Top 10 Films That Bring To Horrid Life The Tragedy Of Animal Cruelty

In this list, animal conservation campaigner and Top 10 Films contributor Dan Grant takes a look at a group of films which draw attention to the cruelty inflicted on animals around the world.

The following ten films pull back the curtain to reveal what really happens behind the scenes. Animal abuse and animal holocausts are not something any of us like to hear about. But there have been edifying films over the years that have dared to show us what’s real.

This top ten was inspired by two films. The first film is the one at number 4 and the second film is the one that comes out at Christmas 2017 and will probably get Hugh Jackman an Oscar. The Greatest Showman is a story about P.T Barnum and how he became successful by following his dream and all that nonsense. The film will show you all the great things that came from the circus, but not the evil and shameful acts of kidnapping elephants and putting them through a lifetime of abuse and torture.

This list is mainly about fictional drama. However, the top 10 would be incomplete and I would be remiss if I kept all documentaries out of it. The film at number one, a documentary, did more to change my life than any film I’ve ever seen, so I must include it. It inspired me to complete my novel (Terrified and Defenseless) and it changed my eating habits.

These films and these ideologies are not for everyone and if I offend anyone, my condolences. But here are the Top 10 Films That Bring To Horrid Life The Tragedy Of Animal Cruelty.

10. Free Willy (Sam Wincer, 1993)

We have all been to places like Marineland and Seaworld (in North America). These are places where you can swim with dolphins, see giant killer whales and play with sea lions. We see commercials with kids laughing and parents pointing at all the wonderful marine life. We also get to see “trainers” coax killer whales to do all kinds of tricks for food. What we don’t see is that when these parks kidnap their whales, they separate families and often participate in the slaughter of marine life to get their mammals. Free Willy concentrates on the family aspect of the whales. It gives us images of Willy crying out to his family of whales, who are just beyond the park’s walls. We are also reminded that Willy spends his whole life in what can be compared to a bathtub. Free Willy came out 24 years ago, but it was a film that was ahead of its time.

9. Orca (Michael Anderson, 1977)

Orca has always been dismissed as a cheap rip off of Jaws. This is very far from the truth. They have killer sea animals, and that’s where the similarities end. Starring Richard Harris as a fisherman, he ends up hooking a female killer whale and stringing her up on his boat, while her mate watches on helplessly as she not only dies, but gives a stillborn birth to her fetus. The film goes off into a bit of horrific fantasy as the male killer whale then hunts down and kills those close to Harris. This whale is out for revenge. What makes Orca’s inclusion on this list relevant is that is shows whales in the same light as humans. They love one another. They have families and they grieve and seek revenge for murder. Orca is a moving film that is told mostly from the whale’s point of view. You don’t have to agree with the comeuppance, but you at least are made to understand it.

8. Project X (Jonathan Kaplan, 1987)

Test animals live horrible lives. Many of them are used for vivisection and they die horrible deaths, but not before feeling unspeakable amounts of pain. The military has often used monkeys as test animals. Graduate student Teri MacDonald (Helen Hunt) has trained a chimpanzee named Virgil to use American Sign Language. When her research grant is not renewed, she is forced to sell Virgil. Despite her being assured that Virgil will be sent to an animal sanctuary, instead he is taken to an Air Force base to be used in a top-secret research project involving platforms designed to simulate the operation of aircraft. Airman Jimmy Garrett (Matthew Broderick) is assigned to the same chimp project; he begins to bond with Virgil and they become attached. Unbeknownst to Jimmy, the chimps trained on the flight simulators will be killed by radiation poisoning. Once they reach a certain level in operating the flight simulator, the chimps will be exposed to a lethal pulse of radiation in the simulator chamber to determine how long a pilot may survive after a nuclear exchange known as the second-strike scenario. Project X does a good job of exposing what the fate of monkeys are in the hands of the military. It’s another film a bit ahead of its time.

7. Blackfish (Garbriela Cowperthwaite, 2013)

Tilikum is the whale in the documentary and this is the the whale that Free Willy was based on. Cowperthwaite began work on the film after the February 2010 death of Tilikum’s trainer Dawn Brancheau and in response to the claim that the orca whale had targeted Brancheau because she had worn her hair in a ponytail. Cowperthwaite argued that this claim had been conjecture and that “there had to be more to this story”. Blackfish is the first of two documentaries on the list. It goes into great detail about how whales in captivity are first captured, how they are mistreated at the water parks and it gives reasons as to why Tilikum did what he did. Having whales living in captivity is not natural for them. It would be like someone removing a child from his or her parents and have them confined to one room for the rest of their lives. Blackfish has put pressure on places like Sea World and more and more people are staying away from places like this. Blackfish is partially responsible for this.

