Crawl must have been a terror to shoot. Taking place in Florida during a hurricane, nearly every scene in the film is drenched. The actors are consistently wet and trudging through waist-high water. Rain is constantly falling. The water budget on this thing must have been massive.
And for what?
Alexandre Aja has made a name for himself in the horror community, but when I look at his filmography I’m hard-pressed to understand how. I understand this may draw the ire of fans of his French-language psychological slasher High Tension, now a cult favorite, but his career track record has just as many misses as hits.
His new film is Crawl, a gator-based creature feature that hearkens back to his horror-comedy Piranha 3D. The main difference here is that Crawl is not intended as a comedy. I think.
Crawl is a comical film, and at times Aja appears to stage it so. Take one of the most entertaining scenes in the film—it involves a trio of looters—as an example. It is a scene shot for comedy, and it is effectively done. Later, a scene involving two police officers in a rescue boat heightens this comedic theme to an extreme that genuinely made me believe this was a comedy film.
But from the standpoint of our lead characters, college student Haley (Kaya Scodelario) and her father Dave (Barry Pepper), this is a traumatizing experience. In a sense, the tonal shifting is geographical in nature. Haley travels through the hurricane to her childhood home to get her father out of the storm. In doing so, she and Dave get trapped in the home’s basement with some predatory alligators.
Inside the home, this is a creature feature aimed to thrill and scare. Outside the home, where the aforementioned comic scenes take place, there is a bloody slapstick approach. These two spaces take up 90% of the runtime, and the oscillation between the two tones is confusing. It isn’t as if the shifts are jarring or either is handled incorrectly. It simply makes one wonder what Aja was going for.
The emotional centerpiece of the film, which stands out against the comic horror movie trappings occurring around it, is the weakest link. It is told to us at the least organic moments, and it only gets surface deep on seemingly inconsequential topics (considering the life-or-death scenario Haley and Dave are in the middle of). Haley’s swimming scholarship. Haley’s parents’ divorce. Facing the fact that they are losing the family house as a result of the divorce (this one is particularly confusing to bring up, considering the house has already received considerable damage at this point in the movie).
It is all unnecessary, which is not to say that emotional stakes are unnecessary. It is just that what screenwriters Michael and Shawn Rasmussen choose for their characters to talk about has little to do with the situation. Getting an audience to care about characters, particularly in a survival movie like this, should not feel like a chore. Here, the added pieces of character work feel like vegetables in the middle of the meaty entree that is the gator attack. The father-daughter bond in the face of a threat is all the stakes we need.
The leads of the film perform fairly well considering the superfluous nature of much of their dialogue. Pepper, in particular, provides a rather impressive performance, especially considering the writing in his monologues. And Scodelario’s largely silent performance dominates the screen in an effective manner.
The look of Crawl is mostly impressive, as well. The set design of the unfinished basement, which is on display for more than half of the runtime, is good. The hurricane visuals are strong for what must be a low budget film. And the CG design of the animals is, by and large, well done. Sometimes, if the gators are in motion and fully visible in frame, the design looks rubbery. But otherwise they are rendered as the ominous, powerful predators they are.
The tension of the film—arguably the most important aspect of a film like this—is lacking but not entirely absent. There is a stretch of time before the climax where Haley’s movement around her space is extremely tense. But large swathes of this runtime feel stagnant, with the characters waiting in this purgatory between movements. It feels as though the screenwriters were working to pad the runtime to feature length but didn’t have any more ideas for things to do in the space they cornered their characters into.
And this is ultimately what sinks Crawl. It is a film with minimal plot and a small cast of characters, and not much is done to remedy the problems that arise from that set of parameters. The characters aren’t strongly developed or interesting. You root for them simply because they are in danger. And the plot consists of circling around looking for a solution to one major problem. While this is a perfect scenario for a low budget horror film, there is not enough incident to warrant a feature length runtime. As such, there is not quite enough in Crawl to warrant a full-price cost of admission.
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)