A river journey is a one-way street, and once you’ve decided to go, you’re either going or you’re not going. The majority of river adventures in movies end in disaster when a party either gets into a dangerous situation on their own or is led there by a bad guy. As a rule, some are doomed from the beginning. They’re some of the best — and worst — river misadventure films ever made.
Bring Bombs. Lots of Bombs: Up the Creek (1984)
The story is a tad sparse in this one: In order to win an intercollegiate rafting race, a low-ranking school sends four of its worst students to compete. It’s time for the middle-aged alcoholics to hit the road with their lovable canine companion, Chuck, and the resulting misadventures ensue. Shocking violence pervades the race itself. There are blades in the paddle of the douchebag jocks’ paddles, a small crossbow with exploding arrows, and even a real torpedo on the team’s side. They utilize this during the race, and if the other teams don’t jump into the river, it might kill them all. In addition, the ROTC team is equipped with explosives because, I don’t know, how strong was coke back in the ’80s?
This Guide Seems Dicey: Vacation (2015)
Reboot of the National Lampoon’s Vacation movies, Rusty (Helms) sets out with his family to recreate his father’s road-trip adventure. He’s not. A demented and terribly sad guide (Charlie Day) leads the family on an actual suicide run down some dangerous rapids after his fiancée leaves him, which is one of the better moments in this film. As Harry Nilsson’s “Without You” plays in the background, the entire action is shot in extreme slow motion. It’s a good fit. In front of a massive waterfall, the Griswolds leap into the air and cling to rocks and logs, while the guide makes his way to the afterlife on his own. Screaming, he slams into rocks as he falls to the ground. An unusually somber vacation flick.
Team Building by Death: White Mile (1994)
Alda plays an unrepentant jerk in an early HBO original film, Dan Cutler, who operates an advertising business. It’s a fishing retreat in Washington’s Lava Canyon that he demands of his management team of veteran character actors. The “retreat” turns out to be an exhilarating whitewater rafting adventure. With the entire gang crammed into a single hefty raft, Cutler wants to see how devoted his staff are to him. Why? So that they don’t have to share a cab with strangers. After slamming against a massive boulder, the raft flips. Two executives, a retiree, and two clients are all killed in the crash. Even after surviving, Cutler continues to reveal himself to be a complete moron by making excuses for himself in court and acting as if he has no idea why anyone is so furious about a rafting excursion that resulted in the deaths of five fucking people.
This River Holds Monsters: Creature From the Black Lagoon (1954)
Dr. Carl Maia (Moreno) discovers a fossilized webbed hand on an isolated tributary of the Amazon River, where he begins his investigation. They set sail on a steamer ship down the tributary after securing funds for a full-fledged expedition and recruiting a group of young scientists to join them. The group’s quest for more fossils takes them to the titular lagoon, where they meet face to face with a member of the Gill-Man species, who is none too pleased to see them. His other desire is to take Kay Lawrence (Adams) to his Gill-Man cave and take her back to his Gill-Man cave. I’ve always suspected that he had ulterior motives.
Rapids, Climbing, and Attempted Murder!: White Water Summer (1987)
This summer, his parents decide to send Alan (Astin) to the mountains with three older kids for a long-term summer camp experience with their curiously intense guide, Vic (Bacon). When Alan begins to resist Vic, Vic responds by leaving him behind in different places—on an island all night in a lightning storm, hanging by a rope from a cliff—in order to create character and such. A bad “fall” causes Vic’s tibia to snap and poke through the bottom of his leg, so Alan uses his ingenuity to devise a plan to pull Vic back up the cliff and paddle him to the nearest ranger station before Vic dies from internal bleeding. But it’s all accompanied by a groovy ’80s soundtrack!
Travel Buddies: Jungle (2017)
A true story of Israeli explorer Yossi Ghinsberg’s tragic Amazon expedition in 1981 serves as the inspiration for this film. He meets up with two of his old buddies (Radcliffe) while filming the movie. Yossi is duped by a dodgy Austrian into hiking into the bush to see an indigenous tribe he claims to be friends with, which the group does. The aforementioned red flag is a blatant one. Marcus (Jackson) suffers terrible sores on his feet after several days of hiking, and he can no longer walk. All it takes for the gang to fall apart is one of those. Build a raft and sail down the river with the four friends. This stokes another row between the two of them. Yossi and Kevin (Russell) remain on the raft as two of the men set off to trek through the bush. Their homemade riverboat is destroyed by further rapids. Yossi has gone off the rails. After that, he’ll have to fend for himself in the forest with nothing but his wits. A rescue boat arrives at the location where Kevin was trapped and brings him aboard. Neither of the two men that jumped off the raft was ever seen again.
Trust No One: The River Wild (1994)
On the river, Kevin Bacon has a particular fondness for acting like a jerk. As a teen, Gail (Streep) worked as a rafting guide on the Salmon River in Idaho, where he and John C. Reilly play a pair of burglars hiding out after a job. When she and her family run into the outlaws while on vacation, they initially appear pleasant and harmless. In order to make their getaway, the two crooks want Gail to lead them over a dangerous rapids section known as The Gauntlet. While the hero father is just your regular Joe who steps up to the plate when the going gets tough, Bacon’s Wade is a hilariously badass badass in this action thriller. Aside from that, there’s a lot of action with a heroic dog and some thrilling rafting sequences that will make you regret owning one.
Tigers and Death Cults: Apocalypse Now (1979)
Assassinating an American special forces colonel who has gone wild and formed a death cult deep in the Cambodian forest during the Vietnam War sounds like a horrible idea from the get-go. And it most certainly is. Capt. Willard (Sheen) and only one other crew member, Lance (Brando), make it to the camp of Col. Kurtz (Brando), but Lance is so out of it that it’s doubtful he’ll ever play volleyball or surf again. It’s well-known that Coppola and Sheen nearly died while filming this river movie. There’s a good chance you won’t make it past two hours into the Redux version either.
You Gonna Learn About Loss: Cape Fear (1991)
Again, floating down a river to hide may seem like a wonderful plan, but if you’re discovered, you’re in a tight spot indeed. Cady (De Niro), Bowden’s ex-client, is a murderer and rapist who blames Bowden for his time in prison and continues to pursue Bowden’s family after he is out from prison. With his wife and adolescent daughter, Sam departs the Bowden home when a private detective is found deceased in the living room. “DUN-DUN!” While they were on the river, Cady was strapped to the bottom of their vehicle. Only a bottle of Ronsonol and a fast-moving storm can save the family from Cady’s wrath.
Dueling Butt Stuff: Deliverance (1972)
Just because something was important enough to be on the list didn’t mean it had to be at the top. In my opinion, this is one of the greatest movie setups ever seen. In Nowhere, Georgia, four Atlanta businessmen and friends decide to take a canoe trip along a river that runs through a valley that will soon be submerged by a dam. Among them are Lewis (Reynolds), Ed (Voight), and Bobby (Beatty) and Drew (Stallone) (Cox). They’re paddling down the river in two canoes, unaware that they’re about to embark on a harrowing journey filled with murder and nonconsensual butt things.
Ed and Bobby are kidnapped by a couple of shotgun-wielding rapists when the two canoes get separated. Lewis shoots one with his bow after Bobby is raped, and the foursome manages to flee the area. Drew is shot and killed from the cliffs above when they encounter a perilous rapids section. Lewis breaks his femur when the canoe flips over in the rapids. It is now a matter of survival for the survivors, who must also avoid the armed, bloodthirsty man rapists in the mountains.