It’s difficult to avoid the influence of nostalgia in the current pop-culture landscape, with a juggernaut like Strange Things becoming a hit, in large part, by repackaging moments of 1980s cinema for a new generation. Superhero films continue to turn our action figures into blockbusters, while an increasing number of properties from our childhoods are receiving CGI facelifts. The new survival horror-thriller, Crawl, from director Alexandre Aja (Horns, Piranha 3D), also harks back to films of a bygone era. However, instead of capitalizing on a well-known intellectual property, Crawl feels more like an adaptation of the greatest schlocky ‘80s airport paperback thriller never written, or maybe a shelved script from a late-’90s creature feature like Anaconda or Deep Blue Sea that finally saw the light of day. Neither of those comparisons is bad, mind you.
Kaya Scodelario (The Maze Runner) stars as Haley, a young competitive swimmer who is passive-aggressively guilted by her sister into checking in on her overbearing father, Dave (Barry Pepper), during a Category-5 hurricane in Florida. When she’s unable to locate him or her fractured family at her childhood home, Haley ventures into one the last places anyone would want to find themselves: the dank crawlspace beneath a house in rural Florida. As Haley investigates the tight quarters, things go almost immediately from bad to worse with the discovery of an unwanted guest: a large, hungry alligator.
Crawl wastes little of its sparse 87-minute run time exploring the strained relationship between Haley and Dave. We get the broad strokes, but in a film about killer alligators, keeping the story lean is the name of the game. Crawl doesn’t stand on ceremony for long; it knows exactly why you bought a ticket, and delivers plenty of horror and suspense. Crawl doesn’t have much on its reptilian mind, and its heart is about as cold-blooded as the film’s scaly antagonists, even when it awkwardly attempts an emotional Hail Mary in the third act.
The script by Michael and Shawn Rasmussen moves so fast that viewers barely notice how thin the plot is, but this plays to Crawl‘s strength as tightly wound thriller. It’s the type of film Hollywood seems to be allergic to making in this age of three-hour, billion-dollar superhero epics. Getting the chance to watch a scary (and sturdy) horror film with a simple premise, in which everything that can go wrong does go wrong over the course of 90 minutes, has become a rare treat. That alone is reason enough to celebrate Crawl. That Aja & Co. delivered it in a slight, handsome package is icing on the cake.
From a visual standpoint, Crawl is simply fantastic. It seamlessly vacillates between claustrophobic set pieces and near-apocalyptic scenes of the encroaching storm, to maximum effect. Despite its thin plot, Crawl does an admirable job of letting the audience know just how bad our heroes have it by revealing the scope of their dilemma organically. And as for those CGI gators? They look awesome. It’s a far cry from the video game cut-scene hellscape that is the onslaught of Syfy creature features. One could assume a good chunk of Crawl’s modest budget went into making the gators look cool, which was a wise investment. Even when the CGI looks a bit wonky — or that they were made on a production budget of $13 million — they are at still implemented in a exciting ways (no spoilers, but there is a lot of creative appendage trauma).
Crawl isn’t going to sweep the Oscars, but if you walk out of the film with a smile on your face, it might behoove you to check out other movies cut from the same cloth. Crawl is not only Aja’s best film since his remake of Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes, it’s also the best giant-reptile horror movie since Greg McLean’s criminally underrated Rogue in 2007. This is the best kind of summer film. There’s no pretense or 20 movies’ worth of homework to do before the walking into the theater. Crawl just wants to show you a good time, and it’s the kind of film we didn’t know we needed so badly. It’s a Friday night Blockbuster Video VHS rental that’s 20 years late to the part — but, hey, better late than never.
Written by Michael Rasmussen and Shawn Rasmussen and produced by Sam Raimi, director Alexandre Aja’s Crawl stars Kaya Scodelario, Barry Pepper and Ross Anderson. The film is in theaters now.