Once upon a time, animal attack movies were a gloriously plentiful breed. Giant ants (Them!, 1954), creepy spiders (Arachnophobia, 1990), hungry bats (Bats, 1999)… whatever the species, there was a movie about some unlucky people caught up in the creatures’ search for a meal. One beast — well, two technically — that had a particularly good run were the living dinosaurs presently known as alligators and crocodiles. There were six movies in 2007 alone, but after that, wide release killer croc/gator movies became an endangered species.
That changes this weekend with the release of Alexandre Aja‘s gory, suspenseful, and crazily entertaining Crawl.
Haley (Kala Scodelario) is a competitive swimmer in search of motivation. Her most recent race left her in a very close second place position, but she’s given something else to think about when a hurricane heads toward the Florida coast. A call from her sister reveals that their dad (Barry Pepper) isn’t responding to calls or texts, and she’s worried he’s planning to ride out the massive storm in their small hometown that both of his daughters long ago left behind. Haley heads down and finds him unconscious in the crawlspace of their old, decrepit family home. Then she finds out why.
A big alligator is down there with him. It’s already tasted his blood. And it isn’t alone.
Crawl is something of a glorious throwback to the simple, down ‘n’ dirty creature features of old, and while CG beasts have replaced prosthetic creations and live animals the thrills, jumps, screams, and laughs remain. There are the expected genre bumps, but at under ninety minutes the film gets in quick and stays in just long enough to leave audiences smiling.
Aja burst onto the horror scene with 2003’s extremely brutal and bloody slasher High Tension before knocking out the three biggest hits of his career with a trio of remakes — The Hills Have Eyes (2006), Mirrors (2008), and Piranha 3D (2010). His career stumbled a little after that, but his return to the animal attack genre has resulted in one of his most entertaining and satisfying films. The T&A and self-referential humor of Piranha 3D are absent, but Aja’s sense of humor, eye for set-pieces, love of gore, and ability to craft suspenseful sequences are back with a bloody vengeance.
The script (by Michael & Shawn Rasmussen) seemingly takes inspiration from two sources — 2010’s Burning Bright about two siblings trapped in a house with a tiger during a hurricane, and those vial images that pour onto social media after every hurricane purporting to show sharks swimming the streets of flooded cities and towns. It’s a simple setup left thankfully uncluttered by subplots or unnecessary characters, and it jumps right into the action after a brief but effective character introduction.
The alligators swim onto the scene early, and while they’re CG creations they look and move with a natural and believable menace. Aja uses them wisely — sometimes they burst into frame, other times they glide slowly towards their target — and they become the constant threat for viewers that they are for Haley and her dad. As the water rises their presence grows even more obfuscated leading to some terrific shocks and terrifying wide shots of the water’s expanse between the characters and safety. We feel their concern over every splash in the water, and it makes for a beautifully unnerving experience.
It’s a nail-biter at times as we worry for our two leads and shake our heads in distress for side characters who make the mistake of entering into their story, but the suspense and thrills don’t get in the way of the fun. It’s no comedy, but Crawl finds humor — both grim and the kind that makes you sigh with relief — in the varying predicaments that unfold. And no joke, it’s also a masterclass in applying tourniquets as father and daughter wince and cringe no fewer than four times tightening straps to stop the blood flow.
I’d be remiss in not mentioning the family dog, Sugar. Yes, there’s a dog in an animal attack movie, and yes we all know what that means. Unless it doesn’t? I won’t spoil it for you, but if you’ve seen Tobe Hooper’s Crocodile (2000) just know that Aja has too.
Pepper gives a sincere performance (as always, come on Hollywood, cast him in more things), but it’s Scodelario who holds her own going toe to toe with gators, Mother Nature, and a steady stream of bad luck. She does great work balancing the intensity, exasperated humor, and emotional threads layered lightly throughout. It doesn’t quite get heavy on that last front despite some attempts to play up family dramas, but the handful of emotional beats that are present land due in large part to her performance.
There are some bumps along the way, but it speaks volumes that neither of the problem areas succeed in distracting from the fun. It’s a low budget movie, and while the gators look fantastic the exteriors sometimes lean a bit dodgy. The “downtown” looks to be a sound stage with a green-screen backdrop, but every time it’s noticed the film quickly sucks you back in with some more intense action beats. There are also more than a few choices made by Haley that will have you shaking your head, but even as you jeer her for losing her phone — twice! — you’re quickly back to cheering her on as she stabs, traps, and otherwise fights back against these toothy pricks.
Crawl isn’t a movie embedded in metaphor or theme — it’s a killer gator flick, and it excels at that singular ambition delivering a wet and wild time at the movies. We all have obstacles to overcome in life, some real and some imagined, but if we’re lucky they won’t come calling in the form of half-ton dinosaurs eyeballing us for dinner.