Review: Crawl (2019)

Alexandre Aja’s Crawl is an exercise in minimalist horror, trapping protagonist Haley Keller in a Florida crawlspace alongside her estranged father as alligators pour in with the rushing water from an incoming hurricane. The scares are ever-present and blunt, the film committing to a brisk 87 minutes and not wasting a second of our time once it reaches an end point.

Here is a film that pushes no boundaries, happy to dive into the familiar waters of disaster flicks and creature features – but by keeping its goal so simple and focused, it works at a level beyond standard expectations for that genre. There’s no wasted time on grand statements about the environment, and the threat of gators lacks a need for explanation. Crawl goes far beyond jump scares, letting the horror linger in the distance. This film starts off with an understanding that the gators are only animals, aimlessly wandering while not actively pursuing prey.

There’s a sense of dread that builds through this film; though the runtime is short, our scope stays so focused on Haley’s perspective that it captures a sense of this being an endurance test. This design is so effective because Aja exploits his environment well. While the alligators offer this violent threat, the building water is what pushes the two to leave their relative safety; it becomes a balancing act, deciding when one threat turns dangerous enough that they must confront the other.

This film really captures its basic location. Entirely mundane under normal circumstances, standard features become sources of anxiety. Water rushes through openings in the foundation, too narrow to offer escape while granting glimpses of the building danger outside. When routes aren’t blocked by gators, they’re instead made inaccessible due to the family’s own carelessness from an earlier time. Before the storm reaches its height, this film captures such a strong sense that safety is only feet away at any given time.

Kaya Scodelario makes the most of her minimal character, her initial terror soon matched by a certain sense of determination. She’s no scream queen, rather operating as an action heroine caught in dire circumstances. Due to this, Crawl spends a large chunk of its runtime operating more as a survival film, giving Haley minimal tools to offer narrow escapes. The film rarely falls back on luck, instead granting its characters just enough to fend for themselves.

The one truly negative trait of this movie, as most others can add to the camp charm of such a feature, is the relationship between Haley and her father. The parents are divorced, and for whatever reason, Haley seems to blame herself. It’s the type of childish self-blame that is hard to believe from someone her age. The father also never shuts up about Haley’s swim meets. They’re so shallowly defined, teetering on the absurdly niche but played too straight to offer anything enjoyable. The only time that it feels this movie is wasting our time is when it lingers on their bond.

Otherwise, this is pure B-movie fun, loaded with high tension and absurd violence. Little details are added to the crocodile attacks to make each one fresh, such as the downpour drowning out a looter’s screams and a moment where bloodied water is lit from below with a hand-crank flashlight. It’s simple but never lazy, maintaining our suspense by keeping us guessing not just when but how the next attack will come.

Crawl never aspires to much beyond being an effective creature feature, but it captures exactly what makes that genre work without falling into tedium or pure kitsch. A tough woman, nature’s threat in all its glory, and sparks of brutal violence, all delivered in the time it needs and nothing more. This is a small horror movie that actually deserves a cult status.

3.5 Stars Out of 5

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