Scandalous: The True Story of the National Enquirer

Posted November 11, 2019 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: Uncategorized

Apr 05, 1978 - Boca Raton, Florida, U.S. - National Enquirer Publisher Generoso Pope oand copy of the photo of Elvis Presley. Pope died at 61, GENEROSO P. POPE JR., the millionaire owner and publisher of The National Enquirer, suffered a heart attack yesterday at his home in West Palm Beach, Fla., and was pronounced dead on arrival at the J.F.K. Medical Center in Atlantis, Fla. He was 61 years old. Mr. Pope, whose father founded Il Progresso, the New York City Italian-language newspaper, bought a weekly newspaper, The New York Enquirer, in 1952 for $75,000. It had a circulation of 17,000 copie A gore-soaked tabloid, whose publisher had mob connections, was ultimately involved in helping install the President of the United States. This story, worthy of James Ellroy, is at the heart of the documentary Scandalous: The True Story of the National Enquirer. Aesthetically, the movie is both cold and cheesy, a weird combo platter. Various interviewees (Carl Bernstein is probably the film’s biggest “get”) sit in lonely, swanky rooms or in dimly lit bars, and the interviews are broken up by vintage news footage — grainy film stock, bleary video. It’s ugly, but then so is the subject; director Mark Landsman means to show that the tabloid that’s been an unavoidable patch of the American cultural wallpaper for much of our lives has left a mostly corrosive footprint wherever it has stepped.

Or stomped. By 1997, the Enquirer’s reputation as a ghost haunting the closets of celebrities was so entrenched that the paper went through a period of disfavor following the death of Princess Diana. The paparazzi who chased Diana to her death were not working for the Enquirer, but the association was made anyway — the paper was a synecdoche for all other intrusive tabloids. (For what it’s worth, the paper’s then-editor Steve Koz made a performative violin solo of refusing photos of the wreckage and called on other tabloids to do likewise.) Before then, the Enquirer had actually been gaining a rep as an unexpected source of hard-nosed journalism during the O.J. trial. But the sacrifice of Diana at the altar of enquiring minds that wanted to know seemed to shame, for a while, the supermarket gobblers of tabloid burgers.

What Scandalous makes clear is that the paper, for decades, reported all the news that was printed to fit — it was custom-made to slake the public thirst for lightweight squalor. The Enquirer’s original goodfella-in-chief, Generoso Pope Jr., gradually shifted the rag’s angle from sub-Weegee shock-horror to “Why Jackie/Liz/Oprah is as miserable as you are, Jane Q. Public.” That formula held for a long time, until, in those more innocent times when such a thing could still happen, Gary Hart was captured on film with Donna Rice on his lap and his political career was generally acknowledged to be toilet-bound. The Enquirer’s vampire fangs had drawn a new kind of blood, and it liked the taste. Bill Clinton found himself similarly drained. But all along, in Scandalous, we also hear about stories Jane never saw — contemptible behavior by Bob Hope, Cosby, etc. We’re told that the Enquirer kept mum about certain stars in exchange for access. That will take on grim relevance later, when what Ronan Farrow has recently exposed as the “catch and kill” mechanism (he’s in the film briefly) was employed to keep Donald Trump’s mushroom out of the pages of America’s favorite tabloid. Hillary stared zombie-eyed and pallid from many an Enquirer cover, contrasted with the insensate orange vigor of the MAGA who would be king. The paper that had followed America’s lead was now leading America.

That was under the jurisdiction of Trump pally David Pecker, who has since sold the Enquirer, after the paper’s attempted sliming of Trump foe Jeff Bezos backslimed. Today the paper sits in its usual point-of-purchase slot, itself zombie-eyed, a mewling wisp of its former robust ghoulishness. It continues to harass celebrities and the Royal Family just like the good old bad days of 1985, but having ended and expedited presidential dreams, where else can it go? It seems a spent force. And yet the hunger for the Enquirer’s stock in trade remains, only it’s filled elsewhere. For what is Fox News if not tabloid journalism at its slickest and most dangerous, speaking to an audience of the fearful and incurious? The network’s serpent-in-chief, Rupert Murdoch, of course slithered from the brackish waters of British supermarket rags. As James Ellroy knew, America is a tabloid country, and so Scandalous is not just a movie about that thing Grandma reads at the hairdresser’s. At its “best” and worst the paper is a souvenir from our national shadowland; we want to think we’re better than the Enquirer but we kind of know we deserve each other.

