Director: Alexandre Aja
Cast: Kaya Scodelario, Barry Pepper, Ross Anderson
Running time: 87 minutes
From Swedish festivals to Lupita Nyong’o², 2019 horror is hardly in need of a shake-up. A genre currently experiencing a rather rich (and bloody) vein of form, the casting couch for monsters, ghouls and ghosts is pretty crowded right about now. What the sinister sofa certainly doesn’t appear to have room for is a plethora of man-eating alligators hungry for human flesh during a Category 5 hurricane. And yet, despite lacking any slither of innovation, Crawl, with its enjoyably simple set-up and snappy run time, is a schlocky, surprisingly satisfying reptilian romp.
The gift of this gator tale lies in its loyalty to its high-concept premise. Director Alexandre Aja – a filmmaker whose already dipped his toe in the waters of trashy, knowing B-movie fun with Piranha 3D – and co-writers Michael and Shawn Rasmussen cut a lean, no-frills monster-meets-disaster movie that knows exactly what it is, and, crucially, exactly what it isn’t.
Barry Pepper and Kaya Scodelario star as the central father/daughter duo under siege from an army of stealthy, scaly intruders as the Florida weather takes a terrifying turn. Scodelario’s Haley Keller is the strong-willed, fiercely competitive student swimmer; Pepper’s Dave is the estranged paternal presence. Putting their strained relationship to the ultimate test – not to mention Haley’s aquatic aptitude – together they must fight tooth and nail while evading tooth and claw in a desperate bid to survive the rising waters and its hostile inhabitants. Rarely has swimming like your life depends on it felt so nail-bitingly literal.
It is a suitably grisly affair. Blending effective jump scares with gory, blood-splattered set-pieces and an overarching sense of claustrophobia, Aja does an admirable job of maintaining a gripping, pulsating sense of dread when the film might otherwise have drowned in the stagnant rivers of cliché. With touches of Raimi’s Evil Dead – the celebrated director on producing duties here – Crawl’s early basement scenes are significantly more impactful than its louder, no-holds-bar sequences later on.
Invariably, as the eye of the storm draws nearer, belief will increasingly need to be suspended and plausibility pushed to the very limits. But, beyond a half-cooked family drama running just below the surface, rarely are the film’s waters muddied by emotion or exposition. Sharp and snappy, in every sense, is very much the name of the game.
Of course, there’s weight for a deeper, murkier reading of Crawl’s hissing antagonists as pure metaphor: the allegorical alligators representing the aggressive feelings of animosity Haley feels toward her father – emotions she ultimately overcomes. However, the film is at its snarling best when it refuses to deal in such nuance and instead lays all its cards on the table in a flurry of crunching bone and ripping limbs. When it comes to humans, hurricanes and hungry reptiles, there’s very little space for subtlety.