If you’re looking for a summer popcorn movie with some bite, then look no further than CRAWL (2019), the new horror movie by director Alexandre Aja about two people trapped in the basement of their Florida home during a Category 5 hurricane while being attacked by some unusually aggressive alligators.
As horror movie concepts go, it’s a simple one, but sometimes simple is good, and that’s the case here. CRAWL succeeds in what it sets out to do, in that it provides some entertaining thrills and chills and does it all very efficiently in a nifty 87 minutes.
CRAWL is an interesting juxtaposition from last week’s horror release, MIDSOMMAR (2019). MIDSOMMAR was a meticulously crafted very adult horror tale that worked as a slow burn over its two and a half hour running time, not hitting its audience with jump scares, but rather getting under their skin and disturbing them with its unpleasant story. CRAWL is a much more traditional horror movie. Some will argue that MIDSOMMAR is superior horror, and it is, in terms of the maturity of its script and artisitic style, but in terms of execution, CRAWL is no less its equal. Both films work well, but for different reasons, and at the end of the day there is room for both these types of movies in the horror genre, as long as they are crafted well, and both of these films are.
In CRAWL, competitive swimmer Haley (Kaya Scodelario) gets a phone call from her sister who expresses concern that their dad has not returned her calls. There’s a Category 5 hurricane bearing down on his Florida neighborhood. Haley decides to check in on him, even though her sister warns her against doing so since that would mean she’d be driving into the hurricane, but Haley does it anyway.
At the house, Haley discovers her dad Dave (Barry Pepper) trapped in the basement of their home, cornered by two aggressive alligators that have made their way inside through a storm drain. When she attempts to free him, she finds herself trapped as well, and with the hurricane bearing down upon them, bringing with it rapidly rising waters and brutally devastating winds, they realize they do not have much time before they will be completely underwater, along with those menancing alligators.
And that’s the premise of CRAWL. It’s a simple story but it works, as the concept of this woman and her father fending off alligators during a fierce hurricane is entertaining and thrilling.
There is some back story which helps as well, although the film doesn’t spend much time on it. Haley is a competitive swimmer who’s yet to find the success she’s looking for, and since she was a child, she’s had a chip on her shoulder for not being good enough, and so that element is with her as she fights to save her father. Plus, her father used to be her coach, and so it’s his voice she hears when she pushing herself.
Her parents are recently divorced, and it’s clear Dave is having a tough time of it. It’s why he’s back at the house in the first place, as it’s their family home, and they’re supposed to be selling it, but he doesn’t want to let it go since it contains so many memories.
Kaya Scodelario is very good as Haley, and she has to be, since it’s pretty much just her and Barry Pepper in this one. She makes Haley a likeable character, and you definitely want to see her and her father survive. She also makes for a believable competitive swimmer, and so in some key scenes where she has to pit her speed against the alligators, it works.
Barry Pepper is also likable as her father Dave, and the two make for sympathetic protagonists.
Director Alexandre Aja is no stranger to underwater creature movies as he also directed PIRANHA 3D (2010), a film a lot of people liked, but I did not. I thought that one was pretty bad, as there were a lot of stupid story elements present Not so here, as CRAWL is lean and mean.
The screenplay by Michael and Shawn Rasmussen is certainly not going to win any Oscars, but it succeeds in telling a riveting story. There are a few flaws here and there. For example, in general, alligators aren’t that aggressive and rarely attack humans. CRAWL briefly reveals a nest inside the storm drain, and so the implication is that these gators are protecting their young, but the screenplay doesn’t really make this clear.
Also, in addition to Haley and Dave, the family dog is also trapped inside the house. Yet the story barely takes advantage of this, and strangely, the family pooch has little impact. So don’t expect teary-eyed scenes of the dog terrorized by gators or heroic sequences where she tries to protect her owners. She kinda just hangs out away from the action. Lassie, she ain’t!
CRAWL is relatively scary. The idea of being trapped in water with two very large and very hungry alligators lurking around you, that’s pretty scary! The film doesn’t have to work all that hard to earn its chills. That being said, it doesn’t drop the ball either. There are some bloody deaths, as there are lots of alligators in the waters around the house, and unsuspecting looters and law enforcement officers don’t fare all that well here.
The alligators themselves don’t look that bad. I was fearful that the CGI effects would be dreadful. They’re not. Of course it helps that the gators are often seen in murky shadows or undewater, and so it’s easier to hide the animated features. I thought they looked scary enough.
All in all, CRAWL is successful because it keeps its ambitions simple. It knows what it is— a thrilling summertime popcorn horror movie— and doesn’t pretend to be anything more.
If you like your horror straightforward and compact, you’ll love CRAWL— as long as you don’t mind, of course, sharing these tight confines with two very hungry alligators.