Which came first, Jaws or the summer monster movie? Of course, a film historian would point out that Jaws was the first really big monster movie intended for warm weather and drive-ins, but haven’t we known that long before 1975?
There’s something so natural, so right about watching Human Vs. Beast at exactly this type of year. Jaws feels like a chapter in an ongoing story, not the first in a series. It’s that spirit of rightness that I felt as I sat down to watch Alexandre Aja’s Crawl last night. It was as if the universe had set up the perfect conditions for me to watch the film. The weather was hot and muggy, the sunset outside the theater was hazy, and I was ready to meet a monster.
The hero of Crawl is Haley Keller (Kaya Scodelario, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales), a young competitive swimmer off at college. Her hometown has received a dire evacuation order just ahead of a deadly hurricane set to make landfall. Out of the blue, her sister calls. No one can get in touch with their estranged father. After driving all the way back to her childhood home, Haley finds her dad alone and injured in the building’s crawl space. Haley attempts to get him out, but she’s stopped by an attack from a massive gator. Somehow, the massive beast has gotten into the house, all primed to hunt. Haley and her father manage to get to safe area of the crawlspace, but their troubles are far from over. The gators are waiting for them just outside safety, and the crawlspace is flooding.
What follows is the most relentless, pulse-pounding survival horror story that I have seen this year. Before I get into specific things I liked, let me say this: you will be amazed at just how many common fears this movie can pack into its scenes. Fear of reptiles? Check. Fear of small spaces? Check. Fear of the unfathomable power of Cruel, Cruel, Nature? Double check. Like the monsters that are on all of its posters, this movie bites down quick and doesn’t let go.
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“Fear of reptiles? Check. Fear of small spaces? Check. Fear of the unfathomable power of Cruel, Cruel, Nature? Double check. “
One of the biggest things I came out of this movie-loving was just how direct the story was. As you can probably tell from my summary above, this movie doesn’t dance around getting you to the main action. The movie’s location (the house), heroes (Haley and her dad), and objective (survive) are all gloriously simple. No overlong explanations of intricate curses here. But don’t think that makes the characters underdeveloped. With such clear stakes, actors Kaya Scodelario and Barry Pepper get the opportunity to play a nuanced, awkward relationship under life-or-death pressure. There are some emotional, resonant moments that come out of their situation, and I won’t pretend I wasn’t genuinely moved by them. I expected to scream during this film, I did not expect to smile so much.
Of course, that isn’t possible without some great performances. Crawl chose an incredible actor for its heroin in Kaya Scodelario. She’s tough and sarcastic, but not so much that it weakens the trauma of her experience. She doesn’t follow up every near-death experience with a joke (coughMARVELcough), but her reactions to the terror she’s experiencing prove she’s got grit. Opposite her is Barry Pepper playing not quite as strong a character as Haley’s, but doing a great job as an overbearing sports dad who’s just too stubborn to die. The pair make a fantastic team, MacGuyvering their way out of one instance of certain doom only to be met by even worse ones. Whether you think this movie will end happily or in terror, I promise you will not see the ending coming.
“Aja’s deadly, claustrophobic vision of the ultimate worst-case-scenario is firmly grounded in reality, showcasing real hunting techniques that gators use to kill their prey.”
And don’t think I’m forgetting one of the other huge reasons horror fans are coming to see this film: director Alexandre Aja. The directorial genius behind Piranha 3D and 2006’s The Hills Have Eyes is working at full capacity in this film, and the results are some of the memorable horror visuals of 2019. Aja’s deadly, claustrophobic vision of the ultimate worst-case-scenario is firmly grounded in reality, showcasing real hunting techniques that gators use to kill their prey. I should also say that Aja’s vision isn’t possible without the incredible set design by Lucy Eyre. It’s not something I usually notice when I’m watching a movie, but the work that went into making the flooding house is incredible. It puts you in the main characters’ shoes seamlessly, and will probably make one or two retirees rethink that Florida relocation.
It’s hard for me to pick out anything that didn’t quite work for this film, although I did think some of the CGI on the gators was a little distracting. Crawl didn’t quite graduate from the Jaws school of “Don’t Show the Monster,” so there were a few times I was taken out of the terror by what looked like a too-real CGI model. Still, the set designers for this film did such an amazing job crafting a house that’s weathering a hurricane that often the destruction around the gators was enough to keep me in the moment. If you don’t mind the occasional animated monster in a horror film, I doubt you’ll think much about it at all.
I had high expectations for Crawl, and though they weren’t met in the way I was expecting (would you judge me, reader, if I wanted a skyscraper-sized gator?), I wasn’t in the slightest bit disappointed. With characters you just love to root for, effective and deserved scares, and a satisfying amount of gore to make you sure it’s a horror movie, Crawl is everything you could want out of a blockbuster creature-feature. You owe it to yourself, and to a rich tradition of summer monster movies, to check it out.
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