Paradise Hills

Posted November 3, 2019 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: cult, horror, science fiction, thriller

paradisehillsEvery shot of Paradise Hills is otherworldly in its beauty. I’m not sure how it “reads” as a narrative, but as a visual work of art, a tone poem, and a riff on some familiar but evergreen themes it makes one stand and applaud. The 29-year-old director, Alice Waddington, hails from Spain and first made her mark with the eleven-minute short film Disco Inferno in 2016. The short is worth the 99-cent rental on Amazon; its story is a little baffling — it has to do with a “minion of hell,” dressed like a masked and sinuous spy out of Georges Franju’s Judex, trying to rescue an ingenue destined for demonic soul enslavement, or something — but it plays like a surreal silent film (except when it doesn’t), and it’s good preparation for the elliptical, allusive sights and sounds of Paradise Hills.

We wake up along with the confused Uma (Emma Roberts) in a remote island stronghold, a cross between a palace and a well-appointed girls’ prison. Young women, it seems, are sent here to be trained out of their troublesome quirks and habits. The society that produces these women — including Chloe (Danielle Macdonald), sent to become more skinny, and Yu (Awkwafina), sent to become less Awkwafina — is some sort of post-war Hunger Games dystopia/utopia, depending on whether you’re an Upper or a Lower (as in class). Uma wants out of the island paradise; she has a like-minded friend in pop star Amarna (Eiza González), who’s here apparently because she started making personal music frowned on by those in charge. Standing in her and everyone’s way is the Duchess (Milla Jovovich), whose habit of snipping thorns off rose stems is a bit too tidy a metaphor for her supervision of the girls’ re-education.

But honestly the plot (by Waddington and Sofía Cuenca, worked into a script by Nacho Villalongo and Brian DeLeeuw) is entirely irrelevant to the pleasures here. Paradise Hills is about creamy pink interiors and sun-dappled exteriors, all cloaking something immeasurably darker and uglier. It’s about the masochistic female fantasy of being persecuted for being oneself and shipped off to a strange place with other women, who together will rise as a sharp-toothed sisterhood against the oppressors. (There’s some of that, but not too much; as it is, the movie is never less exciting than when it tries to gin up excitement via chases, sneaking around, etc.) It’s also about loving ancient gothy films so much it hurts. It’s every much as gleaming an act of cinema worship as Anna Biller’s odious The Love Witch, except that Waddington actually finds things to say about the things whose surfaces she and cinematographer Josu Inchaustegui photograph so indelibly. I can see Paradise Hills becoming a cult favorite among a certain type of dramatic teen — its sensibility is authentically female in every frame, asserting the power of its girls and women from the start, and denying that the structure of the patriarchy (and the women complicit in it, like the Duchess) has anything to offer them but chains. The movie doesn’t hate men, but it sure doesn’t have a lot of love for them either.

To which I say, good. A movie whose identification is completely with women and their experiences is particularly welcome now, not to politicize overly what should be a timeless empowerment fable and a grab bag of brightly-hued confections. The performances, I have to say, lean towards the artificial — common among directors with strongly visual instincts — save for Awkwafina, who is always radiantly, daffily herself, even in a more solemn context like this. But there’s literally always something great to look at; Waddington seems to have walked on set for each shot, tweaked the colors and decor 75%, and then called action. Most people will see Paradise Hills at home or even on their phone, not on the big shiny screen its visuals demand, and that’s a pity.

