🐊🐊🐊🐊1/2 out of 🐊🐊🐊🐊🐊
CHOMP CHOMP CHOMP! Crawl is a superb summertime survival horror flick, with characters who you really root for, with an adrenaline-packed plot full of aggressive alligators. CHOMP!
Directed by Alexandre Aja
Adrenaline. Claustrophobia, Intensity. Crawl delivers mightily on the dread. Alexandre Aja has delivered his best movie to date, and I am including High Tension and The Hills Have Eyes into that equation. What he has managed to do is to provide all the visceral terror and gore of his previous efforts, and infused it with two main protagonists who you really latch on to, and an effects budget from Paramount Pictures that allows him to really show off alligators in a powerful and hair raising way. This movie really got to me, and it delivered what it promised from the trailer.
The film opens at a swim meet, at the University of Florida, whose mascot is the Gators, for those of you who don’t follow collegiate sports. It is here where we meet Haley Keller, (Kaya Scoledario) who is trying to qualify for her relay team, and keep her scholarship. The event is the 50m freestyle (also known as the CRAWL) and the sequence is gorgeously rendered, showing off the physical prowess and athleticism of Kaya and her teammates. She is crestfallen when she is out-touched for the spot on the relay team. And, to make things worse, a hurricane is forming off the Florida coast.
While dressing, she gets a call from her sister, Beth (Morfydd Clark) calling in from Boston, to make sure she was OK with the storm coming, and wondering if she had heard from their dad, Dave (Barry Pepper) who is still living in a low lying area where the storm is going to hit. And, no, he has not called in yet.
Dave was Haley’s swim coach as a child, and they have a strong father/daughter bond, though Haley blames herself for her parent’s divorce, and their relationship has recently been strained. The road to her father’s home has been barricaded, but Haley dodges the police blockade (Manned by Wayne (Ross Anderson) an old “boyfriend” of Beth’s) and she forges into the storm’s path to find her dad, along the way, passing an Alligator farm on her way. Foreshadowing! He is not at the condo, where he has taken up residence since the divorce, but she finds his dog, Sugar waiting in the house. Haley realizes he is likely to be at the home where she grew up, so she and Sugar go off looking for him right as the gale really picks up.
She finds her father’s truck at their house, proof that he is nearby. Haley goes into the house and does not find him, but Sugar seems to believe that he is in the basement, just beginning to flood. She brings her handy wind-up flashlight into the basement, and after a while of fruitless searching, finds him in the back of the basement, bleeding from a nasty leg wound, and passed out. There is an alligator in the basement. A big one. Dave has been bitten by the gator, but he managed to escape to a space where the alligator couldn’t fit.
Now the movie starts in earnest. The alligator has crawled in through a storm drain into the basement. (Who needs a four-foot diameter culvert pipe to drain a basement? And, more to the point… do people really have basements in Florida?) The storm is picking up, with the wind howling outside, and the basement is really beginning to flood. This is the most claustrophobic movie I have seen since the Descent. From this point on the adrenaline meter spikes.
The editing and craft of the film is masterful. You peer into the darkness, into the muddy waters just like the characters trying to see any signs of the unwanted predator guests. And yes… guests. It appears that that alligator farm just opened the pens into the neighborhood. A band of looters and a rescue party serve as powerful reminders of what awaits Haley and Dave if they are fortunate enough to get out of the basement.
There are one or two jump scares, but very very few false jump scares. The alligators are lovingly shown, and this is not one of those movies that hides the monster. In a lot of ways, this movie reminds me of The Shallows, a woman vs. nature survival tale, where courage and athleticism are in abundance, but even that isn’t enough to tilt the odds much in the favor of the humans.
I really appreciate the willingness of the movie to pause and give needed backstory to Dave and Haley. Their relationship seems real, not forced. They are flawed, but good people who really love each other, and still have issues, and you are left really hoping they can make it out so they can work through their issues. Barry Pepper gives us his best role since Saving Private Ryan, and Kaya Scoledario may have gotten her big break with this movie. The establishing opening swimming scene is essential to believe that she is capable of the heroic things that she attempts, and for both of them, you really understand that these are people with great willpower. Their nuanced, grounded, and dare I say courageous performances of both were inspiring, and essential to fulfilling my rule #1, have empathy for the protagonists.
Every now and again, though, with this movie, you recognize that you have to turn off your logic centers with the plot, as though it does try and ground itself in real moments, there are some things that you have to just accept. In an event like this, with all the alligators around, the noise of the hurricane should be deafening, even in the basement, but there are often classic horror movie quiet sections where you can hear a radio prattling on in the background, as you try and hear the sub-bass rumble of the gators.
Also, these alligators are hyper-aggressive. Crocodiles are known to be man-eaters of the first rank, but alligators much less so. These alligators are killing machines. Perhaps its the hurricane that has them agitated and hungry. Then again, there has been a recent spate of alligators attacking people in Florida recently, so maybe this isn’t so unreal an expectation.
Lastly, the Kellers seem to be able to withstand an inordinate amount of injury and still be functional. They both get bitten MULTIPLE times, yet they manage to shake off the grievous normally life-threatening injuries. Now, this is not super unusual for superhero or action films, but these two really take a beating. There’s tough, and then there’s ridiculously tough. This straddles the border of that. I guess you could chalk this up to adrenaline, but, yeah, those are some gnarly wound you got there, guys.
Taking into account these quibbles, I am still left feeling hugely entertained by this movie. Though the plot extends credibility at times, the dialogue is smart and efficient. Not a ton of exposition, just enough to get you invested in the characters so when the alligators come you do fear for them, right to the final frame of the film. The CGI alligators look fantastic. The hurricane effects are astounding, particularly given the budget. And hats off to the editor Elliot Greenberg, as the pacing of this film is exquisite, and given how much action there is and how tight the environments are, you never got lost in this movie.
This is the movie I wanted from The Meg, which, though fun, fell a quite a bit short on the plausibility and didn’t show enough of the gory bits. This is the best horror survival film I’ve seen since Open Water, and the most claustrophobic one I’ve seen since The Descent. Sam Raimi is the producer of this film, and though I’m not sure how much of the post-production work he had his hands in, he has assembled a fantastic cast and crew, particularly Aja, who seemed destined for horror movie greatness at one time but fell off the pace. With Crawl, he is back in the first rank of horror directors, and I hope he continues to get choice work like this.
This has all the makings of a box office hit. It only cost $10 million, but it certainly feels like a bigger budgeted movie, and I hope that it gets a good response at the gate. And, I hope this revives the career momentum for Scoladario and Pepper. There is room for a thrill ride monster movie every summer. It has been a while since we’ve had one so expertly produced as this one. It’s not the smartest horror movie I’ve seen this year, but it is the most exciting, by far.
Crawl is rated R for visceral and gory alligator attacks, and language. It is currently in wide release in the US.