Creature features have long been a staple of horror and science fiction cinema. Alexandre Aja‘s Crawl is the latest of such films, finding a daughter and father facing off with gators. Set during a Category 5 hurricane in Florida, Crawl knows precisely what the audience wants and delivers it. From tense close calls to gator pack-hunting to morons being chomped on, Crawl has it all and more. While a bit cheesy in spots and certainly flawed, the sheer entertainment of watching chaos being unleashed on Haley (Kaya Scodelario) and Dave Keller (Barry Pepper) is impossible to ignore.
The tagline for Crawl is, “They Were Here First.” In the context of the film, this catchphrase proves quite apt. Not only is it literally true about gators, but for Haley and Dave: it is the past that has driven them to this point. Haley’s refusal to forgive her father for divorcing her mother, Dave’s refusal to let go of his family, and their shared memories of Haley’s swimming career all factor in heavily to the events of Crawl. The swimming will help, to be sure, but just as relevant are the destructive emotional forces that Aja examines throughout. As much as Crawl is a horror film, it knows it needs two relatable leads for the audience to latch onto, and it uses their strained relationship as a means to do so. It is unexpectedly affecting, finding Haley and Dave either reminiscing or healing as they fight to survive, working through their issues as they try to escape. It can be a bit melodramatic, and neither character is particularly well-rounded, but it is effective.
As the hurricane rages outside, one can feel the clock ticking on making an escape – naturally, Haley and Dave are trapped in the crawl space of their old home – with the imminent collapse of levees adding to the suspense. More urgent, however, is the issue with the gators. As they enter via the drain pipe, there is no telling how many are there and, with the streets flooded, they are circling the home as well. It is a horrifying premise – although it’s (likely) implausible, it is definitely nightmare fuel. There are close calls, gnarly kills, and intense swims to a possible exit point, delivering the goods to those looking to watch a thrilling creature feature with gators. Aja knows how to build suspense and capitalize on that atmosphere with repeated effectiveness. It is an edge-of-your-seat suspense film balanced with shocking gore, and Aja’s strong direction ensures that Crawl never lets up.
At just 87 minutes, Crawl does not have much time to spare. Nevertheless, it does somehow drag on a bit too long. Scenes outside of the crawl space are particularly reflective of this, lacking the suspense of earlier scenes. It builds with a natural and expected progression of the situation – the aforementioned levee break, for instance – but continues to layer on catastrophes to create increasingly absurd scenarios. Coupled with the film’s inclination towards cheesy, 80s one-liners, it both undermines some of the suspense and begins to feel repetitive. This is still a generally tight and terrifying work, but it would be well served to have trimmed some of the additional, more over-the-top encounters that lead into the film’s finale.
It is undeniable that Crawl is, well, a bit dumb. It knows it is dumb and never tries to be anything else, but it is still hard to look past some of its digressions. Haley essentially becomes a superhero, going from losing swim races to outswimming a pack of gators. Or, even more impressively, managing to fight back against multiple gators while her limbs are in their mouths, escaping with nothing more than some (admittedly gnarly) bites. Despite those wounds, she is able to swim as if she were Michael Phelps in overdrive. Does any of this matter? No, probably not. Crawl is fun regardless. However, it is indicative of the silliness Crawl traffics in, either in the plot, logic, or characterization, and one’s mileage is likely to vary.
While these more absurd elements leave Crawl as something far removed from a great film, none of it hampers the key piece of the film: it is simply entertaining. One can nitpick this one all night, but none of it changes how fun it is. Crawl is a perfect summer movie for those in the mood for a creature feature that packs in the suspense, human-vs-gator action, and adds in a hurricane for good measure. It is unlikely to become an instant classic, but it is precisely the kind of quality escapist entertainment that is needed from time to time.