Horror Floats: Top 10 Horror Movies Set at Sea

10 Tales of Terror at Sea

Few things are as terrifying as facing one’s own insignificance, and few things are as humbling as the Ocean. To be at sea, surrounded by an endless horizon, is to realize how tiny we are—like insects clinging to leaves in a rainstorm. Add to this isolation the undiscovered universe below, teeming with predators both known and reclusive, alien—it’s almost like being in outer space. And sometimes, the most horrifying menaces at sea are our fellow travelers; cut off from the laws of society, some will succumb to primal inner demons.

This is a list of films that exasperate the anxieties associate with sailing and swimming. Films that take place under water (like Leviathan, Below, and Deep Star Six) are a different beasts all together, so don’t expect them here (but look for them, perhaps, on a future list).

Jaws (1975)

Director: Steven Spielberg

Writers: Peter Benchley (screenplay), Carl Gottlieb(screenplay)

Stars: Roy ScheiderRobert ShawRichard Dreyfuss |


The “No duh!” entry on the list. “We’re gunna need a bigger boat.” Enough said.


Triangle (2009)

Director: Christopher Smith

Writer: Christopher Smith

Stars: Melissa GeorgeJoshua McIvorJack Taylor |


Outstanding writer/director Christopher Smith (Severance, Back Death, Creep) brings terror to the high seas with Triangle, a metaphysical spine-tingler with some amazing twists and awesome visuals. Easter Eggs prove that Smith was heavily influenced by The Shining (look at addresses, room numbers, and the villain’s weapon of choice). Triangle is a bit of a mind-fuck with an ending that will have your questioning everything you just watched.


Dead Calm (1989)

Director: Phillip Noyce

Writers: Terry Hayes (screenplay), Charles Williams(novel)

Stars: Nicole KidmanSam NeillBilly Zane |


Dead Calm features a young Nicole Kidman, back when she was still equal parts sex symbol and ball-buster. A married couple at sea discovers the isolation only exasperates deep-seeded resentment and uncertainty regarding the future of their relationship. Add to this tense situation a handsome, seductive castaway and tensions flare. When the castaway shows his true colors, Kidman must fight for her life (and the life of her husband) by struggling to maintain a tenuous level of control over the situation.


Ghost Ship (2002)

Director: Steve Beck

Writers: Mark Hanlon (story), Mark Hanlon (screenplay)

Stars: Julianna MarguliesGabriel ByrneRon Eldard |


Not much besides Horror-Bubblegum, Ghost Ship is still great entertainment. When an open-water salvage team discovers an abandoned ocean liner, the crew dreams of a hefty pay day. As you might suspect, things do not go as planned. Ghost Ship takes standard Haunted House motifs and sets them adrift in the Bering Sea. Gabriel Byrne leads the above average cast through some truly nightmarish paranormal encounters.


Harpoon (2009)

Director: Júlíus Kemp

Writer: Sjón Sigurdsson

Stars: Pihla ViitalaNaeTerence Anderson |


Also known as Reykjavik Whale Watching Massacre, Harpoon is a gritty, brutal horror flick out of Iceland. The film is a successful attempt to bring the vibe of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre to freezing arctic waters, and makes no effort to hide this fact; from the word Massacre in the film’s title to a supporting role played by Gunnar Hansen (the original Leatherface), the connection is undeniable. Things do not go as planned (Imagine that!) for a group of tourists hoping for an afternoon of majestic whale watching when they cross paths with a disgruntled family of former whalers. But these brutes are hardly the only danger, as tensions lead members of the group to fend for themselves. It’s not high art, but it’s a very cold and atmospheric film with some excellent writing and a decent twist ending.