But the eye and the sensibility on view in Waddington’s work (I hope Disco Inferno comes as an extra on the eventual Paradise Hills Blu-ray) are not to be discounted. The movie is a glimmering calling card showing deep-dish promise; whoever scouted the amazing locations deserves a case of beer, and overall this is the most pictorially arresting sci-fi debut feature since Andrew Niccol’s Gattaca. As for the animating story, I acknowledge that I’m not its ideal audience, though even some women, like Vulture’s Alison Willmore, have pooh-poohed it — “a dystopian princess fantasy,” she called it, with perhaps some unconscious racism under its hood. (Why isn’t Awkwafina the lead in this?) I am probably more forgiving and sentimental about the movie’s narrative and complaints than that. It works as a lavishly crafted daydream shading into nightmare. It started to lose me around the climax, but when it had me, it had me.

Dolemite Is My Name

Posted October 27, 2019 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: biopic, comedy

dolemite_screenshot Eddie Murphy has been in movies for thirty-seven years, but Dolemite Is My Name is the first time he has played a real-life person — Rudy Ray Moore, the self-described “ghetto expressionist” who rose up by making records and then movies that turned the African-American urban experience into ribald slapstick. Moore was already 48 years old when his first movie, Dolemite, was released in 1975; it helped expand his cult, which has survived his death, in 2008, at age 81. Dolemite Is My Name celebrates Moore as a hustler and an anti-mainstream creative; it fits right in with the screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski’s previous films (Ed Wood, The People Vs. Larry Flynt, Man on the Moon, Big Eyes).

Murphy brings not only his still razor-sharp comedic instincts but a certain gravitas, a whiff of defeat, to his performance. The stakes seem higher, the obstacles to success taller, than in those other weird-show-biz biopics. Moore is a black man pushing fifty; in the words of Marsellus Wallace in Pulp Fiction, “If you were gonna make it, you woulda made it before now.” Murphy plays Moore as if hearing those words on repeat in his head. There’s desperation under his confidence, and a hot drive to surpass his abusive, belittling father. Perhaps Murphy, 58, needed some years under his belt, some failures and humbling, before he could play Moore with truth and honor. (The character of Dolemite is a different story; Reggie Hammond, Axel Foley, and many other Murphy heroes were essentially slimmer, sleeker Dolemites.)

Directed by Craig Brewer (who’s also helming Murphy’s Coming to America sequel), Dolemite Is My Name settles, in its second half, into a tongue-in-cheek, half-irreverent making-of-Dolemite comedy. It doesn’t make the mistake of holding up Dolemite as any kind of art. Watch the 1975 film again and you’ll see it transcends its amateurishness with its eagerness to please — packing its 90 minutes with sex and violence, it comes close to being a “good parts only” guilty pleasure. Yet it also stops dead so that Dolemite can unspool one of his rhyming stories, the progenitors of hip-hop, for an audience of appreciative street dudes (and later in his nightclub). The sense we get from the new biopic is that Dolemite may not be everyone’s idea of art, but it is pure expression. Moore took inspiration from the signifying of winos and junkies, put his own spin on it, and delivered it to those who laughed at its familiarity and those just discovering it. It is, in its way, art.

The biopic stays bright and colorful despite its structure of ups and downs — Moore and his crew work hard, sweat, and improvise to get that damn film in the can. Murphy is surrounded by ringers like Craig Robinson, Keegan-Michael Key, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, and especially Wesley Snipes, as Dolemite’s director and onscreen villain D’Urville Martin, pretty much the only participant with any Hollywood experience. Snipes is to this movie what Burt Reynolds was to Boogie Nights; he brings all his film roles and all our knowledge of his offscreen foibles to his portrait of a jaded Tinseltown satellite (dining out on having played an elevator operator in Rosemary’s Baby) who offers hope to a despairing Moore at one point. Watching Snipes up there with Murphy carries levels of associations and memories, mostly warm. At this point, both men, once kings, seem to have passed through ego into human-scaled consciousness, and therefore become kings anew.

