Withholding a film from the press until the very day that it opens is usually the surest sign said film is a catastrophe. (The recent example of Luc Besson’s misfiring assassin thriller Anna proves this point quite perfectly.) So when Paramount decided not to screen the Sam Raimi-produced horror Crawl, assumptions inevitably slithered through the critical community, another underwhelming summer stinker predicted. It is, then, with genuine surprise and relieved pleasure that I can say Crawl is far from the mess one might assume. And while it’s also far from perfect, it’s a great deal more successful than many of the season’s more hyped offerings.
Recalling little-seen 2010 horror Burning Bright, which saw a young woman stuck in a house with a tiger while a hurricane edges closer, Crawl sees a young woman stuck in house with an alligator while a hurricane edges closer – an astonishingly similar premise yet one played out with a great deal more skill. Part of that is because, well, alligators tend to evoke a great deal more fear than tigers, lurking and lacerating in ways we might associate with fictional monsters rather than, say, domestic cats, and director Alexandre Aja knows exactly how to rinse the most out of his scaly antagonists. They’re pitted against Haley (Kaya Scodelario), a swimmer driving her way into a disaster zone to track down her father (Barry Pepper). As a hurricane threatens to rage, she finds him injured in the crawlspace underneath their old family home. He’s been attacked by an alligator, and now the pair are forced into a battle to leave in one piece, rather than lots of little ones.
After Aja broke out with his ferocious 2003 slasher High Tension, a film that kicked off a string of hardcore French horrors, he’s had a patchy time in Hollywood. His remakes of The Hills Have Eyes and Piranha were mostly effective, but Mirrors and Horns less so, and good luck finding anyone who’s even heard of his last film, the barely released Canadian thriller The 9th Life of Louis Drax. While Crawl is hardly a rousing, career-saving return to form, it’s a solid, crowd-pleasing reminder that he knows his genre, an 87-minute exercise in pushing and then securing audience members to the very edge of their seats. The lean running time means he’s quite often successful, and there’s an awareness of just how much mileage he can wring from the film’s high-concept premise.
The script, from brothers Michael and Shawn Rasmussen, continues to find novel ways to extend the tension through to the relentless final act and right up to the frantic finale. The father-daughter duo are well and truly put through the wringer: bitten, bloodied and broken at every step (the film’s bone violence is particularly, horribly efficient) and Aja choreographs the mayhem with a precise eye and a canny grasp of sound design. The majority of the chaos unfolds in the confines of a dank crawlspace but unlike so many horror films, the murkiness of the setting doesn’t prevent us from following the action and Aja is keen to show off his vicious predators in all their leathery splendour.
The film only crumbles when we’re forced into family soap as – you guessed it – the estranged pair reminisce over the past while trying to rebuild for the future. As soon as Pepper utters the soul-crushing line “You remember when you were little”, you’d be wise to take a bathroom break as the film is far more skilled at making you jump than it is at making you care. Scodelario, a British actor who broke out in Skins but has struggled ever since, is similarly one-sided, selling us on her ability as a physical performer without ever truly convincing us of her competence as an emotional actor.
But Crawl mostly chomps off exactly the right amount to chew. It’s a direct, nasty, entirely unpretentious B-movie and while this remains faint, faint, faint praise given the state of the genre, it’s one of the year’s sturdiest horror films. I wouldn’t exactly urge you to run rather then crawl to see it, but a brisk walk should do.