Alexandre Aja has tackled man-eating water creatures before, with 2010’s heinously/hilariously brazen Piranha 3D, but Crawl is a very different offering to that gory slice of sleaze. Tightly focused and sincere to a fault, it’s less concerned with schlock than with sustained tension and family ties, though it’s only the former that is pulled off successfully. ‘Stuck in a flooding basement with alligators’ is a hard premise to get too wrong, and Aja definitely brings the heart-in-mouth moments, but Crawl too often gets distracted from its scaly stars by a father-daughter relationship that never holds much interest.
Ignoring advice from everyone, expert swimmer Haley (Kaya Scodelario) drives deep into the heart of Florida during a category 5 hurricane to check in on her dad Dave (Barry Pepper), who hasn’t been answering calls from Haley or her sister Beth (Morfydd Clark). Finding him injured in his crawlspace, Haley is soon ambushed by a huge alligator, leaving her with some nasty wounds of her own and help nowhere to be found. Crawl has drawn comparisons to Jaws, but with its driven heroine, tight spaces, and cute pet in trouble, it generally plays more like an earthbound, much wetter Alien.
At its best, it is genuinely frightening and, even when its scares are clichéd, Aja pulls them off with a verve and meanness that helps them land. The alligators are monstrously violent and always present a credible threat. You’ll wince at Haley and Dave’s injuries, especially as they dart around their flooded house in the filthy water, and there’s a good amount of fun to be had in the narrow escapes and bolts of ingenuity that keep the pair alive. When things go outside, they’re less effective, the open spaces dulling the immediacy of the danger and some rather ropy CG (the alligators are pretty convincing, the storm is not) takes you out of the experience.
Michael and Shawn Rasmussen’s script is clearly most comfortable when it’s pitting Haley against the alligators, and the attempts to wring actual emotion out of Haley and Dave’s relationship fall flat. Both of them are characterised as, basically, ‘stubborn’, with very little else to hang on to. It wouldn’t be so much of a problem if Crawl committed more fully to its B-movie side, but we return to their dynamic all too often. Running at less than 90 minutes, though, Crawl never wears out its welcome and as an easy, sometimes thrilling little creature feature, it gets enough out of its gators to be worthwhile.