Though little in the script elevates it above your average SyFy creature feature, director Alexandre Aja’s Crawl manages to wriggle its way out of the swamp of cheesy late-night monster movies and into the summer cineplexes, offering plenty of tightly constructed, toothy thrills courtesy of some sharp direction and a lead performance that consistently buoys even the more ridiculous bits (and bites). While it may not live up to “you’ll never go in the water again” standards, this is nevertheless breezy horror entertainment that delivers enough murky spooks and gruesome attacks to make audiences think twice about wading in the reedy shallows.
Sporting a simplistic plot that could have just as easily been titled Gatorcane, Crawl sees Florida college swimmer Haley (an incredibly game Kaya Scodelario) braving the gale winds and pouring rain of an impending hurricane while attempting to track down her unresponsive father’s whereabouts. Sure enough, she finds the old man (Barry Pepper, wisely staying away from an easy ‘good ol’ boy’ performance) at the broken family’s former home — but why is he out cold in the crawlspace ? It turns out that a couple of snarling alligators have made their way through a storm drain underneath the house, and they’ve gotten a little bitey. With her father severely wounded and the water levels rapidly rising due to the heavy storm, Haley must figure out how to elude the reptiles blocking the stairway escape before she and papa become lunch.
This type of setup has all the makings of classic B-movie schlock, but Crawl manages a better grade thanks to production values that are a cut above most ‘killer beast’ fare. Aja (The Hills Have Eyes remake, Piranha 3D) creates a creaky, muddy, desolate place for his characters to be trapped in; the dripping dankness is palpable, while the diffused light keeps the water shimmering — and goads viewers into constantly searching for scaly movement. Nice little touches like rats scurrying away or a live trap containing the rotting corpse of some unknown critter are cleverly used to suggest grave things about Haley’s predicament, and while the CGI does sometimes cartoonishly spoil the immersion, it’s usually done well enough to make the film’s cold-blooded creations nicely menacing.
More impressively, Aja never seems to run out of ideas for where to point his camera, resulting in an unusual amount of visual variety for one location. There is rarely nothing to look at, even in an underground filled mostly with wood, dirt, and pipes, and his precise framing is often used for clever misdirection. Staging is also important here, as Aja avoids inertness with expertise, keeping activity flowing back and forth like a heavy, swishing tail by having characters constantly take the initiative. They poke and prod at every accessible area of the crawlspace, dashing here and there to suss out a solution to their problem. And just as things are getting a bit claustrophobic, Crawl takes us outside among the flooded streets, tall grass, and swirling grey clouds that loom like a supernatural threat over the abandoned neighborhood in an eerie, Twilight Zone way. Haley and her dad might as well be on the planet of the gators for all the help they can expect to receive.
Of course, without a few more people there wouldn’t be any bodies to chew through, so some stragglers do occasionally happen along to keep things interesting (often with very clever and disastrous results), but the desperate plight of dad and daughter is rightly the main thrust. However, though the script’s instincts are good in keeping the focus narrow, it occasionally veers off into parent-child relationship moments that reek of manufactured ‘issues.’ Perhaps sensing this, that element stays mostly below the surface, but when obligatory story beats require personal interaction to emerge and have some sort of emotional impact, it gets awkward. Dialogue is not Crawl‘s strongest suit, which is probably why half of the script seems to be made up of the words “Dad,” “Daddy,” and “Haley.” Frankly, both Scodelario and Pepper are at their best when hardly saying anything at all (which is much of the time), instead relying on a surprisingly expressive array of grunts to convey their situation.
Scodelario is particularly effective in this, but it’s just one facet of an overall physical performance that dominates whenever she is on screen. Whether it’s crawling through slippery slop, plunging into the turbid water, leaping from a kitchen counter to a floating dinner table, or stabbing an aggressive gator with a screwdriver, the actress attacks whatever task is at hand with an utter fearlessness that is never less than believable. It cannot be understated how much her apparent comfort within the physical spaces she occupies lends to the immersion. This quality puts Haley firmly into this world; she knows this house inch by inch due to a lifetime spent living here, and displays no notion of unfamiliarity or trepidation when navigating it.
That convincing job doesn’t mean that Crawl oozes authenticity, however. Haley and her dad sustain wounds that would give anyone but Monty Python’s Black Knight some pause about continuing on, and the film half-heartedly chalks up subsequent restored mobility to makeshifts splints or elastic tourniquets that aren’t an entirely convincing remedy for the oozing, shredded flesh and bone we’ve just seen. If only every compound fracture was so easy to fix. The physics can also be a tad on the confusing side, as it’s hard to know why a gator sometimes has the power to toss a body like a rag doll, while at others it struggles to pull a precariously balanced victim off their perch. It’s nothing that monster movie fans haven’t dealt with before, but the best of these types of films establish firmer rules as to what sorts of power their creatures possess, mostly so that we know what to be scared of.
Regardless, Crawl slithers past any flaws on the muscular strength of its merits. This is a spare, confident creature feature that gets quickly where it wants to go, and doesn’t ease up on the tension. Perhaps not quite apex predator material, but definitely near the top of the summer horror entertainment food chain.