As in Ed Wood, the hero here gathers a group of misfits around him to achieve the common goal of a Z-budget flick. Moore works with blacks, whites, gays, Jews, and of course women to realize his dream — the movie is good-hearted, though it sort of underplays Dolemite’s casual misogyny (at one point in the 1975 film Dolemite deals his lover a couple quick slaps in her face before resuming coitus). You could watch Dolemite Is My Name and miss that Dolemite is a pimp; the women in Dolemite are there to act as Dolemite’s kung-fu enforcers, but they’re also there to show their merchandise. Once again, an Alexander/Karaszewski script softens some of the reality (don’t think too hard about how D’Urville Martin is played as somewhat gay and the never-married Moore, about whom rumors have flown in recent years, isn’t¹). But generally this is a convivial and compassionate tribute to creation by any means necessary.

¹On the other hand, much is made of Moore’s being nervous about shooting one of Dolemite‘s sex scenes until Da’Vine Joy Randolph as his confidante Lady Reed suggests that the scene could be played for laughs. We never see Moore with any girlfriends, either.

3 from Hell

Posted October 20, 2019 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: cult, horror, sequel

3fromhellSo it turns out that Sid Haig’s Captain Spaulding was the corroded soul of Rob Zombie’s “Firefly” films. Haig, who went to the great grindhouse theater in the sky this past September 21, was front and center, a leering psychotic ball of greasepaint and rage, in Zombie’s House of 1000 Corpses (2003) and The Devil’s Rejects (2005). In the new, much-belated third film, 3 from Hell, Haig has one vehemently defiant scene early on, and then ol’ Captain Spaulding gets the death penalty. (Haig was supposed to have a much bigger role, of course, but his health forbade it.) Although the striking Richard Brake takes over what would have been Spaulding’s grisly activity and is perfectly fine at it, Haig is dearly missed.

Given the choice of having Haig for a matter of minutes or not doing the film at all, I don’t know which I would have chosen (nor do I know if Zombie had the option to pull the movie’s plug). I do wonder, though, why 3 from Hell was made, because the rotgut masterwork Devil’s Rejects was a perfect, hard, diamond-like finish to the story of the Firefly family, rounded out by Spaulding’s daughter Baby (Sheri Moon Zombie), who makes Mallory Knox look like Mallory Keaton, and her hellbilly adopted brother Otis Driftwood (Bill Moseley). At the end of Devil’s Rejects, it certainly seemed as though Zombie had given them a Viking funeral and Peckinpah send-off all in one, but they survived the police onslaught (“twenty bullets in each body,” we’re told here), and Baby and Otis spend ten years in prison.

Cut to 1988. Baby is up for parole (hilariously) and Otis is sprung from a road crew by his half-brother Foxy (Brake). Soon enough, the three are on the lam, menacing enemies and strangers alike, and we get the depressing feeling we’ve seen this before. Baby does her drifty, swaying-cobra routine that snaps into lethal focus, and Otis drops pompously demonic pronouncements like a dinner-theater Manson. The usual gnarly sadism, vintage needle-drops, language that would make a Marine blush, and rather offensively offhanded nudity follow. (I am not as convinced as Rob Zombie apparently was that a Firefly victim, courageously played by Sylvia Jefferies, needed to be stripped naked and then be knifed to death in that state on someone’s front lawn in pitiless daylight. The death, and her suffering, would have had equal impact if she’d been allowed to stay clothed.)

I’ve only seen the unrated cut of 3 from Hell, so I’m not sure what bits of grue (a gory woman blubbering while her flensed face hangs on a tree; intestines out where we can see them; the results of arrows, machetes, and bullets versus flesh) made it into the R-rated version — but who, given the choice, is going to opt for watered-down Rob Zombie, anyway? The thing is, Zombie has already freaked us out with most of this violence before; even the bit with the disembodied face is a variation on a much stronger scene in Devil’s Rejects. Zombie probably wanted to get the old gang back together for one last bloody ride, and that’s understandable (as long as it is a last ride and we don’t see another of these goddamn things in 2025). Zombie has gifts; he really does. And I’d rather see him using them with fresh material than repeating himself, which is what he did to some extent in 2016’s 31 and also here.

