‘Crawl’: Draining the Superhero Swamp

January and February are typically months spent catching up on all the movies I’ve missed in the last year. Though I may write and tweet insufferably endlessly about film, I will forever be late to the hype train. Because for each one movie I obsess over, there are 10 others passing below my radar. I recently went HAM on all the sweet Blu-ray deals I could find for myself (as a treat). Among the score was Crawl, a creature-feature & underrated B-movie gem that I sadly skipped in 2019. I wish I hadn’t because holy shit does this movie rule.

You’d be forgiven if you never heard of Crawl or were simply uninterested. Why would you be? It’s a 90-minute movie about a father and daughter playing hide-and-seek with some gators. Florida, am I right?

I humbly submit to you that Crawl is worth the 90 minutes you can very well spare instead of scrolling on your damn phone. And I mean that truly, sincerely.

Crawl follows Haley (a superb Kaya Scodelario) and her estranged father (a scruffy & sassy Barry Pepper) as they face down a Category 5 Hurricane. Bloodthirsty alligators have found a way into their home courtesy of the rampant flooding, and aside from their wits and very limited resources, they are on their own. This goes without saying: if you’re a devout animal lover, you’re not gonna love the film’s depiction of alligators.

Plot-wise there’s not much you need to know and that’s what makes the movie so damn refreshing— even, dare I say, rebellious. Post-Marvel and Star Wars, a movie like Crawl makes for an exhilarating palette cleanser. It doesn’t center on a massive world-ending scenario (although, climate change!); it’s not setting up for a sequel/extended alligator universe, and it’s definitely not trying to sell toys or theme park rides. (I know I complain about this a lot for someone who himself sees Marvel and Star Wars movies, but I genuinely lament a future where Disney reigns supreme.) Crawl has no other ambition than making the most out of its one-sentence premise à la B-movies of the ‘70s, and that alone is reassuring.

What Crawl lacks in synopsis, it more than makes up for in its fiendish execution. Director Alexandre Aja takes enormous cues from parent creature-features like Jaws and Alien. But the film’s most modern and inescapable reference is 2016’s Don’t Breathe. (And, for those who remember, The Shallows.) Every nook and cranny of the house becomes a literal saving grace as what these characters do or don’t do means life or death. If it’s not the gators they’re worried about, then it’s the hurricane that’s rapidly knocking on their door.

Alexandre Aja crafts one hell of an exercise in sustained tension. Haley has to move fast but careful; one of them is incapacitated while the other has to do the heavy lifting; they’re both increasingly vulnerable, but the situation never lets up. Though this might be their old family home “on paper,” it’s the gators who have usurped dominion. The story’s crucible is a tense game of escape with, preferably, all of their limbs intact.

The great narrative trick when it comes to disaster stories is that they’re all about the obstacles of the present moment. Crawl is swarming with adversities. When Haley and her father seemingly gain the upper hand, the script swiftly seesaws in the other direction. This is a survival movie first and foremost. Crawl may use familiar broken family tropes but it otherwise ditches the melodrama you’d find in a Roland Emmerich disaster pic. The film instead trusts the bloodied & beating heart of its father-daughter dynamic.

We can read between the lines of Haley and her father’s estranged relationship all we want; much of the details of their past are serviceable. What’s more important is how they keep moving forward and upward. Their relationship deepens for their sake and the film keeps the drama at a solid and clipped pace for our sake. There’s only so much forgiving and regretting you can do when there are ravenous gators lurking about.

Alexandre Aja conjures utmost thrills out of his reptilian set pieces (including a rip-roaring shower scene), effectively turning every lame gator film prior into Lake Flacid. Alligators, as it turns out, are much scarier in the tight confines of a basement. And, for those of us who grew up fearing Jaws and thus took comfort in shallow waters… think again. Anyone who’s not the two main characters are set to get mangled HORRIBLY. I’ve seen variations of this but my god I’ve never seen THIS. Crawl is simultaneously the best alligator and flood movie. Sure, the competition is scarce in that regard, but Aja has set the bar so damn high that I pity anyone daring to wade into these waters.

What I love most about Crawl is that it doesn’t outstay its welcome. It gets the job done. Every thread set up in the first act is resolved by the end – and the film ends at the exact moment it needs to. The film isn’t saving anything in the tank because it’s not striving to be anything more than what it is. This is Jaws set in a proverbial haunted house— an utterly efficient experience of a movie that it’s no wonder I keep coming back for more. Crawl is tense, thrilling, and above all – in a media climate increasingly homogenized by sequels and superheroes – a relief.

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