Crawl

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.

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