This article is part of Tropes Week, in which we’re exploring our favorite tropes from cinema history. Read more here.
Tell me if you’ve heard this one before: a group of characters are in danger and their only chance of survival is to stay elevated, like on a rock hiding from giant worms or above water safe from killer sharks. Recognize it or not, scenes where people are trying to stay off the ground – or water – have been commonplace in movies since the silent era. And they’re all basically just elaborate games of hot lava.
You know hot lava. You probably played it as a kid, or maybe after watching that Community episode, and while the dangers may change in the movies, the rules are always the same: you touch the ground, you’re out. Out of the game or, you know, out of life once the creatures finally get ya! We do not judge your high stakes game of hot lava, but we sure do love watching it. Here are some of our favorites films where characters just have to have the high ground!
You can’t really do better than Joe Dante’s original Piranha, a perfect homage and parody to Steven Spielberg’s Jaws. Alexandre Aja tries and damn near succeeds. But one moment that would have never made it into the original is this one of brutal carnage with easily the highest body count of any game of hot lava anywhere. As the piranhas are unleashed from their deep underwater home, they make their way to a beachfront spring break party full of drunk AF college kids (and one Eli Roth in his best non-Tarantino role). Needless to say: they learn quickly to stay out of the water.
The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
After having thrown the titular ring into the fires of Mount Doom, what are two young Hobbits to do? Get the fuck off the mountain. One of the more literal games of hot lava on this list, it also is one of the most emotionally driven. Samwise selflessly just wants to save his best bud Frodo who clearly will have a lifetime’s worth of trauma to look forward to. While we know they get back to Hobbiton safe, there is still a palpable sense of danger as they leap from rock to rock, lava lapping at their hobbit-size feet. That is, of course, until Gandalf and his cadre of giant eagles sweep in to rescue the pint-size BFFs. Sure it’s technically cheating, but they did save Middle Earth, so let’s cut ’em some slack.
It’s a shame that Ron Underwood and S.S. Wilson’s Tremors typically doesn’t make the cut when we compile the greatest horror films of the 1990s, because, despite the hokeyness of the concept (giant sandworms sucking people into the arid landscape of Nevada), it’s brought together by an amiable cast supported by a strong script that is both tense and laugh out loud funny. It also has the perfect example of hot lava on screen. Not only are they avoiding the Graboids on the ground, but they’re being stylish as they do it, pole vaulting from stone to stone to the safety of a pick-up truck, and it’s all packaged in a stone-cold classic monster movie.
Deep Blue Sea
No film is deeper, no film is bluer than Deep Blue Sea. And most of the charm, outside of its smart sharky boys and Samuel L. Jackson’s iconic death scene is LL Cool J’s chef, Preacher. He’s got a bird! He says one-liners! He survives despite the odds of a regressive movie trope! LL is an inspired casting choice, letting him flex his comedic muscles while continuing his genre streak that started with Halloween: H20. Speaking of H20, LL’s hot lava moment is about staying out of the rising water in the deep sea research center’s kitchen (naturally) as he balances precariously on aluminum shelves. Of course, shelves are no match for these intelligent boys, and it takes hiding in a working gas stove for LL to escape and take revenge on the bird-eating shark. Ladies love Cool James, but Cool James only loves his bird.
Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith
Hot lava the game? Fun! Avoiding actual hot lava? Not fun at all! And no one better understands this universal truth then the sand-averse Skywalker at the center of Revenge of the Sith. Vader before the helmet, Anakin is struck down by his mentor, Obi-Wan Kenobi, after a thrilling lightsaber duel across the flooding lava rivers of Mustafar. Sith gives us a great, “real world” example of not only what happens if you lose at hot lava, but also what happens when you lose the high ground. You get your legs cut off and most of your body gets burned before getting encased in a big ol’ black suit to live out the rest of your days as a powerful force of evil. Moral of the story? Don’t lose at hot lava.
After tracking down her father to their childhood home during a Florida hurricane, a young competitive swimmer finds herself trapped in a – wait for it – crawl space just crawlin’ with some human-hungry gators. After fighting their way up through the house, water flooding the kitchen, Haley (Kaya Scodelario) has her hot lava moment as she shimmy’s along stoves and Formica countertops to stay out of the gator infested water. It’s one of the most genuinely nerve-wracking moments in an already nerve-wracking film that balances all that tension with sheer creature-feature fun.
While not technically a SyFy Channel Original, The Sand sure as hell feels like one. It’s not Mega Shark vs Giant Octopus levels of what-the-fuckery, but you could still choose much worse films. But this quasi remake of Blood Beach is fun enough, and dumb enough, to keep your attention for the thankfully brief 90 minutes. When the entire movie is about a group of college kids stuck on a beach filled with murderous monsters hiding just under the sand, you know there will be ample time for an old fashioned game of hot lava. Like other films on this list, the game comes in a moment of resourcefulness as one of the survivors uses a surfboard as a footbridge to move to safety. Remember, don’t look too deeply into the mechanics of the monster, or ask why it couldn’t just snap the board in half and drag down its dinner. Just keep telling yourself: it’s only a movie.
Originally shot in 3D, Bait isn’t necessarily the greatest shark film, but it is the greatest shark film set in a grocery store. Thanks to a surprise typhoon, a grocery store and its parking garage become flooded, causing our survivors to take refuge on top of the shelving units, wreckage, and flooded cars as they wait for rescue. Unluckily for them, the first responders are sharks, and the only way they are getting everyone out is through their bellies. Lucky for the sharks, they are leapy boys, and when one of the survivors tries to make a break for it by climbing through a vent shaft, they are there to nibble off half their body. This is why you never play hot lava with killer sharks: they just never follow the rules!
Way Down East
I told you these hot lava moments have been around since the silent era! A D.W. Griffith film from the 1920s, Way Down East stars Lillian Gish as Anna, a poor woman who is dicked over by a rich fuckboi named Lennox (Lowell Sherman) leaving her life in shambles. In a new town, she finds work. And love, in the form of her employer’s son, David (Richard Barthelmess). But when Lennox comes back to town, her past catches up with her, resulting in this iconic, climactic moment of hot lava, just with the polar opposite: freezing water. An ice floe begins to carry her down the freezing river, forcing David to vault from floe to floe to reach her, avoiding the icy death-grip of the water below. For the early silent period, it truly is a remarkable feat of filmmaking, and one of the reasons it became the fourth highest-grossing silent film ever.
It’s incredible to me that Labyrinth was a box office bomb. How were moviegoers’ eyes so out of tune with the film’s beauty? In retrospect, perhaps it was kids like me, discovering the film on VHS, who helped make Labyrinth a seminal film for both Jim Henson and David Bowie. Although it was geared towards kids because, hello, Jim Henson puppets, it’s given legs through its darker, adult themes. While The Bog of Eternal Stench has a kid-friendly name, the danger is far from it as Sarah (Jennifer Connelly) and Hoggle (Brian Henson) edge their way across a narrow cliff edge. It’s about as tense as a slackline, but the game is still the same: stay out of the bog, Jennifer Connelly, stay out of the bog.