Thanks to Aja's confident direction and Kaya Scodelario's warrior performance, Crawl makes for a terse and otherwise exhilarating viewing experience.
After trying his hand at relatively high-art thrillers like Horns and The 9th Life of Louis Drax, director Alexandre Aja is back to doing what he does best - lean, bloody, stylish B-movie fare - with Crawl. An original survival horror-thriller in the vein of The Shallows (only with alligators and violent weather rather than a hungry Great white shark), the film plays to Aja's strengths in creating white-knuckle tension and offers a much more stripped-down thrill ride compared to other releases this summer. It even has a surprisingly uplifting message for a movie that's mostly about people either being chomped and/or trying to avoid being chomped by reptilian predators. Thanks to Aja's confident direction and Kaya Scodelario's warrior performance, Crawl makes for a terse and otherwise exhilarating viewing experience.
Scodelario stars in Crawl as Haley Keller, a highly-driven college swimmer who's been estranged from her father and ex-coach, Dave (Barry Pepper), for a while when a Category 5 hurricane hits their hometown in Florida. Despite being ordered to evacuate the area, Haley decides to drive right into the heart of the approaching storm when Dave doesn't answer his phone, in an effort to make sure that he's safe. After finding his dog Sugar alone at his place, Haley discovers a badly-injured Dave in the crawlspace basement of their old house (which is up for sale) and quickly learns that he was attacked by what turns out to be one of several alligators in the neighborhood. With time working against them, Haley and Dave must try to make it to safety before either the creatures or rising waters do them in.
Written by Michael and Shawn Rasmussen (The Ward, The Inhabitants), Crawl is an economic piece of storytelling that avoids getting bogged down in unnecessary exposition and quickly establishes everything that viewers need to know before finding its way to its primary setting - the Kellers' basement, to be exact. The film similarly settles on a pulpy tone early on and never wavers from it, even during the more dramatic moments that don't involve something trying to actively kill Haley and Dave. Indeed, part of what makes Crawl such a fun horror movie experience is that its main set piece is essentially a collection of everyone's worst fears (claustrophobic passages, unsanitary water, jagged metal, little bugs), on top of the threat of alligators and the incoming hurricane. Aja and his trusty DP Maxime Alexandre visualize the crawlspace as a striking collection of shadows and sparse light, which only further heightens the sense that danger could be lurking anywhere at any time.
Of course, part of the reason that Crawl's able to maintain a relentless feeling of terror is because it keeps audiences invested in Haley and Dave's (and, yes, Sugar's) fates by taking the time to actually develop the characters along the way. Haley is the latest addition to the proud tradition of fierce heroines in survival thrillers, but it's Scodelario's physically (and emotionally) challenging turn that really elevates her into one of this summer's best onscreen fighters. Pepper also continues to earn his reputation as a strong character actor here and injects some pathos into the scenes where Dave and Haley's relationship (which was fractured by Dave and Haley's mom getting divorced) is featured front and center. The film is ultimately pretty sympathetic in its portrayal of its working-class leads, and works all the better as a schlocky parable about the larger environmental crisis faced by the world today for it.
In this way, Crawl is a proper marriage between Aja and producer Sam Raimi's storytelling sensibilities; it even has more than a touch of Evil Dead's physical horror, but at the same time recalls Aja's previous creature features in terms of its visceral approach. The film also bides by the old Jaws rule of not showing its monster(s) too much, which is good because the CGI alligators admittedly aren't all that convincing during their lingering closeups. Obviously, there's not that much depth to the themes and characters either, and most everything that happens is more than a little silly when one actually pauses to consider what's going on. But again, that's a big part of why Crawl works as well as it does: it has no pretensions about itself and wraps up well before audiences can even start to get bored.
All in all, Crawl makes for a refreshing addition to a summer that's been full of shared universe films, reboots, remakes, or sequels (some better than others, of course). Moviegoers can probably tell whether it's their kind of horror-thriller or not based on the TV spots and trailer alone, but overall the movie delivers on the promise of its marketing. It's quite polished for a low-budget and largely single location horror-thriller too, and is actually worth checking out on the big screen, for those who are interested. Considering how long it's been since the last major wide release featuring a semi-aquatic reptilian monster (arguably, 1999's Lake Placid), it's about time that alligators get their shot at the spotlight.
Crawl is now playing in U.S. theaters nationwide. It is 87 minutes long and is rated R for bloody creature violence, and brief language.