When Wes Craven’s “Scream” opened in 1996, its success took the studio and theaters by surprise. In fact, the local Cinemark opted to put it in their dollar cinema on opening day. “Crawl” may be headed for a similar success once word of mouth spreads even though Paramount chose not to screen it for critics (usually a bad sign).
The R-rated thriller represents the most fun I’ve had in the water since “Jaws” with the always reliable Barry Pepper and British actress Kaya Scodelario (Teresa in “The Maze Runner” films) as a father-daughter duo battling alligators in Florida during a Category 5 hurricane.
After making a name for himself with the underrated gore fests “High Tension” and “The Hills Have Eyes” remake, French director Alexandre Aja took a different path that explored comedy (“Piranha 3D”) and psychological drama (“The 9th Life of Louis Drax"). His new film “Crawl,” produced by Sam Raimi, marks a return to horror, albeit subdued, but still with enough bloodshed to earn an R-rating.
As Florida hunkers down for a Cat 5 hurricane, Haley Keller (Scodelario) goes in search of her estranged father Dave (Pepper) at the urging of her sister Beth (Morfydd Clark) who hasn’t been able to reach him. Ignoring police roadblocks, Haley takes the backroads to the small town of Coral Lake as the first band of torrential rains batter the state. She doesn’t find him at his condo but manages to pick up his scruffy dog Sugar.
Haley heads for what will become the film’s battleground, the empty two-story home she grew up in before her parents’ divorce. Sure enough, she finds Dave’s truck at the home and after a quick search discovers him unconscious in the crawl space with a deep gash on his shoulder. Haley is a collegiate swimmer who used to be coached by her father. He taught her to be tough, and that resilience, combined with her prowess as an athlete, will come in handy once the monster alligator makes an appearance.
The film becomes claustrophobic fast as Haley and Dave are trapped in the crawl space with a mammoth gator between them and the exit. The situation worsens as the neighborhood floods and the water begins to seep into the crawl space. The crafty narrative by screenwriters Michael and Shawn Rasmussen places the father-daughter in a ticking time bomb scenario. As the hurricane moves inland the crawl space becomes flooded and the threat of drowning becomes a reality. The rising water leads to more alligators and so Haley and her father have no choice but to swim their way out.
Aja keeps the film focused on Scodelario and Pepper as other characters show up only to become appetizers for the hungry gators. The CG reptiles look realistic thanks to the first-rate visuals by Rodeo FX. The scares are real as the tension mounts and the film serves up some pretty gory moments that are considered tame by Aja’s standards but still gruesome enough to earn an R-rating.
The dialogue seems over the top at times and I get these characters are tough but at times Scodelario and Pepper resemble cyborgs, or at least the “Tis But a Scratch” Black Knight from Monty Python, as they shrug off one injury after another. That fortitude, however, is part of what makes Aja’s film so entertaining.
“Crawl” is scary good fun. Scodelario and Pepper make a great team as they duel gators, hurricanes, and tidal waves (did I mention the levee breaks?) in what is destined to become the sleeper hit of the summer.
(3 ½ stars)