Zombie, 54, will probably never change. If he lives to be 80 and he’s still able, he’ll still be making second-generation grindhouse fare in his jittery greasy-grimy-gopher-guts aesthetic — I don’t expect to see Zombie’s Ikiru or Fanny and Alexander. But B-movie integrity can be as much of a trap as insincere Hollywood romps; past a certain point, both approaches start to feel inorganic. The Devil’s Rejects felt like a story Zombie just had to tell, and a story that nobody else could tell so sharply. 3 from Hell doesn’t. Again, it seems to have no urgent reason to exist, except perhaps to give us a last glimpse of Captain Spaulding (if not Sid Haig, who will still appear posthumously in two more films by other directors). So, hooray for Captain Spaulding. The rest of these motherfuckers, not so much.

Midsommar

Posted October 13, 2019 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: cult, horror, one of the year's best

midsommar Whether it was curiosity or masochism that led me to Midsommar, the second feature by Ari Aster, I’m grateful to whichever it was. I more or less hated Aster’s debut, the high-pitched horror Hereditary, but this one’s the real deal — it sets a brittle but menacing tone early on and sustains it for well north of two hours. Midsommar feels like a hard shot from the source of terror — an allusive work of art, admittedly built out of earlier art. It will be (already has been) debated and discussed in perpetuity, and it’s the sort of film as comfortable on the front cover of Fangoria magazine as it will be as an eventual spine number in the Criterion Collection. When you hear Martin Scorsese or someone else going on about cinema, Midsommar is what they mean. It doesn’t just shock or spook. It unsettles.

The set-up is almost comically thorough and bleak. The leads, Dani (Florence Pugh) and Christian (Jack Reynor), are in a relationship that looks to be circling the drain. Something traumatic happens that makes sure they stay together (thinking back on it now, I wonder who or what is ultimately responsible for the tragedy), and they find themselves accompanying a friend back to his home turf in Sweden, specifically a remote commune where dwell an ancient band of pagans called the Hårga. The Hårga are awfully sunny and polite and friendly, and if we’ve seen more than one movie before we mistrust them on sight. But as directors as disparate as Robin Hardy (The Wicker Man) and Ruggero Deodato (Cannibal Holocaust) knew, the horror doesn’t only lie in the “foreigners” our onscreen avatars find themselves among; it’s also in how “we” change, or don’t, in relation to them or in response to them.

It is true that Midsommar gets a couple of mean creepy moments out of a disfigured boy, the result of inbreeding in the Hårga clan, but he doesn’t do anything bad — he’s elevated as an oracle in the society. Besides, Aster has louder and wetter disturbances in store. I should probably say that the reported level of violence and perversity in Midsommar — likely from viewers who don’t see many horror movies — has been overstated. When it comes, though, it’s a sharp jab in the chops, all the more ghastly for unfolding in broad, shadowless daylight. At certain points some of the characters take psychedelic drugs, which in the world of the Hårga is really gilding the lily. Pugh and Reynor add a prickly, precarious vibe to the festivities; they’re neither good nor bad but realistically flawed, and they don’t always act nobly or wisely.

If we “liked” any of the protagonists in a simplistic manner, it’d be harder to see what Aster is truly going for. At many points, we have a god’s-eye vantage point on the action; the script keeps us in the dark about the Hårga and their motives, while the filmmaking (cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski deserves awards) is all blue skies and open air. The camera eye is neutral, showing us the primal, alien rituals without editorializing. Even the Dani’s-eye, psilocybin-soaked visions are like, hmm, that’s odd. (There’s actually a character named Odd.) At one point the outsiders loudly berate the Hårga for “just watching” as gore makes rainbows in the sunny air. We agree, yet we’re also just watching, and this is what we came to watch, whether or not we knew it.

