The creature feature is a tried and true genre exercise that has been around almost as long as cinema itself. Stylish filmmakers like Guillermo del Toro and Steven Spielberg have made careers out of scaring audiences with monsters, both earthly and otherwise. Alexandre Aja is no stranger to the ‘killer wildlife’ genre, having previously directed the 2010 remake of Joe Dante's Piranha and his latest, the killer alligator romp, Crawl, might be his most grounded and entertaining feature. If anything, it's the best horror film of the summer so far.
Produced by genre darling Sam Raimi (Evil Dead, Darkman), Crawl tells a simple enough story, but with style for days. Starring Kaya Scodelario (The Maze Runner, Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile) as Haley, a college swimmer heading back to her family home to check on her father as a category five hurricane slams the Florida coast. That's right, Crawl is a genre twofer mixing the trappings of a disaster film and a creature feature and it's all the better for it. Scodelario is terrific here, exuding talent and determination as she finds her dad, played exceptionally well by veteran character actor Barry Pepper (Saving Private Ryan, True Grit), gruesomely wounded in the crawlspace of his home, being guarded by a cabal of hangry alligators.
Speaking of those gators, the effects work used to bring them to life is next level. They look like living, breathing lizards and their menace is palpable. They're certainly not to be trifled with, as evidenced by Haley's first two encounters with the beasts. These are savage and territorial animals who don't think twice about taking a limb, or a life for that matter. Also impressive are the storm effects, which are so convincing you'd be forgiven thinking they shot on location during an actual hurricane. In a picture like this, atmosphere is everything and this Florida cul-de-sac is a place you definitely wouldn't want to be. With water levels constantly rising the alligators aren’t her only problem which helps Crawl to be effective as all get out.
Of course it's not all fun and games, as with the best genre exercises, Crawl plays a game of mix and match, adding in family drama which allows the two main actors to stretch their acting muscles. Haley is estranged from most of her family and only goes to check on her dad out of an obligation to her older sister. To touch on the performances, it's great to see Pepper on the big screen again with a role he can sink his teeth into. The divorced dad character has been done before, but Pepper adds personality, playing against type as what amounts to a damsel in distress. Had Crawl been made years ago, you would've had the father checking on his daughter to begin the story and it's more than welcome that Hollywood has moved past that trope. This also gives Scodelario a star making turn as the hero of the film, showing not just great physical ability, but range as well.
In the modern age of stylish nature horror it's hard not to think of Jaume Collet-Sera’s 2016 The Shallows starring Blake Lively. Similar to that film, the internal struggle is key. Both are stories of survival with female leads pulling from deep inside to overcome insane odds directed by European directors that have become celebrated for their eye behind the camera. The similarities pretty much stop there other than a cute animal sidekick (Sugar the dog is the secret MVP here) however, as Crawl doesn't try to copy the success of that film, instead getting a lot more crazy in regards to kill count and claustrophobia.
Aja’s latest has big shoes to fill since the killer alligator/crocodile movie is a long standing tradition in Hollywood. From 1980’s Alligator to the 2007 triple threat of Rogue, Black Water, and Primeval, it has always been a popular subgenre and Crawl fits right in with the lot. A great example of Style-As-Substance that's far more entertaining and nasty than other recent horror films, it should be seen with an audience just for the reactions alone.