With Haute Tension (Switchblade Romance ), director Alexandre Aja supplied one of the most intense and stressful home-invasion horrors of the 21st century and instigated a wave of transgressive, brutally violent French films collectively known as New French Extremity cinema. Crawl, while nowhere near as searing as Aja’s early work, does see him return to home-invasion territory; albeit with an irresistible man vs nature element. Truly refreshing in its minimalism and back to basics approach, it boasts a rollicking and extraordinarily simple premise (it’s a concept movie, basically): when a massive hurricane hits their small Florida town, Haley (Kaya Scodelario), her father Dave (Barry Pepper) and their dog Sugar (Cso-Cso) find themselves trapped in their basement and have to contend with rapidly rising floodwaters and several giant alligators.
The screenplay by Michael and Shawn Rasmussen takes what is familiar, mundane and even sentimental (a family home, full of memories, both difficult and treasured), and twists it to become a threatening, dangerous space with monsters in it. The film hits the ground running and never falters, tension rising as steadily as the onscreen floodwaters. With the narrative largely uncoiling within the damp and dank confines of the basement and crawlspace area of the family home, Crawl feels immensely claustrophobic. The action eventually breaks out of the basement and up into the flooding home above, allowing Aja to create some truly striking imagery, including the unforgettable sight of a giant alligator bursting through living room windows that look out on a drowned world.
Plausible? No, but that’s not why we’re here. We’re here for a terrific monster movie, for an epic man vs nature battle for survival. This is precisely what Aja delivers, and he does so beautifully. There is creeping tension, jumps aplenty, suspense, terror and excitement, as Crawl goes from foreboding tension to fully cranked panic in a heartbeat. The alligator attacks possess a particular ferocity, with gory effects adding to all the thrashing turmoil, and the use of CGI isn’t too jarring.
Given the back to basics minimalism of the premise and no frills execution, there is actually a surprising and pleasing amount of characterisation. Obviously some characters just show up to get eaten, but Haley and Dave are given a little more depth, they become people we care about, and there’s a nice chemistry between Scodelario and Pepper as the all-but-estranged daughter and father. Theirs is a fractured and dysfunctional family, which has been spilt apart after the death of Haley’s mother. Neither father nor daughter are open about their feelings and neither have been dealing with the grief. Throughout, much of their dialogue suggests the tension of things unsaid, unresolved between the two. In one moment of brief reprieve from the onslaught of alligators and floodwaters, they briefly discuss the concept of ‘home.’ It feels particularly poignant as they have actually become trapped in their home, with all its memories, and the contents of their lives swirling around them, unable to move on, literally and figuratively. And you thought this was just a regular giant alligator movie.
Like the underrated Burning Bright (2010), and the ludicrous but still great fun Bait (2012), Crawl takes a couple of characters, traps them in a confined space due to an encroaching natural disaster, further imperils them by introducing an additional threat in the form of an apex predator and, hey presto, the result is an exercise in sustained tension and gory fun which keeps its audience on tenterhooks throughout.