Midsommar is an immersive and illogical experience. There’s a director’s cut, for now available exclusively from Apple, that runs 171 minutes and fleshes out more of the relationship between Dani and Christian. It’s not necessary, though, for us to see ourselves in them or vice versa. We identify with the outsiders only sporadically (especially not the idiot who accidentally micturates on a sacred dead tree), and the minds of the Hårga are as obscure to us as the mind of a spider. Ari Aster has a distinct voice — he seems to take for granted that people are invariably going to be difficult and self-defeating — though maybe not the most steady control of his effects yet. There are still, as in Hereditary, a few too many moments wherein we’re not sure if we should laugh, or whether Aster means us to laugh. Consistency may never be his strong suit. But he has delivered, in this cult epic, a powerfully paranoid mood piece. Time will tell whether Aster can function without hellish covens and nightmarish attempts to re-assert gender primitivism, but I’m certainly ready to tag along with him and find out.

Wallflower

Posted October 6, 2019 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: drama, underrated

wallflower1-jumbo This past weekend, a film opened. You may have heard about it. Controversial in some quarters, it tries to enter the head of a man headed for a breakdown. His life is miserable; he wants to connect with women but doesn’t know how. He tries to fit into a community that will accept him, but it doesn’t work. Eventually his implosive anguish — we may as well say his toxic masculinity — expresses itself in explosive violence. Some commentators have said the movie sides too much with this man; others see it differently, as a depiction not glorification of anomic savagery.

Joker? No, Wallflower, a much smaller independent film based on a real-life tragedy. In 2006, a 28-year-old loner named Kyle Aaron Huff spent some of an evening at a rave in Seattle, then at an after-party. The next morning, he returned to the site of the after-party with a shotgun and a handgun; by the time he was done, seven people were dead, including Huff, by his own hand. Five years in the making, and funded on Kickstarter, Wallflower was cowritten and directed by Jagger Gravning, who’d known two of the victims and who wanted to divine meaning in the entrails of the massacre. Who was Kyle Aaron Huff (unnamed in the film, and played by David Call), and what drove him to his actions? Gravning offers some clues, and shows a few revelers trying to reach out to the killer, but sometimes fellowship isn’t enough. What would have been?

The glowering loner has his small arsenal in his truck, and at one point he acts as though he means to take his guns into the party at its peak, when the sun is still down. But he seems to think better of it — temporarily. Maybe he wants someone to change his mind, to touch something in his soul; maybe he wants to fall in love. He knows he won’t, but he’s willing to entertain the possibility. Meanwhile, we meet various players at the after-party: Link (Connor Marx), an affable anarch whose house it is; Strobe Rainbow (Atsuko Okatsuka), a lesbian cartoonist going through an acrimonious breakup. Strobe and the killer actually have a couple of things in common, but they may be too alike in the wrong ways. She seems to sense his bad vibes, and seeks to repel him from her group.

In this way do former outcasts ostracize current ones. It’s not Strobe’s fault, of course, nor does the movie come close to suggesting it is. But these are all people who — the film implies — escaped a small-town life where they were considered strange, and found a community of the likeminded strange in the rave scene of Seattle. The killer himself is originally from Whitefish, Montana, where he has a history of small dust-ups, including shooting up a moose statue. He came to Seattle, he says, because it was “close by.” He wanted to run away from home, but not too far. (The actual Huff moved there with his identical twin brother; the movie doesn’t mention a brother.) David Call does quietly pained work as the killer seems to pass an internal point of no return. Symbolically castrated and ejected from the group, he walks sadly to his truck.