6. The Plague Dogs (Martin Rosen, 1982)

This British animated film is as diametric as you can get from other talking animal animated films. Finding Dory and The Secret Life of Pets this is not. Don’t even think about showing this one to the kids. It’s about two abused lab animals that escape only to find that the experiments that have been conducted on them leave them unfit to survive in the wild. Their desperate flight for survival leads them through a series of cruelties, heaped upon their lives already made wretched by torturous and egregiously unnecessary experimentation, that culminate in one of the most moving moments in the history of animation. I’m not a big fan of modern animation. It’s a ruse and nothing more. Pixar is viewed upon as being a brand that cares about kids and makes movies for them to love and cherish. But they are nothing more than a way for Disney to make billions of dollars in profit. This animated film is different. Animation is a way of depicting what cannot be shown in live action films. In this case, we explore the tragedy of animal abuse in a way that will never let you forget what a crime it really is. Plague Dogs is insightful, brutally honest, and unflinchingly direct in exposing the gruesome truth about animal research.

5. Gorillas In The Mist (Michael Apted, 1988)

This is a film that is based on a true story. Dianne Fossey, played by Sigourney Weaver, is a hero of mine. She took matters into her own hands. In the film she spends time in Rwanda and forms a bond with the gorillas in the mountains. She tries to protect them but eventually the gorilla she most bonded with is poached and his head and appendages are cut off. This causes her to go a little crazy and she destroys villages and inflicts violence on some of the poachers. In real life, she made a lot of enemies because of this. She was eventually savagely murdered and her killer was never caught. She died trying to protect these gorillas. Gorillas in the Mist goes to great lengths to expose the truth behind poaching.

4. Okja (2017) Joon-ho Bong, 2017)

Hollywood has a lot of trepidation about making films that expose the animal holocaust. Hollywood might be afraid of it but when you have Brad Pitt, a strong advocate for veganism and animal welfare, producing the film and a pariah and new power player on the block like Netflix willing to distribute, then you get a film like Okja made. Add a terrific international cast like Paul Dano, Steven Yuen, Tilda Swinton and the star of the movie, Seo-Hyun Ahn plus a superstar Korean director like Joon-ho Bong and you have one hell of a film. Bong directed the highest grossing South Korean movie of all time, The Host, and he also did the well received Snowpiercer. Okja focuses on a giant corporation that has made genetically modified super pigs. These pigs have grown to be massive animals, perhaps twenty times the size of normal pigs. They send these pigs off to live in all different corners of the world and their plan is to see which pig, ten years later, is the best and then parade him in New York City as part of a promotion to buy this corporation’s new meat. Okja lives with Mija on her modest farm in South Korea. However, they have a vast land where Okja and Mija have formed a bond. The corporation comes by, takes Okja and plans to kill him and all the other super pigs in a few days. Enter the Animal Liberation Front (ALF) which plans on saving Okja. There are very disturbing abattoir scenes and it’s quite graphic. There’s also a fair bit of animal mistreatment and for someone like me, someone who strongly advocates animal welfare, these scenes were very tough to watch. But they were necessary and they add to the overall tone of the movie. Okja goes places where most films refuse. I firmly believe a film like this could never make it to theaters. Netflix has done a terrific job of getting it seen.

3. Instinct (Jon Turtletaub, 1999)

Anthony Hopkins plays former anthropologist, Dr. Ethan Powell. He at one time lived in the jungles with gorillas and gained their trust. He gets himself incarcerated because he murders poachers who killed the gorillas he was living with. The film asks tough questions. The main one is; why must we as human beings be so destructive? Why must we be so hateful and greedy and why do we have to ruin everything and eliminate the equilibrium that we should all have with the other inhabitants of this planet? Powell calls humans “The Takers”. We take and we kill and we destroy and we do it all in the name of progress and commerce. There’s a strong message in here and it was one of the first movies I saw that made me want to change my ways. Every living thing has a right to live. Instinct goes to great lengths to show us this.

2. Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes (Rupert Wyatt, 2011)

The original 1968 film could have made this list as well but if I have to choose between one of the Apes films, it is this one. It’s another film that goes to great lengths to sanitize what happens to apes while in labs, or research facilities or zoos or circuses. This is after all a major studio film with a massive budget that was designed to appeal to the masses. And it does that well. But it also manages to unveil how mistreated these beasts are. One ape in particular has been so abused, so subjugated by pain that all he has is revenge on his mind once the apes are freed. Fox took a huge risk with this film because it pulls back the curtain to reveal what is really happening. This is the biggest budgeted and most mainstream film to have taken a shot at animal cruelty. It’s also deeply moving to the point that when Caesar, the ape, learns to speak, he tells one of his abusers, “NO”. It nearly brought me to tears.

