From producer Sam Raimi and director Alexandre Aja (The Hills Have Eyes 2006), Crawl stands out as the unironically good aquatic creature feature in a sea of mediocre offerings.
Caution: There are minor spoilers for Crawl in this review.
Florida often gets a pretty bad reputation in all sections of American culture. From its politics (the presidential elections being major controversies for the state) to the erratic weather that is commonplace there, Florida is almost constantly in a state of physical and political chaos. But a way to make lemonade out of the various amounts of lemons chucked at Florida’s way is to have it be the setting of a Hollywood horror movie that manages to make it look even scarier.
In comes the new Alexandre Aja horror flick, Crawl, with Evil Dead mastermind Sam Raimi serving as one of the main producers of the weather creature feature set in Florida. A film centered on a group of killer alligators terrifying people in Florida doesn’t sound like a novel concept on paper, especially when aquatic horror flicks often get made in a comedic and trashy manner, diminishing any chance for the seriousness to set in. For every Jaws, there are at least 10 Sharknados.
However, Crawl has a couple of aces up its sleeve. Firstly, there’s the combined might of Sam Raimi and Alexandre Aja, the latter being responsible for the surprise horror-comedy hit, Piranha 3D, as well as being one of the most prominent figures of New French Horror cinema, which aimed at breaking taboos and barriers in horror through the use of excruciating horror of the body. Aja’s use of gruesome horror is on full display here, despite the radically different movie climate.
What Crawl has going for it beyond Aja and Raimi’s involvement is a refreshing sense of simplicity. This isn’t a convoluted revenge story or a borderline superhero comedy with its physics. Crawl is as old-school as it gets, with the premise simply leaning on the main characters surviving against all odds. The characters are at a constant disadvantage, so seeing them surprise the audience at every turn is already a winning formula by itself. But how well is this formula utilized in Crawl?
Nature at its deadliest
Crawl is a creature feature that doesn’t simply rely on monster horror to amplify the tension. In addition to the alligators, an impending hurricane acts as arguably the main antagonist of the film to talented swimmer, Haley Keller (Kaya Scodelario), who navigates her way through the hurricane to check on her estranged father, Dave (Barry Pepper), who has not been answering his phone.
She manages to find her family dog safe, but her father is unconscious in the basement of their old family condo, wounded by a pair of aggressive alligators who begin to terrorize the two as the hurricane threatens to drown them while the gators threaten to maul them.
From here, Crawl navigates the cliches of typical aquatic creature features to present a tight, race-against-the-clock thriller that manages to be better than it perhaps has any right to be. A movie about gators may not sound appealing, but Aja manages to tastefully respect the genre while still offering up loads of gory fun for horror hounds to appreciate.
Unlike the hilariously inept aquatic horror films that skimp out on the bloody violence, Aja makes sure to fill his movie with squeamish body horror that has a genuine impact and oomph to it.
When people are mauled in Crawl, it’s hardly left to the imagination. The swift nature of the alligators is felt as they smoothly hunt their victims with a frightening level of competence that gives them a nice edge over sharks. They hunt their victims with a certain calculated aggression, building them up as genuine threats without making them out to be hulking demons. Much like Piranha 3D, Aja gives us the perfect blend of over-the-top movie craziness with a realistic enough threat to keep the horror film grounded at its core.
The hurricane also acts as a co-antagonist of Crawl with the alligators, as the weather threatens to flood the basement Haley and Dave are holed up in. So there’s no use in waiting the storm out when the storm itself is wreaking havoc upon the two survivors.
It leads to a horror film where one wrong move can mess everything up, such as a wrong turn or waiting for too long. The characters have their moments to breathe, but it’s precious time being wasted as the basement begins to flood with the gators still very much in control of the situation.
The ultimate test
Crawl doesn’t just have the surprisingly effective weather element going for it, but it manages to benefit from a committed cast acting their asses off against the creatures and water.
First, we have Kaya Scodelario from the Maze Runner trilogy leading the pack as Haley, a talented but disgruntled swimmer who is forced to put her skills to the test as she tries to outsmart the alligators. Her competitive spirit makes her an easy protagonist to root for, even if her backstory and actual character are a little on the underdeveloped side.
It’s always nice to see a determined character lead a horror film like this. Scodelario’s acting elevates the character that does show through with an intensely physical and intimate performance that is mostly done sitting, swimming, and crawling around.
Kaya brings enough of her personality to flesh out a bare-bones character and the intimacy of her pained struggles is felt throughout the film with Aja trusting his cast enough to bring the camera close to their faces. Kaya bandaging up her wounds with tears running down her cheeks is both textbook Aja and a testament to Scodelario’s talent as an actor to follow.
Not to be outdone by Kaya, Crawl also employs the talent of The Kennedys’ Barry Pepper playing Dave, Haley’s father and depressed workaholic who kickstarts the premise of the film. He’s essentially the cause of the main conflict, as well as the heart of him and his daughter’s estranged relationship.
Dave is something of a tough-love father. Though we don’t get too much insight into the relationship, Pepper’s convincing performance as a regretful father makes it easier to attach to the relationship that is ultimately the film’s coup de grace in terms of character writing.
In fact, the character dynamic between Haley and Dave stands as arguably the heart of Crawl. Amidst the bloody violence, dangerous weather, and the threat of the house flooding, the film presents two characters somewhat out of it in terms of their mental health, each struggling with issues related to their relationship with each other.
The alligators and hurricane act as external obstacles to the pair. Their own crumbled relationship receives some much-needed discussion to help them overcome the animals and anchor the film’s character writing down to a surprisingly effective degree.
Flawed, but fun
Crawl isn’t the kind of movie you should try and compare something like Jaws or even Piranha 3D to. It’s not a game-changing blockbuster, but neither is it trying to be a silly horror-comedy with an abundance of blood, boobs, and bite marks. Alexandre Aja takes the material seriously enough to craft an unironically solid creature thriller that you could watch over and over without missing anything substantial.
It’s a film that may not get better on second or third viewings, but in no way does the quality dip either. The flaws you witness on your first watch will still be there on repeat viewings and there’s bound to be a handful of them here.
From the inconsistent weather patterns despite the house clearly having holes in it to the multiple leaps in logic in terms of the seriousness of the wounds, Crawl is a film that is plenty inconsistent in terms of its own logic, but the characters, acting, and horror thrills are enough to combat these issues with ease.
It goes without saying that I’ve been a huge fan of Alexandre Aja ever since his first break into the mainstream with the controversial French horror-thriller, High Tension, as well as his work on The Hills Have Eyes remake. Aja directs the human body in ways most horror directors wouldn’t think of touching. Many of his films have grisly body horror and it’s the kind that isn’t just gross, but inherently disturbing and cynical at its core.
With Crawl, we get hints of that direction from him, but it goes without saying that this may be Aja’s most accessible film to date. Much of that is due to the writing, but even the pacing of the film is much more Hollywood than his previous films.
Even so, that’s not necessarily bad, as it makes for a white-knuckle thriller that makes the most of its bare premise and comes away with a surprising winner that blows many aquatic horror-thrillers out of the water, literally and figuratively speaking of course.
Final Verdict: 7/10
What did you think of Crawl? Have you seen any of Alexandre Aja’s films and if so, what are your thoughts on them? Will you ever visit Florida? Sound off below!
Crawl is out in theaters now.