Gravning has some definite chops as a director. Whether out of financial necessity or out of respect for the dead, he doesn’t show much of the carnage as it’s happening; we get a few aftermath glimpses. The style of the filmmaking is subdued and mildly doomy even during the bouncy rave sequences, when the killer is never far from the camera’s gaze, leaning against a wall staring in morose incomprehension at the ravers. A couple of the stoned conversations are as dreary as they are in real life, but mostly Wallflower walks a fine, unsteady line between keeping the narrative engaging and somehow making the story “entertaining” (exploitative). The narrative itself is splintered, nonlinear, reflecting the killer’s own cluttered headspace. By the end, attention is also paid to the continuing PTSD and coping of the survivors, and I found myself indifferent to how true to the letter of the real story the movie was. It feels true enough. Many, many fewer people will see Wallflower than saw Joker in its opening weekend, alas.

Crawl

Posted September 29, 2019 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: horror, overrated, thriller

crawl Acting in the roving-alligator thriller Crawl could not have been remotely fun. The poor leads — Kaya Scodelario and Barry Pepper as a daughter/father pair trapped in a flooded house along with several king-size gators — spend most of their screen time in a filthy, rusty, submerged crawlspace, and the atmosphere looks like a petri dish for tetanus, triple-E, you name it. Crawl is mercifully short at an hour and 27 minutes, but the cast and crew spent weeks in these conditions. Aside from the usual bugaboos about being devoured or drowning, the movie works our fears of the disgusting basement, where things are spawning and living without our knowledge and certainly without our consent. At least your basement doesn’t host gator hatchlings — unless, like the folks here, you live in Florida.

A Category 5 hurricane is screaming towards land, and our heroes — Scodelario as a driven varsity swimmer and Pepper as her tough but loving dad — reunite, along with the family dog, in a house soon battered by winds and menaced by rising water. (The levees are gonna break, too.) Aside from a couple of cops and a trio of dumb looters — all gator fodder — Crawl is a two-handed exercise, much like director Alexandre Aja’s international calling-card slasher film Haute Tension (High Tension). There’s surprisingly little art here, though, just pulpy jolts arriving on schedule. And we don’t feel nearly as much for the daughter or the father, however compellingly enacted, as we’re clearly meant to. This is Low Tension. We simply aren’t convinced that meaningful lives (other than the obvious snacks tossed to the gators to pass the time) are at stake, not even the dog’s.

That said, Crawl does pass muster as a minimalist B-movie with money and resources unavailable to its ancestors of the drive-in (Eaten Alive, Alligator, etc.). The alligators are just alligators — they don’t stand for anything, and they may as well be sharks or lions or zombies or werewolves. Aja uses close quarters and an external apocalypse to distill the story down to two people against — well, the elements, death, inner demons. The father is still nursing wounds from when his marriage fell apart after the two daughters grew up and moved away; the daughter puts eternal pressure on herself, straining to live up to Dad’s meant-to-be-inspiring assessment of her as an “apex predator” (like an alligator, natch). There’s a mother around somewhere, remarried, absent from view. A sister is glimpsed briefly via phone. The daughter has been made a swimmer so that she can swim fast and hold her breath, so as to outpace the gators and endure long periods underwater (if she were a couch potato and heavy smoker the movie would be even shorter). It’s all narratively a little convenient (the script is courtesy of brothers Michael and Shawn Rasmussen, who perpetrated John Carpenter’s nadir The Ward).

But if you stop expecting Crawl to transcend its low goals as a beer-and-pizza Saturday-night rental, it’s a decent crappy time, if a little slick and soulless. The characters’ flaws add nothing to the stew; they’re just plot points. Aja falls into a repetitive dread-and-release pattern, but he’s awfully good at it. Crawl is empty but undeniably well-wrought. What it’s missing, for me, is the sticky-floor grindhouse vibe it could have had, given its Florida setting. (It was shot mostly on a massive soundstage in Serbia, and it feels like it.) Perhaps that vibe is gone forever; legitimately attained in the 20th century, it can only be imitated and paid tribute now. In years past this would’ve been a regional Z-budgeter filmed on Earl Owensby’s acres in North Carolina with Vic Morrow as the dad and Claudia Jennings as the daughter. Might’ve been more disreputable fun then, too. Crawl is fun once or twice removed.