Ah, the good ol’-fashioned “man vs. creature” flick—it sometimes feels like more of a summer rite than barbeques and pool parties. Occasionally it’s done with its tongue firmly planted in its cheek, like last summer’s The Meg. Other times it takes itself (mostly) seriously, like 2017’s 47 Meters Down and 2016’s The Shallows. Put Crawlsquarely in a group with the latter and then vault it right up to the top of the list. It’s a rock-solid 90 minutes of tightly choreographed suspense, and darn it if it doesn’t wind up being one of the better offerings of the entire summer.
The latest from horror director Alexandre Aja, who gifted us with 2010’s wildly gonzo Piranha 3D, can’t really be considered a horror flick. Despite a handful of jump scares, Crawl relies primarily on nail-biting suspense in tight quarters to draw you in and keep you stuck to your seat. Set almost entirely in the dank and muddy crawl space under a Florida house slowly flooding in a Category 5 hurricane, it’s a testament to super-efficient filmmaking; there’s no doubt that the bulk of the film’s $13 million budget went to post-production visual effects.
Kaya Scodelario (The Maze Runner series) shines as Haley, a college swimmer in Florida who has to head into the eye of a hurricane to go check on her pseudo-estranged loner dad Dave (Barry Pepper), who isn’t answering his phone. Once she gets there, she finds him unconscious and bleeding, and it doesn’t take long to figure out why. A pair of monstrous alligators are down there with them.
That’s it—pretty much the entire plot. The flood waters are rising, cell phones don’t work, and time is running out. All Haley has to do is get out of the crawl space and somehow bring her dad with her without getting eaten. Piece of cake. Along the way minor characters wade in and out, including a trio of looters, a pair of cops, and a cute little doggy (who survives, fear not), but for the most part it’s the daddy-and-daughter show, and Pepper and Scodelario easily carry the day, turning in damn fine performances.
What screenwriting brothers Michael and Shawn Rasmussen may lack in the premise originality department they more than make up for with a compact script that never veers into campy territory. We’re not talking award-worthy epic filmmaking by any stretch, but Crawl is, frankly, good, and that’s all we’re paying for, right? Aja keeps the tension taut throughout, right up until the last frame. Even when you think you can finally breathe, not so fast; it’s not over yet.
There are plenty of ways Crawl could have gone horribly wrong or been worthy of dismissal as a silly, over-the-top creature feature, but instead it does pretty much everything right. It’s a rare treat—one you might not see coming but creeps up on you nonetheless and, once it chomps into you, doesn’t let go.