Alexandre Aja’s toothless creature flick can’t decide what kind of horror film it wants to be.
The horror genre is currently undergoing a resurgence in the American multiplex. From Jordan Peele’s home invasion nightmare Us to Ari Aster’s psychedelic fever-dream Midsommar, general movie audiences are rediscovering the breadth of the genre beyond jump scares and screaming teens. With his new alligator-attack flick Crawl, director Alexandre Aja has widened the door to include that genre darling the Creature Feature. But while Us and Midsommar use horror as a vehicle for exploring more complex societal or emotional issues, Aja has created a monster movie with no bite; one that fails to push the genre or the audience’s comfort zone beyond the bland standards of modern popcorn horror.
Kaya Scodelario plays Hayley, a University of Florida swimmer who could be great – if only she could overcome her mental barriers. Flashbacks to childhood swim meets with her now-estranged father Dave (Barry Pepper) set up the emotional groundwork as well as the groan-inducing callback line: “What are you?” “An apex predator.” With a hurricane bearing down on the mainland Hayley goes in search of her father only to find him trapped in the crawl space below her childhood home along with a host of hungry alligators. With the hurricane raging and the floodwaters rising, Hayley and her father must escape the gators and the house, working through family tensions along the way.
There’s nothing wrong with a horror film adopting a flimsy framing story as a launching pad for grisly spectacle, but Crawl can’t decide between emotional allegory or exploitation. Its bungled attempts to overlay the two causes the film’s momentum to come to a crashing halt whenever Hayley and her dad pause between bludgeoning gators with shovels to hash out some piece of family drama. The script limply tries to tie in Hayley’s swimming prowess and emotional obstacles with the rising waters and slinking predators, but the skeleton of the metaphor is so brittle it quickly snaps like a femur between a pair of craggy gator jaws.
You could be forgiven for assuming that I, an elitist, require all horror films to employ the same complex symbolism of recent “elevated horror” titles like Us and Midsommar. However I am not above an enthusiastic gore fest. The problem is Crawl fails to provide either – its wispy, saccharine framing story isn’t substantial enough to serve as a metaphor for a spiritual journey, nor is its violence extreme enough to scratch the itch of unchecked carnage. Unencumbered by the restrictions of a PG-13 rating, Crawl squanders its golden gore ticket by failing to capitalize on shocking and inventive violence. The camera shies away from the grisly mutilation at the jaws of the alligators, and what little blood oozes forth is quickly washed away in the floodwaters. Secondary characters are dispatched with bloodless efficiency yet Hayley and her father walk away from attacks that should otherwise have torn them apart. The reliance on computer imagery both for the gators and the gore hobbles the film further – there really is no substitute for latex flesh and red-dyed Karo.
But perhaps this is more of a slasher film, eschewing intense violence for nail-biting suspense sequences. A few promising scenes of Hayley in the murky, open water with the beasts plant the seeds of a heart-pounding survival sequence. Unfortunately, like its reticence towards gore, the film fails to sustain these scenes long enough for the suspense to truly stretch at the nerves. The film prefers to torture Hayley with an endless series of brief close-calls, none of which ever feel truly tense. Instead, the film’s idea of tension is to have the main characters yell “Dad!” and “Haley!” so frequently their voices will resonate in your ears hours after leaving the theater.
On paper Crawl is a simple concept: a woman trapped in a house with man-eating alligators. But from simple concepts come big ideas, and with audiences being introduced to the wide range of horror sub-genres, Crawl simply can’t decide what kind of a horror film it wants to be. Its characters aren’t complex enough to serve as an emotional metaphor. Its suspense scenes aren’t thrilling enough to function as a slasher flick. Its violence isn’t over-the-top enough to work as a visceral gore fest. Good horror accomplishes one of two things: it makes you think or it makes you sick. Great horror does both. Crawl does neither.