FILM REVIEW – CRAWL. With Kaya Scodelario, Barry Pepper, Morfydd Clark, Ross Anderson, Jose Palma. Written by Michael Rasmussen and Shawn Rasmussen. Directed by Alexandre Aja. Rated R for bloody creature violence and brief language. 88 minutes.
There’s a story certain members of my family love to tell about a trip to Florida for our cousin’s wedding. We were staying at a house overlooking a large lake, separated from it by an iron fence and a considerable stretch of land. While enjoying an afternoon cocktail in the swimming pool, I saw an alligator peek its head up out of the lake at least half a mile away, far beyond the fence and all that land. I immediately jumped out of the pool and ran inside the house sopping wet, screaming about how there’s a fucking alligator out there!
My personal, Captain Hook-level aversion to these scaly beasts plus an affection for modestly budgeted B-programmers probably makes me the ideal audience for CRAWL, a wickedly efficient little creature-feature from director Alexandre Aja. This trim tale of daughter and her dad trapped inside their flooding Florida home during a Category 5 hurricane with a bunch of toothy, uninvited guests is exactly the kind of lean, no-frills thriller that can feel like sweet relief during a bloated blockbuster summer. “Crawl” is the best movie of its kind since Blake Lively fought that shark.
British actress Kaya Scodalario (who I’m told is from the “Maze Runner” movies, whatever those are) stars as a college swim team washout who goes looking for her depressed dad (Barry Pepper) when he stops answering his phone during the media frenzy ramp up to yet another storm of the century. Ignoring evacuation orders, she discovers him stuck in a crawlspace under their old house with big bites out of his leg and shoulder, thanks to a surly gator who’s apparently decided to ride out the storm in their basement. Oh, and the green guy’s brought some friends.
What’s so much fun about “Crawl” is that there’s really nothing remotely resembling a safe space for our protagonists. Whenever they manage to get a moment’s respite from the alligators there’s also that pesky hurricane to contend with. Screenwriters Michael and Shawn Rasmussen (who wrote John Carpenter’s “The Ward” and a couple other nifty scare pictures) tend to specialize in these sort of single-setting fright flicks. Here they find some sinister ways to turn the family’s house against them once the levee breaks and waves start rolling in, with precious heirlooms and mementos weaponized into fast-floating debris. (My favorite flourish charts the rising waters against pencil scribblings on a wall where Pepper marked down his children’s heights as they were growing up.)
Director Aja is a scarily talented French brutalist whose 2003 breakthrough “High Tension” remains one of the most crudely effective stupid movies I’ve ever seen. (If I’m not mistaken the surprise twist ending means the main character somehow managed to get into a car chase with herself.) Anyway, Aja will always have a place in my heart thanks to his gloriously gratuitous “Piranha 3-D,” which contains a centerpiece sequence so spectacularly sickening that a cackling college buddy described it as “like Goya, but with tits.”
There’s nothing nearly as nasty in “Crawl” but it’s got its share of bracing bites, with a shower scene that’s one for the books. Sure, maybe it takes the two of them a little too long to get out of that basement crawlspace, and the blessedly brief father-daughter therapy conversations feel like studio notes tacked on to force an emotional investment that their perilous physical situation already provides. (Just like all that junk about Blake Lively’s mom in “The Shallows.”) Still, I’d wager there’s seldom been a movie image more exquisitely Floridian than a family of yokels trying to put a stolen ATM in a rowboat.
Taking care of business in a slender 88 minutes, “Crawl” is a finely-tooled, no-nonsense, mid-summer diversion that wants nothing more than to provide a fun Friday night out at the movies. Jump a couple of times, have a few laughs and enjoy the air conditioning. Such modest pleasures should not be underestimated.•••
Over the past twenty years, Sean Burns’ reviews, interviews, and essays have appeared in WBUR’s The ARTery, Philadelphia Weekly, The Improper Bostonian, Metro, The Village Voice, Nashville Scene and RogerEbert.com. He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.