What is it with toothy beasties knifing through murky bodies of water that evokes such primal fear in us – and yet keeps us wanting more? Ever since Steven Spielberg made us afraid to go into the water with Jaws in 1975, moviegoers have been kept perched on the crumbling precipices of their seats by an assortment of aquatic nasties. Now we have the latest bit of movie monster masochism courtesy of some alligators and a hurricane in Crawl, and it’s every bit a top-class bowel-destroying piece of horror fun as you’re likely to get this year.

Directed by French filmmaker Alexandre Aja – who has made a career out of scaring audiences out of their skins, including a previous bit of underwater bloodletting with Piranha 3D – Crawl is like the very best B-movie creature-features: Simple in design, highly effective in execution, nightmarish in the memory.

The setup here couldn’t be any easier as swimming team college girl Hayley (Kaya Scodelario) and her divorcee dad Dave (Barry Pepper) are trapped in the rapidly flooding crawlspace of their old abandoned Florida family home, minutes away from being struck by the ungodly fury of a category 5 hurricane. Hayley had come to check up on her dad after he wasn’t responding to evacuation calls only to find him cornered and chomped on a bit by a pair of giant alligators that have made this swamp-adjacent house their home. Now also trapped in this chthonic space with nothing but the rusting old pipes acting as a protective barrier, a desperate Haley needs to outthink and outwit these reptilian monstrosities to get herself and her gravely injured dad back aboveground to safety.

And they do think. Besides for one forehead-slapping moment that had the audience in my screening shouting exasperate pleas at an in-danger Hayley, the script by screenwriting brothers Michael and Shawn Rasmussen sees the father/daughter duo as highly competent. They’ve lived their lives in Florida’s swamplands and know the do’s and don’ts around razor-mawed gators. Of course, knowing and doing are two vastly different things, leading to Aja continuously ratcheting up tensions to spine-contorting levels. Every single claustrophobic action in the dingy crawlspace feels like a nerve-racking precursor to a potentially lethal toothy snap.

And when the big jump moments happen, you will most certainly jump (one early moment had the person next to me blurting out some very colourful language at a particularly surprising tree. Yes, a tree). Aja is a master of his tortuous craft, framing scenes so that your unfortunate heart almost never knows when it’s about to be momentarily – but oh-so-violently – stopped by what’s transpired on screen. With scalpel-sharp directing that never allows Crawl to outstay its welcome (it clocks in at just 87-minutes) there’s a fun intensity here, the type that leaves entire cinemas of people gripped with nervous laughter after having collectively had years taken off their lives.

Helping to sell all of this is, of course, the team of Scodelario and Pepper. There’s more to their relationship than just the shared desire to not become lunch, as the situation excavates all sorts of issues that led to the pair becoming a bit estranged as of late. It’s by far not the most original or compelling of emotional character arcs, but it serves as very effective bracketing around all the death-by-gator-gullet action happening on screen.

While the ever-reliable Pepper turns in a solid performance in both regards, the English-born Scodelario has to do the lion’s share of the lifting – and the swimming, because you just know from the film’s opening moments when her competitive swimming credentials are mentioned that those skills are going to tie into events – and she handles it very well. She gives a breathy, believably terrified performance, but her Hayley is never one that is overwhelmed by that fear. As Dave reminds her, she’s a fighter with a stubborn streak who hates to lose. Even to four-meter long armour-plated reptiles with chainsaw smiles.

Said gators are realized on screen with CGI and while these digital creations are most certainly not of the eye-popping level as Disney’s The Lion King exists, what Aja and his team have given us here is rather impressive. Especially considering the reported production budget of a shoestring $13.5 million. And that’s really the story of Crawl as there’s no fat to be trimmed here, with just highly effective filmmaking basics being done very right.

To this end, one thing I really appreciated was in how the film’s scaley antagonists – as much as that word even applies here – are handled. There’s nothing preternatural about these gators; no hyper-intelligence augmentations or genetic engineering gone awry is driving these creatures to unrealistic goals. These are just ordinary predators programmed by millions of years of evolution to rip and rend anything they construe as food. Just like we’ve been programmed by decades of stomach-churning cinema to have some bodily fluids squeezed out of us in acute shock when they do, as happens so often in this lean and mean shocker.

Last Updated: July 22, 2019

Crawl
With a setup as simplistic in narrative as it is effective in scaring the poop out of us and keeping us coming back for more, Crawl is some of the best creature-feature horror action you will find in the cinema this year. You should definitely run - not crawl - to catch it when it swims into cinemas this coming Friday.
8.0
/10
61/ 100

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