The killer animal film has come a long way since Jaws. These days you’ve got to have a prehistoric giant shark to even get folks talking about your movie. The thinking is that normal-sized, non-mutated animals just aren’t enough anymore, I suppose. Plus, the fact that people are a lot more educated about the majority of animals in the wild being far more scared of us than we are of them kind of takes away from the thrill. However, there’s been a low-budget resurgence recently in pitting human versus beast.
Crawl is the next entry in this micro-resurgence and it ditches the more traditional shark nemesis for killer alligators. That sounds ripe for a tongue-in-cheek film of epic cheesiness, especially when you hear that Sam Raimi produced it and Alexandre Aja directed, two of the best camp horror film makers ever. Yet, Crawl plays it close to the chest, both figuratively and literally, in a movie less about killer gators can more about high tension is small spaces.
Director: Alexandre Aja
Release Date: July 12, 2019
A category five hurricane is hitting Florida and Haley (Kaya Scodelario), a swimmer at FSU (because Gators), can’t get in touch with her estranged dad, Dave (Barry Pepper). Worried, she drives headlong into the hurricane only to find him injured by an alligator in the crawlspace below their old home. Trouble is the alligators are still there and now they’re both stuck with them in the confined, rapidly-filling-with-water space. Time to escape.
That’s pretty much it. We’ll get into how well Aja directs this film in a moment, but one of the things that stands out most about Crawl is how little it cares about the “why” of it all. The movie gives absolutely no good reason for why this group of alligators is suddenly attacking every human who comes anywhere near them. There’s no scientific research gone wrong; no extra-evil alligator contrivance; no personal grudge between the characters and an anthropomorphized gator. The film simply sets up and scenario and then executes on it, keeping a tightly wound movie taught to the extreme. The lack of crocodile backstory and exposition means we’re flung nearly immediately into the crawlspace with Haley, her father, and two alligators and then not allowed a break until the end.
That’s where Aja’s claustrophobic direction really shines. As Haley and Dave struggle to stay alive with the basement filling with water the camera keeps unbearably close to them. It bobs in and out of the water, as if the audience itself is close to be dragged under by a set of chomping jaws. There’s a sense of imprisonment that permeates throughout the film leading to scares and tension that feel real in an absolutely absurd situation. Unencumbered by the need to hide his “monsters” because we all know it’s a movie about alligators and what alligators look like, Aja gives the creatures free reign on screen too, avoiding the pitfall of hiding his villains until the very end of the film.
Aja also never takes the movie camp. The director has a nose for knowing what kind of horror film he’s making and exactly what it needs as can be seen by his fantastic work on both The Hills Have Eyes and Piranha 3D. A kill crocodile movie could have worked as camp but instead playing it straight forward delivers the better movie and it’s a bold stroke. There are moments of emotional catharsis for our characters that are almost entirely needless, but on the whole the film is simply about avoiding being eaten by alligators.
Of course, blood and guts aren’t completely forgotten. There’s plenty of bodies that pop up here and there for the gators to chomp down on in increasingly gory ways, but surprisingly Aja never goes over-the-top with it. The gator attacks might be violent but they also feel real, which makes the claustrophobic setting and violence all the more disturbing. The filmmaker also knows that the movie’s premise could run out of gas quickly and never pauses long enough to allow you to think about things. Haley is simply thrown from one tense underwater sequence to another, culminating in a conclusion that ends as abruptly as the film starts. There’s no denial that this movie is simply here to scare you for 90 minutes and then go away, and there’s no problem with that.
This isn’t some new classic, however. Despite Aja’s taught direction and the screenplay’s non-stop pace the movie still feels a little trite. There’s nothing to make it stand out as something more than another fun killer animal film. The CGI alligators can also be a little dodgy at times, though coming out a week before The Lion King isn’t doing them any favors. None of this is some major problem — not everything has to be a classic — but for those looking for something that’s a bit more layered, as both Raimi and Aja projects can be, that’s missing here. Alligators try to eat people and that’s pretty much it.
Crawl is a movie that’s not really looking to do anything but scare you and make you worry about alligators the next time you’re in Florida and in that it succeeds in spades. There’s nothing incredibly fancy about it, and nothing unneeded in it. In a time of movies going bigger and bigger to pull you in, it’s a murky, bloody, tight bit of small fun at the cinema. It never bites off more than it can chew, but when it chomps, it chomps hard.