REVIEW – ‘Crawl’ embraces its outrageous conceit to wildly entertaining effect

Who doesn’t love a shlocky B-movie that knows it’s a shlocky B-movie and gives you everything you could ever want from a genre that should provide a dose of giddy, silly fun? Films of the monster movie genre often fall flat on their face by failing to realise the absurdity of their premise and attempt to be something they’re not, as we saw with last year’s problematic The Meg.

It’s so deliciously refreshing to encounter something like Crawl; a film that embraces its outrageous conceit to wildly entertaining effect. With lashings of blood-drenched mayhem, ridiculous set pieces, and nail-biting suspense, Crawl knows exactly what it is and offers precisely what you paid for. Once this film sinks its ferocious teeth into you, it refuses to let go. And you won’t want it to.

We first meet former champion swimmer Haley Keller (Kaya Scodelario) at the end of a disappointing race at the University of Florida. Under the watchful coaching eye of her devoted father Dave (Barry Pepper), Haley scored herself a full scholarship at the university. But after her parents’ divorce left their relationship fractured, Haley’s glory days in the pool are fading in the distance.

Completely unaware of the Category 5 hurricane brewing right outside the indoor pool, Haley receives a concerned phone call from her sister Beth (Morfydd Clark). While it was previously expected to avoid residential areas, the hurricane has drastically shifted course, forcing the evacuation of thousands of Floridians including those in Haley’s hometown. And Beth can’t seem to reach their father to make sure he’s made it out okay.

Worried that headstrong Dave may decide to foolishly wait the hurricane out, Haley decides to brave the atrocious elements and drive to her father’s home in Brightrock. Upon her arrival at his apartment, Haley discovers only his loyal dog Sugar remains at the residence. It’s then she remembers their old family home, hastily sold off during the divorce, is still in escrow and that may be where her father is bunkered down.

Despite the protestations of the local police, Haley navigates her way through heavy rain and galeforce winds to her former homestead in Coral Lake. There are clues her father has indeed been at the house, but he’s nowhere to be found. After a desperate search, Haley finds her unconscious and badly injured father in the cramped crawlspace under the house. When she attempts to pull him to rescue, her path is stopped by the emergence of a rather large and very deadly alligator, who has made its way down under the house in search of shelter…and (gulp!) food.

As the hurricane worsens, water levels continue to rise in the basement, leading to more alligators entering the family home through an unfortunate open drain line into the crawlspace. While protected from their jaws by a series of pipes the alligators are thankfully too large to penetrate, Haley and Dave are running out of time, and their escape means confronting the danger lurking beneath the water.

It’s a simple concept executed to perfect precision, particularly given its breezy runtime of 87 minutes. Director Alexandre Aja makes use of every one of those minutes, with the pace of Crawl moving at an electric speed to continually keep you enthralled and entertained. Does the film get ahead of itself by revealing the first alligator a touch prematurely? Perhaps. But, hey, you came to see a congregation (yes, I had to look that up) of alligators terrorising a father and daughter in a basement, and Aja throws them at you as soon as he damn well can.

With an unrelenting atmosphere of tension surrounding the entire piece, Crawl is a thrilling anxiety rollercoaster that takes deft delight in keeping an audience on its toes. Jump scares and unexpected reveals are a cornerstone of this genre. Aja can’t resist their inclusion here, yet rarely uses them for cheap effect, rather offering genuine moments of utter horror and shock. Occasionally, you’ll see them coming a mile away, but there are plenty you won’t, making for one of the most enjoyable experiences you’ll have inside a cinema this summer season.

When the action remains trapped in the crawlspace, it creates a chaotic and claustrophobic nightmare that’s equal parts thrilling and terrifying, as the alligators enact a horrifying game of cat and mouse with their confined victims. Both Haley and Dave are forced to use whatever objects they can ascertain to fight back, leading to some rather ingenious Macgyver-esque survival tactics and a few painfully uncomfortable amateur medical treatments for their wounds.

Impeccably shot by cinematographer Maxime Alexandre, the underwater sequences are spectacularly filmed, creating a visual aesthetic that has no right looking so glorious in a film like this. Whether we’re voyeuristically viewing the alligators silently glide through the water, as they stalk their prey, or as we shockingly view them in full attack mode, as they authentically wrestle and devour their latest victim, Alexandre captures the action in enthralling fashion. Aja plays with the lighting of these sequences, dabbling in both light and shade to dramatic effect. The creatures are unsettling in the light, but far more menacing in the dark.

At a certain point, the action has to expand from its tight basement setting, as Haley desperately attempts to elicit help from a few unlucky (and forgettable) souls. While this means the film loses its claustrophobic tension, it does offer up a literal smorgasbord of hapless victims for the hungry alligators. If you were disappointed by the lack of blood in The Meg, strap yourself in for a brutal and unmerciful melee of gory and ferocious attacks with fatal consequences. It’s the perfect blend of humour and terror that should be the hallmark of a film of this nature, and Aja delivers the bloody goods.

It would have been simply to create the lead characters as fairly inconsequential to the film’s plot. Thankfully, screenwriters Michael and Shawn Rasmussen have crafted both Haley and Dave as rounded protagonists who you genuinely care for and want to see survive. Their father-daughter relationship has an endearing backstory that evolves through the course of the narrative, offering more substance to what could easily just be a blood-soaked horror film. The screenplay does suffer from the occasional bout of woeful expository dialogue, but never fatal enough to destroy the fun.

As for the performances from Scodelario and Pepper, they’re both put through the absolute ringer in what must have been an arduous film shoot. Constantly up to their waists in water (or, at the very least, soaking wet from being in said water), the actors surely suffered all sorts of trauma during production, and their pain is right there on the screen. Their chemistry as father and daughter is earnest and effective, and Haley is a wonderful heroine, even if Scodelario doesn’t quite have the acting chops to truly sell some of the film’s corniest moments.

And Crawl is loaded with all sorts of ridiculous situations (shower attack scene, anyone?) and some utterly ludicrous character choices that will make your eyes roll out of their head. Then again, you have to expect that from a monster movie. Dumb decisions keep the narrative moving and offer the chance for further chaos that Aja crafts with gleeful joy. Frankly, some of these dense characters deserve the carnage that’s coming their way, and Aja employs a variety of wicked ways to dismember and despatch of them.

Employing some wonderful CGI work, the alligators rarely look anything but authentic, which is a miracle, given the film only cost $13.5 million to produce. Beautifully crafted with both physical and digital effects, the escalating hurricane is a character all in itself, offering further tension to keep your anxiety levels high. For a film so decidedly low on the budget scale, it never looks anything less than spectacular.

Look, we all know Crawl is not the type of film to win Academy Awards. It’s a bombastic and absurd monster film that’s blissful popcorn entertainment. And sometimes, it’s this kind of escapist cinema that’s entirely necessary in a film landscape devoid of anything genuinely fun. Intense and thrilling, bloody and gory, and outlandishly enjoyable, Crawl absolutely delivers on its premise. And that’s quickly becoming a rarity these days.

Distributor: Paramount Pictures
Cast: Kaya Scodelario, Barry Pepper, Ross Anderson, Anson Boon, Jose Palma, Morfydd Clark
Director: Alexandre Aja
Producers: Craig J. Flores, Sam Raimi, Alexandre Aja
Screenplay: Michael Rasmussen, Shawn Rasmussen
Cinematography: Maxime Alexandre
Music: Max Aruj, Steffen Thum
Production Design: Alan Gilmore
Editing: Elliot Greenberg
Running Time: 87 minutes
Release Date: 11th July 2019 (Australia)

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