Alexandre Aja is a filmmaker who doesn’t get enough credit for the grimy thrillers he’s been putting out since High Tension in 2003. Piranha 3D is modern camp at its finest and his remake of The Hills Have Eyes is the rare redo to outdo the original. His latest, Crawl, is yet another example of his way with water-bound horror, an imperfect creature feature that takes itself a wee bit too seriously, but nevertheless delivers the gory fun goods that define his work.
Set in swampy Gainesville, Florida in the middle of a Cat 5 hurricane, Kaya Scoledario stars as a competitive high school swimmer and daughter of divorce. Her father, played by Barry Pepper, is a stubborn salt of the earth type laying injured in the basement of her rickety childhood home. The floodwaters are a-coming, and so are a gaggle of hungry hungry gators. Pepper, great character actor that he is, oughta be more prolific, so it’s nice to see him chewing on a good role again as a man taking life as it comes, rough-and-tumble though it may be. That cavalier regard for any real struggle lurking around the corner is what puts him on one leg at the bottom of that old house during Hurricane Wendy, where teenage Haley must save him and herself. From bum legs to big gators, crawling spiders to crawling through a home on the verge of collapse, not to mention a cute dog barking them to safety, this is a thriller where the jumpy, scary moments are telegraphed (for the most part) and the window of escape keeps closing on them. Their bad luck is so abundant it becomes comical, even contrived.
Aja maintains a good level of tension regardless, through sheer gale force of practical effects. In an age when computer-generated wizardry is inconsistent and often garish, overusing green screen and under-using real people, Crawl’s mix of real sets, flooded to the brim, and real props lends an immediacy to the drama that’ll put the fear of gator in you. And all of the bloody bites and dismemberments are done using makeup and good ol’ fashioned prosthetics. Crawl is pretty humorless, so any campy fun is had by the simple pleasure of watching slimy looters become exactly what you thought they were: gator fodder. Some minor plot holes and pitiful choices abound, like cheesy flashbacks meant to elicit cheers. However, Haley’s swimmer cred answer the question of “how on earth can a main character hold their breath for that long?” A common refrain that needs no real explaining this time. Scodelario has had a rather quiet career so far, but she proves she’s got grit and a bit of range with a physical performance here to rival the likes of many scream queens.
Crawl is the best croc shock movie since Lake Placid. At only 87 minutes, it’s a quick bite of horror for gore-hounds and a welcome boost for two actors’ spare careers of late. Alexandre Aja doesn’t get the acclaim of an Ari Aster or Jordan Peele, or the legacy notes of a Wes Craven or John Carpenter, but he’s a damn fine director who, over the course of sixteen years, has established his own knack for the genre, old school bonafides in tact.