Alexandre Aja’s Crawl makes a day trip to Isla Nublar seem like a dip in a paddling pool.
This is a second opinion review of Crawl. You can check out our original opinion by clicking these words.
Alexandre Aja is one of those writer-directors whose resume is a complete patchwork, and it’s great he’s got the moxie to dip his toes wherever he fancies. His last two features couldn’t be less alike, Horns a silly, tonally muddled comedy-horror, and The 9th Life of Louis Drax a bizarre but intriguing supernatural thriller. For many genre fans, like me, Aja’s name is synonymous with a reliance on cheap, jump-scare style tricks, like those used in the hysterical gore fest Piranha 3D and in his gruesome remake of Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes.
With Crawl, the French filmmaker once again comes at us with something unusual – shock horror! We’re not treated to a tacky bloodbath in this tense thriller, but the Aja playbook has certainly been cracked out here. While the distinct style he’s plumped for inarguably stamps this as a B-movie with bite, something holds it back from fully submerging itself in daftness or cruor. And while that’s a shame, for a real B-movie fiend like me anyhow, the suspense Aja crafts more than makes up for it. It also means Crawl will likely appeal to a broader audience of cinephiles.
Capably directed, the film has a simple but effective premise. We focus on 20-something Haley (Kaya Scodelario) and her father Dave (Barry Pepper) during a Category 5 hurricane. Trapped in the family lake house, and with the latter injured, the pair struggle to fend off a congregation of hungry alligators. As survival instincts kick in, this disaster horror sinks its razor-sharp, salivating teeth into us. Aptly set in Florida, an area rife with the snapping predators, it feeds on the intrinsic human fear of large, fierce creatures, but cleverly sidesteps playing on aquaphobia too. Instead, Haley is gifted water as a resource she can exploit – a fact established during the prologue where we discover she’s an aspiring competitive swimmer.
Haley may have the aquatic skills of Flipper or Ariel, but her terror as events begin to unfold isn’t all that convincing. When the college student first encounters her vicious nemeses in the house’s grotty, flooding crawlspace, she doesn’t seem as fazed by the circumstances as one might imagine. That changes dramatically as co-writers Michael and Shawn Rasmussen ramp up the danger with some frightening, life-threatening scenarios. These are both smart and fun, drawing inspiration from other creature features like Jaws and Jurassic Park. They also introduce a nice blend of well-intentioned and opportunistic secondary characters. Of course, this lot are destined for a grim fate, but the scruffy family pooch Sugar might just pull through.
The brothers throw in a splash of corny father-daughter dialogue, which isn’t altogether surprising, but it is predictable and lame. There’s a time and a place to thrash out family matters, and this ain’t it. Even so, the human story brings balance to all the action. And the onscreen relationship between Haley and Dave is compelling, thanks to bang-up performances by Scoledario and Pepper.
Aja takes full advantage of the Rasmussens’ tension-building efforts, on top of the claustrophobic crawlspace dominating much of the movie’s runtime. Few nails are left unbitten as we watch Haley and Dave dodge the obstacles thrown in their path to safety – and relatively unscathed at that. On one hand, the nature of these obstacles is too similar for any element of shock. This occasionally leads to a desperate hope the plot will spill out into the greater outdoors, offering an entirely different set-up for a stretch. On the other, the oppressive sense of dread that develops couldn’t exist properly outside the confinements and restrictions of the crawlspace.
Despite a few let-downs, Crawl is more than just a serviceable B-movie – it’s a fast-paced, entertaining disaster horror with some great special effects and clever use of light. Sure, its report card would say, ‘Could do better,’ but marks are awarded for real effort. Though, perhaps this is one for a twofer deal rather than full-price cinema tickets.