Written by: Michael Rasmussen, Shawn Rasmussen
Directed by: Alexandre Aja
Starring: Kaya Scodelario and Barry Pepper
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
Fellow creature feature devotees: Alexandre Aja, Sam Raimi, and the Rasmussen brothers have heard our cries. Sure, the likes of The Shallows and 47 Meters Down have satisfied us lifeboats in a sea of Asylum and SyFy nonsense, but they know we need more. In a world where Sharknado exists, it’s not enough to simply rest on their killer animal laurels, so they’ve surveyed the landscape of Pteracudas, Whalewolves, and Lavalantulas before kindly asking everyone to hold their beer as they mash up four of the scariest things imaginable in Crawl: home invasions, alligators, natural disasters, and the state of Florida. The result is an intense, gory thrill ride, and the stuff summer movie season should always be made of. Crawl a no-frills little banger that takes its wild premise seriously without skimping on the fun.
Then again, given the numerous deranged headlines that hail from the state of Florida, I’m not sure the events depicted here are truly that outlandish. Haley Keller (Kaya Scodelario) is a collegiate swimmer for the University of Florida (mascot: Gators, in a cheeky bit of foreshadowing) who receives a phone call from her distressed sister. Despite a category five hurricane bearing down on their hometown, neither has heard from their father, Dave (Barry Pepper), prompting a concerned Haley to take off right into the middle of the storm. What she assumes will be routine check-up (her dad is the hard-headed type that would try to ride out a hurricane, after all) turns into a full-on rescue mission when she discovers Dave bloodied, battered, and unconscious in the crawlspace beneath her childhood home. The culprits soon reveal themselves in the form of two alligators that have claimed this space as their own, leaving Haley trapped as the waters slowly rise.
Fucking Florida, man: if the wildlife doesn’t kill you, the weather will. That’s it—that’s the hook for Crawl, a film that lives and breathes its gimmick. Sure, it reserves the bare minimum of time to invest in its characters (more on that later), but the Rasmussen brothers’ script naturally thrives on exploiting the scenario for its suspenseful and schlocky potential. Each new twist and turn invites the audience closer to the edge of its seat with the right mix of anxiousness and awe. Even if you don’t really want to see anything bad happen to this father-daughter duo, you cant help but rubberneck at how goddamn harrowing their plight is. I lost count of the number of times I muttered or thought “oh shit” to myself as the tension mounted.
Crawl is very much that sort of movie, and Aja is exactly the sort of filmmaker you want attached to it. His vision of an already primal premise is lean, mean, and rollicking. While he’s not out to dwell on exposition, he’s also not in a rush to toss his cast to the wolves—er, gators. Genuine dread mounts as Florida’s ominous skies dump torrents of rain, while the grungy, claustrophobic crawlspace is squirm-inducing before the gators emerge. Aja even manages some truly inspired jolts during the build-up that act as warm-ups to the main event that outclass most of the run-of-the-mill supernatural spook shows haunting multiplexes these days.
Of course, Aja and Raimi’s involvement also sets some gorier expectations, and Crawl delivers this, too. The script smartly tosses in a handful of disposable victims whose presence at least makes a little bit of sense, both in terms of internal logic and satisfying the audience’s bloodlust. A trio of idiot looters passes through first, their efforts to rob a convenience store thoroughly wrecked once the alligators realize an easy meal has drifted right into their laps. The second set of victims arrive—and swiftly depart—under more tragic circumstances when a couple of cops attempt to rescue Haley and her dad. Neither the gators nor Aja gives much of a damn about their noble intentions: if you’ve ever wondered what it would look like to see a pack of bloodthirsty predators literally tear a guy limb-from-limb, Crawl is your ticket.
I would argue that Crawl could probably use just a little bit more nastiness. These gory outbursts certainly serve their purpose of ratcheting up the tension and menace (one of the film’s best “oh shit” moments comes with the realization that the area is swarming with gators), but anyone craving a reprisal of Piranha’s climactic blood orgy might want to adjust their expectations. Besides, Aja and company have a fairly noble reason for showing some restraint: Crawl is actually fairly invested in its two lead characters and sharply intertwines their attempt to reconcile as a family with their fight for survival. Following a messy divorce, Dave is estranged from both his daughters, but especially Haley, who he always encouraged to become a competitive swimmer.
Flashbacks fill in the gaps here (and remind us that Barry Pepper is apparently ageless), revealing that Haley’s struggles under the spotlight were always accompanied by her father’s encouragement and insistence that she’s an apex predator, capable of doing anything if she puts her mind to it. Crawl is destined to climax with him encouraging her to make a dangerous swim, and it absolutely earns the moment because Scodelario and Pepper bring a genuine conviction to their roles. You know what you’re getting with the latter, as Pepper is one of our great character actors who’s immediately capable of lending gravitas to even the silliest situations. Exhibit A: Crawl is the only movie where he calls a pack of alligators “pea-brained lizard shits.” (The defense rests.) Scodelario’s résumé might not be as accomplished yet, but she’s an emerging talent poised to break out as a true star if Crawl is any indication. She’s the film’s bedrock as Haley, a resourceful, tough-as-nails woman enduing the worst day of her life with poise, grit, and even a little grace in her attempt to salvage her relationship with Dave.
Of course, this being a Raimi production, it comes as no surprise that Crawl has no problems putting Haley and her poor dad through the ringer. Maybe it doesn’t carry the demented, nihilistic streak that’s often defined Raimi’s horror efforts, but it’s gleefully impish in the way it consistently finds new ways to torment its characters. Nearly every moment of triumph is upended by mother nature’s dogged refusal to let these two off the hook; at a certain point, Crawl begins to feel like a demented dark comedy guided by Murphy’s Law. If Bruce Campbell watches this, I assume he’ll do so with a wry, knowing smile as he watches someone else take a beating on Raimi’s watch. The only problem—and my only true sticking point—is that, for all its wild escalation, Crawl doesn’t quite end as emphatically as you’d like. It feels like it’s missing either a necessary exclamation point (there’s a bit involving a helicopter that’s just begging for a Jaws 2 homage), or at least a period (an epilogue would be nice); instead it trails off to the credits with an ellipses, but I get it. This thing barely has any fat on it as it is, so it smartly avoids lingering on and wearing out its welcome.
That quibble aside, Crawl is the real deal: a lean, strikingly directed killer animal movie where every moment and movement matters. A character’s decision to simply inch across a crawlspace becomes a nail-biting ordeal, especially when Aja is demented enough to punctuate it with an unexpected outbreak of spiders. Simply put, Crawl has a weight that’s often sorely lacking in this genre, and not just in terms of the convincing creature effects, which are obviously critical; more than that, both the story and the production feel meticulously crafted and tactile in a crucial way. Nature run amok films only work if they feel, well, natural, and that’s the triumph of Crawl: its premise almost dares you to laugh at it—then it sinks its teeth into you and doesn’t let go for 88 hellacious minutes.
All hail Aja, who has become a savior for this genre, first with Piranha 3D and now this, giving him the first and last word on the matter for this decade. Given his past career choices, it’s likely he’ll venture off to do something a little more daring and strange, but I hope he always finds time to wander back to this corner of the genre, where we only crave blood, beasts, and bona fide fun.
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