Have you ever experienced one of those days where everything seems designed to make your day even worse than it already is? Take that day and exponentially multiply it, and you may have an idea of our lead characters’ plight in Alexandre Aja’s Crawl.
Paramount’s creature feature follows Haley Keller (Kaya Scodelario), a collegiate swimmer with an estranged relationship with her father, Dave (Barry Pepper). When Dave goes AWOL on the verge of a category five hurricane, Haley travels to her childhood home to check on him, only to get trapped in a crawl space by large, blood-thirsty alligators. With the water steadily rising, the clock is ticking for the duo to find safety.
What immediately separates Crawl from other creature features is the genre mashup. Aja isn’t interested in making a straight up monster movie, utilizing Mother Nature as a secondary villain to great effect. Every time our leads get ahead of the alligators, the weather impedes their quest for survival. Every time they get around the weather, the gators are lying in wait. The film never lets up, throwing new wrenches into the gears with abandon. Everything that could go wrong does go wrong.
While Aja has worked in aquatic horror before — he directed the gore-filled camp fest Piranha 3D (2010) — there’s very little camp to be seen here. He puts his heroine through the wringer, sending her on a journey that, at times, seems hopeless. That’s not to say the film doesn’t have fun, though that depends on whether or not you find gators and gore “fun.” He keeps the film at a whiplash pace; there is never a boring moment.
The titular crawl space is the primary and most effective set piece. Dark, dank, and slowly filling with water, every minute spent below the house is tense. The gators lurk in the shadows and in the background, forcing our characters to use their wits and resources to find a way up and out. It’s nice to see a horror film that not only doesn’t rely on dumb decisions to further the plot, but actually includes smart, decisive characters. When our leads’ situation gets worse, there’s always an external factor to blame.
Scodelario is electric as the resourceful heroine of the film, never over- or under-performing the terror. It’s a physically demanding role, and she is immensely believable when the film requires her to spring into action. Pepper breaks type as a blue collar father figure, and does well with what he’s given. The leads have good chemistry, but their relationship doesn’t quite land. It feels like much of the dramatic dialogue wound up on the cutting room floor to keep up the pace of the film, so the emotional beats don’t always feel earned. It’s a trade off, but one that works in service of the movie as a whole.
Let’s be honest, no one goes to a movie like Crawl for the drama between its characters. The main attraction is obviously the gators, and boy, do the gators deliver. Normally, CGI beasts are much less intimidating than ones created through practical effects. This is not an issue here. The gators have a real weight and menace to them. They are a presence, and a true testament to how far computer generated VFX have come.
Despite only having two leads, there are plenty of gnarly gator kills for the ninety minute run time. A scene involving a convenience store being looted ends poorly for the looters, and contains an homage to Jaws. One certain kill is foreshadowed ever so slightly — Aja is intentional in what he shows us, even before the gators show up. Everything on screen has a purpose.
Perhaps the most impressive part about the gators and their attacks is how relatively grounded in realism they are. The gators don’t just eat people, they rag doll their prey first to incapacitate them. Unlike a certain film (*cough* Lake Placid *cough*), these alligators don’t have to be gigantic to be scary. They’re big, but not abnormally so. There are surely exaggerations, but the film is never cartoon-ish, relying on tense build ups and pay offs rather than spectacle and camp.
The end of the film is rather abrupt, as if the filmmakers ran out of cool ideas and called it a day. It relies too heavily on a dramatic beat that comes across as corny rather than genuine. It’s an odd way to end the film, leaving the audience with “wait, what?” as opposed to “whoa!” Still, when the eighty minutes preceding it are this good, it’s hard to complain.
In short, this is everything I want out of a summer horror film: it’s bold, brisk, and brutal. Aja hasn’t seemed this confident behind the camera in years. Despite a clunky ending and an unconvincing relationship between the leads, scares and thrills are delivered with surgical precision. I definitely won’t be visiting Florida anytime soon, but I’ll be revisiting Crawl for years to come.
Director: Alexandre Aja
Screenwriters: Michael and Shawn Rasmussen
Starring: Kaya Scodelario and Barry Pepper
Rated R for bloody creature violence, and brief language
Run time: 87 min
For people who enjoy: Jaws, The Shallows, Piranha 3D (2010)