First, there was Godzilla, the king of the monsters, and his arch nemesis, a giant three-headed dragon named King Ghidorah. Then, there were the gators of Alexander Aja’s Crawl. It is a summer of reptilian fear and I, for one, am 100% for it. Give me big scaly boys who snap their jaws, whip their tails, and gnash their giant teeth. Aja’s latest foray into aquatic horror is a heart-racing, tense, and absolutely fun creature feature that is the perfect summer film. Crawl seems like it ripped every gator and hurricane-related “Florida man” headline and smashed it together into an unrelenting journey that will make you scream and laugh in fear.
Crawl begins at college swim meet for the University of Florida Gators (we aren’t operating in subtlety here). Haley (played by Kaya Scodelario) is a champion swimmer but at this meet she loses the relay. Wallowing in self pity, she gets a call from her sister that she hasn’t heard from their dad (played by Barry Pepper) and she’s worried due to the impending hurricane. In typical Florida fashion, Haley rolls her eyes at the hurricane and says she’ll drive a few hours to check on him, even though they aren’t on speaking terms. Both of them are stubborn and she doesn’t understand why he and her mom got a divorce. She blames it all on her swimming, which of course comes up later in the film. But first is her dangerous pilgrimage to find her dad. She first drives to his condo to find it empty except for Sugar, the family dog. Then, she tries their old family house. There, she finds her dad suffering from some rather awful injuries and a couple nasty gators, all in a crawl space. From there, Haley and her dad must try to outwit the gators and survive the storm.
Having Crawl take place mostly in a claustrophobic crawl space is a genius idea. The confined space becomes a labyrinth of wires and alcoves where they can hide from the massive reptiles. When the space starts flooding, the claustrophobia is taken to another level as the danger of drowning is added on top of the need to fight off the alligators. Flooding also means Haley can show off her alpha-predator-style swimming skills and add a little layer of melodrama as her father screams, “Swim!”
Aja continues to prove he is a master of gore and suspense. His previous features, such as High Tension, Mirrors, and Piranha, were met with mixed reviews but there was no doubting their level of gore. In Crawl, each kill, while always at the jaws of a gator, feels different and horrifying, whether it’s someone getting pulled off a boat or a gator appearing seemingly out of nowhere and grabbing an unsuspecting victim. Having one animal doing all the killing runs the risk of becoming monotonous, but Crawl is anything but. Just when you think they’ve escaped reptilian hell, something else goes horribly wrong.
What I especially love about this film is that its main characters aren’t precious. They aren’t impervious to nasty injuries and multiple attacks. Haley is bitten numerous times, her dad is mangled, and thankfully Sugar the dog goes unscathed. There is no sugar coating their situation; they are covered in mud, blood, sweat, and whatever other muck is constantly swirling around their open wounds.
In its tight 87 minute runtime, Crawl delivers all of the tension, gore, and scares that make a perfect horror blockbuster. Is it cheesy? Of course, but that’s the beauty of it! Sure there’s some human story in here, but that’s not our focus. The small narrative beats about Haley and her dad don’t overshadow what we really want: full blown gator action. Aja combines a disaster movie with a creature feature to create a beautiful hybrid film that warns you to stay out of the water and heed those hurricane warnings; you never know what lurks in stormy waters.