young swimmer and her father (and their adorable dog, Sugar) against an army of ravenous alligators. Although the two films might not seem, on the surface, to have anything in common, they share one indispensable ingredient: the dream team of Adrien Morot and Kathy Tse, who designed the animatronics for both films. In Crawl’s case, that meant making a bevy of robo-gators—a Herculean effort that pays off tenfold.

Crawl succeeds in large part because its alligators, however overgrown, still look terrifyingly believable. Combine that with a masterfully frantic performance from star Kaya Scodelario, and you’ve got a staple that’ll likely grace hurricane parties for generations to come.

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