October Horrorshow: Crawl, or Go Gators!

Before today, I never once considered what it would be like to be trapped in a basement crawlspace with ravenous alligators during a category 5 hurricane. Now, I know. It’s pretty scary.

That’s the setting for Crawl, the creature feature from earlier this year from screenwriters Michael and Shawn Rasmussen, and director Alexandre Aja.

The film follows Kaya Scoladerio as Haley, a swimmer at the University of Florida. A hurricane is bearing down on the area, but neither she, nor her sister up in Boston, have been able to get ahold of their father, Dave (Barry Pepper). There’s some family drama and token sappiness involving Haley and her father, but regardless, Haley decides to head down to the family homestead to check on the old man and make sure he’s still alive.

Haley finds her father under the house in the crawlspace, victim of a nasty bite from an alligator, and a compound fracture of the leg. But, Dave is okay enough to participate in the film, because people in movies are never in as much pain as real-life counterparts would be.

It’s not long after Haley finds Dave that the gators make themselves known. These aren’t mutated gators or the product of some secret army genetic experiment. Gators are frightening enough already that this film didn’t need any of that extra trickery. Haley and Dave are in a crawlspace that is filling up with water from a storm surge, and they can’t get out because gators are blocking the stairs.

That’s about it for plot. This film is not much more than a cat and mouse game between Haley and Dave, and the gators. That’s a pretty small cast for horror film monsters to work their way through, so along the way Aja and company provide some fodder for the gators Crawlto chew on, although both Haley and Dave get nibbled occasionally throughout the film. Who these other characters are doesn’t matter because Aja developed them even less than he did Haley and Dave.

In fact, character and plot development were kind of mailed in for this film. Rather than make these characters more real, they just have a few tropes slapped on them and Aja called it a day. The thing is, that’s fine. There are only 87 minutes of running time in this film, and Aja chose to pack it full of tension and scares. That’s how he chose to make his audience relate to the characters. We root for them not because we identify with their familial troubles, or because we’ve become invested in Haley’s swim team story arc. These are people in straights so desperate that we root for them out of basic human empathy. Of course, if Aja hadn’t provided other victims for the gators to kill, I might have found myself rooting for the giant lizards.

Scoladerio and Pepper were fine as the leads. The two of them didn’t have a single scene in the movie where they weren’t wet, though. That must have been a miserable filming experience.

Crawl is a bloody flick, which is to be expected from Aja, whose films tend to use buckets of the stuff — a trend which started with Haute Tension 16 years ago, through the execrable Piranha 3D. It’s that Piranha flick in his CV that left me with low expectations for this film, but those were misplaced. There are lots of overused tropes in Crawl, but this film is far away from the exploitative schlock of Piranha. Crawl is genuinely frightening, and any horror flick that can scare someone who has watched horror films for decades is a good horror flick.

Lots of tension, blood and gore, some easily ignored cliché, and a good cast. It’s a fine movie to watch in the month of Halloween.

Of final note are the effects. There was a lot of CGI in this film. Most of it was in the rendering of the hurricane. This film had a budget of only 13 million bucks, which is low for a Hollywood film these days, but the CGI was more than passable. It wasn’t perfect, but with every year that goes by, films with modest budgets like this have more convincing digital effects.

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