By David Dent
Competitive swimmer Haley (Kaya Scodelario), hearing the news about a Category 5 hurricane threatening her home town via her sister Beth (Morfydd Clark), decides to travel back to locate her father Dave (Barry Pepper), who still lives there and has stopped answering calls. After a hazardous journey she tracks him down at the former family house, now being sold following her parents’ divorce, and finds him unconscious and badly injured in the crawlspace under the building.
But as the storm really hits and Haley struggles to revive dad, who has suffered a number of reptilian attacks, an increasing number of alligators enter their basement prison, which is rapidly filling with water. Haley must battle her way out and, impossibly, try to save both their lives against a double peril of natural and reptilian obstacles.
And that, ladies, gentlemen and others, is all you need for 90 minutes of, as those classification bods would have it, sustained peril. French director Aja, who scored winning points with his sophomore movie Haute Tension back in 2003, has built up a serviceable but not particularly innovative CV since (a remake of The Hills Have Eyes in 2006 and the fun but silly 3D reboot of Piranha in 2010, for example). And in Crawl content wise the director continues not to surprise, in this mix of Jaws (1975) and Twister (1994). But what he has achieved here is a tense, pared down film, light on budget but high on nail biting thrills.
Kaya Scodelario is a bit of a revelation, as the feisty Haley. Her resilience has the audience on her side from the opening moments, where she loses a swimming competition but toughs it out, hearing the voice of her father – formerly her trainer – telling her not to cry in front of the others: her unstinting desire to keep both dad and the family dog alive makes it no problem for us to root for her. Essentially Crawl is a two hander (not counting the ‘gators, but we’ll get to those, and ignore the reptile fodder of some passing looters and gormless police) between Haley and dad, interlacing the action with the gradually developed but unmawkish story of their history, a similarity of character underscoring both their estrangement and subsequent reconciliation. Aja also provides emotional context more subtly than we were expecting in a film like this (Haley’s phone contact is listed as ‘Daddy’ and notches in the doorframe denoting childhood growth suggest a once much closer relationship).
The part practical effects/part CGI alligators (did you think Aja would use real ones?) are way more convincing than expected, in part because they’re not overplayed, often conveying menace just by swimming in circles, and also because they’re part of a very claustrophobic set up: sure the crawlspace – in which much of the film is located – is a set but its waterlogged crumminess, full of icky flotsam and jetsam, provides an environment in which the reptiles blend in with the other floating slimy things thrown up by the flood.
Crawl feels like a disaster movie, but one with most of the disaster placed in the background, concentrating on that final reel survival struggle of the main characters. Haley and Dave’s attempts to stay alive may be the stuff of genre cliche, but that doesn’t stop the film being a thrill ride with unexpected emotional heft. Aja has taken all the positives from his previous movies, and successfully integrated them into this exciting addition to the rampaging reptile sub genre. Strongly recommended.
Crawl is released in the UK on 22nd August 2019 and screens at Arrow Video Frightfest 2019.