1. Earthlings (Shaun Monson, 2005)

Earthlings is far and away the most important film ever made, in my opinion. It’s the documentary that changed my life. It’s narrated with complete equanimity by Joaquin Phoenix, produced by Maggie Q and has music by Moby. All are noted vegans. This is a film that was years in the making and contains secret footage of what happens on fur farms, labs, zoos, circuses, abattoirs, marine parks, puppy mills and so much more. It’s unflinching, extremely graphic and unapologetic. Cows have their faces branded with hot irons, animals are skinned live, chickens have their beaks burned off, lab monkeys have their heads beaten to study the aftermath of concussion and so much more. Paul McCartney once said, “If slaughterhouses had glass walls, everyone would be a vegetarian.” If you can get through Earthlings and not be moved, then you are different than I am. It’s a film that everyone should see at least once.

There’s about 50 films that could have or should have made this list. These are my personal ten. What say you?

Written & Compiled by Dan Grant

Your turn? What films have drawn your attention to real life animal cruelty? Have any of the films listed changed your views? Let us know…

Read more from Dan Grant:
Top 10 Films About The Oppressed Taking Their Revenge
Top 10 Embarrassingly Cringeworthy Moments In Film
Top 10 Supporting Actors Who Always Bring Something Special To A Movie

About the Author
Dan Grant is an author and horror film fan from Canada. His first novel Terrified and Defenseless is now available for e-download from Amazon. Follow Dan on Twitter @baumer72.

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  1. Mark Fraser Reply

    A great idea for a list with some thoughtful commentary to boot. Another peripheral 10 to consider (that aren’t too off subject) are:

    Cannibal Holocaust (Ruggero Deodata, 1980) – the film crew deserves what it gets after it slaughters and dissects a giant turtle. I seem to recall this movie has some other animal cruelty (as do similar Italian cannibal yarns from this era), but I’ve tried to erase it from my mental hard drive, so I can’t make any further comments.

    Au hazard Balthazar (Robert Bresson, 1966) – that poor donkey.

    1900 (Bernardo Bertolucci, 1976) – fascist/sadist Mellanchini (Donald Sutherland) ties a cat to a post and crushes it with his head, using this act of cruelty as a metaphor for the anticipated destruction of the communist peril.

    Apocalypse Now (Francis Coppola, 1979) – the ritual slaughter of an ox towards the end is juxtaposed with the assassination of Kurtz (Marlon Brando) by a machete-yielding Willard (Martin Sheen).

    28 Days Later (Danny Boyle, 2002) – the whole zombie apocalypse is kicked off when some misguided animal liberationists let a bunch of infected, scientifically (read mentally) tortured, chimps out of their lab cages.

    Wake in Fright (Ted Kotcheff, 1971) – a bunch of drunken Australian rednecks go on a night shoot in the outback and murder countless kangaroos just for the hell of it.

    Pat Garrett and Bill the Kid (Sam Peckinpah, 1973) – the outlaws spend some of their spare time in Mexico shooting the heads off chickens that have been buried up to their necks.

    Ulzana’s Raid (Robert Aldrich, 1972) – one of the few westerns that shows the true strategic value of the horse.

    Leolo (Jean-Claude Lauzon, 1992) – some horny teenagers watch on as a kitten is raped.

    John Wick (Chad Stahelski and David Leitch, 2014) – Russian gangsters cold bloodedly kill the protagonist’s pet beagle just for the hell of it. They too get what they deserve.

  2. Dan Grant Reply

    WOW! Thanks for contributing Mark. Those are some excellent mentions. I haven’t seen 5 of the films you mentioned, and now that you have them here, I probably never will.

    I can’t believe I kept Cannibal Holocaust off the list. That’s a terrific mention. I saw that movie once and never will again. It’s very disturbing because of the animal killing. Besides the turtle, they killed three monkeys because they couldn’t get the shot right, so three monkeys died needlessly.

    Thanks very much for commenting and doing so with some very insightful thoughts.

  3. Dan Reply

    A thought-provoking and well considered list. It’s a topic that needs to be discussed and these films provide an ideal stage on which to showcase animal cruelty to a large-scale, mainstream audience who may not have acknowledged the severity of this tragedy before.

  4. Dan Grant Reply

    Thanks for calling it a tragedy Dan. I do think it is. Its bothered me all my life. Human beings naturally are at the top of the food chain I get Darwinism. But the outright abuse perpetrated on animals is quite bothersome. Thank you for allowing me to write this one and thank you very much for publishing it on your site.

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