Crawl – A Tight, Tense Creature Feature in Dirty Florida Flood Water

A horror movie set in Florida seems like a no-brainer. There are countless terrifying stories that you can set in the land of smelly swamps, suffocating humidity, crowded theme parks, and insane residents. Crawl goes for a combination of a creature feature (starring some Florida gators) and a natural disaster flick (starring a Florida hurricane). It’s mostly about the killer alligators though – think of this as Jaws (or any shark movie) but in a flooded Florida crawlspace. And there’s more than one of the hungry predators down there.

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This is the second killer animal movie by director Alexandre Aja, the first being Piranha 3D, but you may also know him from The Hills Have Eyes. Aja’s taste for horrifying violence is on full display for Crawl – watching someone get messily devoured by an alligator isn’t very pretty. Fans of that sort of hyper violence will definitely get their fill here, but the deaths are few and far between. Instead, the film presents itself as more of a tale of survival against impossible odds; man, or in this case, woman, versus nature.

Haley Keller (Kaya Scodelario) is a young woman living in Florida as a massive hurricane slowly approaches the state. Haley is a great protagonist: she’s smart, resourceful, caring, and determined. A talented swimmer, she’s been competing regularly her entire life, but no amount of natural talent can replace hard work. She’s tasted defeat time and time again, but through her dedication and endless practice, and encouragement from her former coach and father, Dave (Barry Pepper), she manages to overcome almost all of the obstacles in front of her.

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Things are rocky with the Keller family at the moment – Haley lives alone, focusing only on her swimming, her sister has moved up to Boston, and their parents have divorced. Haley hasn’t spoken to her father much since the separation, but as the hurricane gets closer and his phone remains unanswered after multiple calls from his daughters, worry starts to set in. Braving incredibly dangerous conditions, Haley sets out into the storm to find him and take him to safety. But as the flood waters continue to rise, alligators begin their hunt to find anyone dumb enough to have stayed behind.

Dave is apparently one of those dumb people. Having waited way too long to evacuate, Haley finds him in their old family home, in what is probably the most dangerous place to be at the moment: the basement (which is small, cramped, and more of a crawlspace). There are no easy ways in or out, and to make matters infinitely worse, the gators have crawled their way in through the drain pipe, and they’re definitely hungry. It’s a dirty, soaking wet, claustrophobic nightmare, and the clock is ticking as the water continues to rise.

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The threat that both the gators and the murky flood water pose always feels very real and immediate, and the film’s short runtime (an hour and twenty-seven minutes) help keep the pace quick and precise. Aja takes full advantage of the tight and enclosed setting, letting the scary situation work for itself. Crawl is a tense, nail-biting thrill ride that pays obvious homage to the great B-movies that came before, and instantly earns its place among them. I love that this movie exists as a big screen feature and not just as something that came on the SyFy channel late one night.

The feeding frenzy is broken up by quieter moments of family drama between Haley and Dave. The father-daughter dynamic, combined with two performances that have no business being as good as they are in a film like this, is pretty flawless. The exchanges between the two feel urgent and cathartic for both of them – it’s done so well that it elevates Crawl to a level above most other creature features, but it never becomes too much that it turns what is arguably a very silly premise into a melodrama. It’s a near perfect blend, never forgetting that what the audience really came for us to see some people get chomped on.

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Crawl isn’t a perfect film. It ends a bit abruptly for me (I feel like it could use an epilogue), the minor characters that exist solely as food act like complete idiots, and Haley and Dave are way too calm and level-headed for the situation they’re in most of the time. But as a scary and tense film about dangerous animals devouring people in the middle of a hurricane? It’s exactly what it promises. Crawl is the most pleasant surprise of the summer – a break from the massive blockbusters that refuses to be written off as completely stupid.

3.5 / 5 Stars

Crawl is now playing in theaters everywhere.

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