Caught Inside (2010)

Director: Adam Blaiklock

Writers: Adam BlaiklockMatt Tomaszewski

Stars: Ben OxenbouldDaisy BettsSam Lyndon |


What starts off as a week in paradise turns into a descent into hell for a group of surfers on a charter boat in the South Pacific. Ever been having a great time with friends only to have one person ruin the fun for everyone? Six “dudes” in cramped quarters is already a recipe for tension, but add a couple sexy ladies and a heap of sexual tension and things go from volatile to dangerous. Cut off from the Laws of Society, the group must police themselves when someone crosses the line, leading to a chain of events that culminates in a truly disturbing climax. In this film, “caught inside” is more than just surfing terminology, it’s a metaphor for rape.


The Poseidon Adventure/Poseidon (1972, 2005, 2006)

Directors: Ronald NeameIrwin Allen (uncredited)

Writers: Paul Gallico (novel), Stirling Silliphant(screenplay)

Stars: Gene HackmanErnest BorgnineShelley Winters |


It doesn’t really matter if we’re talking about the 1972 original, the 2005 made-for-TV-movie, or the 2006 “reboot”, The Poseidon Adventure is a triple-threat of sea-fairing anxieties. It would be a nightmare to deal with a rouge wave, getting capsized, or being trapped in a sinking vessel, but all three? We’re talking a nightmare of epic proportions! The upside-down sets and the survivors’ descent to the bottom in order to escape from the top adds to an overwhelming sense of claustrophobic disorientation.


Donkey Punch (2008)

Director: Oliver Blackburn

Writers: Oliver Blackburn (screenplay), David Bloom(screenplay)

Stars: Sian BreckinNichola BurleyJaime Winstone |


It’s all fun and games until someone punches a party-girl in the back of the skull while fornicating doggie-style. What begins as an American Pie style sextraviganza (with Brits) takes a terrifying turn when coitus turns deadly. What follows is a story of crime and cover-up, threats and intimidation, and peer pressure run amuck. While the initial crime is shocking, the lengths these privileged white kids will go to in order to stay out of trouble is the most disturbing aspect of the film.


Open Water (2003)

Director: Chris Kentis

Writer: Chris Kentis

Stars: Blanchard RyanDaniel TravisSaul Stein |

Open Water

I don’t envy any of the characters in the films I’ve listed so far—but at least they had boats! Open Water, based on true events, tells the story of a scuba diving couple who emerge from an hour underwater only to discover they have been left behind by their tour. What follows is a gripping, bare-bones story of survival, a two-actor tour-de-force where the abandoned divers battle sharks and the elements while going through the 5 stages of dying. At once triumphant and nihilistic, Open Water puts the viewer right in the thick of the peril for a relentlessly suspenseful experience. Also, all of the sharks in the movie are real.


The Reef (2010)

Director: Andrew Traucki

Writers: Andrew TrauckiJames M. Vernon (script editor)

Stars: Damian Walshe-HowlingGyton GrantleyAdrienne Pickering |

The Reef

Australia’s response to Open Water. When their sailboat capsizes along the Great Barrier Reef, the crew is forced to make a terrifying choice: Stay with the sinking boat and pray for rescue, or swim over 12 miles through shark infested waters to the closest island. Those who decide to risk the swim are persistently dogged by a hungry great white shark as they push forward all day and throughout the night. The tension and suspense are relentless, and the ending is absolutely unforgettable.

I don’t know about you, but I’ll be keeping my feet on dry land for a while! Are there any great boat-centric horror movies I’ve missed? Let me know in the comments.

3 Comments on this post.

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  • Evan Baker
    5 November 2014 at 5:56 pm - Reply

    One of my very favorites, not on your list, would be The Ghost Ship (1943), which Mark Robson directed for producer Val Lewton (the same team that gave us the superlative The Seventh Victim). It’s about a sailor who suspects that his captain is going crazy, while the rest of the crew believe that the ship is cursed/haunted. It’s a great, moody slow-burner.

  • Josh Millican
    5 November 2014 at 5:59 pm - Reply

    I’ll check it out Evan. Thanks for the tip!

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