Alexandre Aja delivers a lean meal of a killer gator movie

Ruairí McCann on Alexandre Aja’s ‘Crawl’ (2019)

Out of all the directors associated with the so-called New French Extremity, Alexandre Aja sticks out like a sore thumb. When set against more outré entries by established auteurs, or otherwise films that came out armed with a thesis, his breakout Haute Tension / High Tension (2003) is a comparatively straight thriller and its maker the most amenable to the remits of Hollywood. Where he has been ever since, plying his trade as a work-a-day horror filmmaker, first on a slew of remakes and then with his two previous features, is a slightly more ambitious but stodgy foray into fantasy and supernatural fiction. His latest is his best, from what I have seen—a return to no-frills genre filmmaking. This time in the form of a killer gator movie fashioned to the tune of pulp author Guy N. Smith’s creature features or more specifically to the markers of the sub-genre’s storied history, including the sequel spawning Lake Placid (1999), the John Sayles directed Alligator (1980) and the top totem piece of this tendency, Tobe Hooper’s Eaten Alive! (1976).

Less like the first two and more like the Hooper film, Crawl situates itself in the American South, a Floridian town made exponentially muggy by an oncoming Hurricane Wendy. Under such conditions, college student and hopeful swimming champion Haley (Kaya Scoderlario, Pirates of the Carribean: Salazar’s Revenge) would normally join the fleeing throngs but she’s pulled back when she can’t get hold of her estranged father Dave (Barry Pepper), who was once her coach but now spends most of his time wallowing in a post-divorce malaise. She tracks him down to the crawl space of their old family home, finding him severely wounded and both of them trapped by alligators which, due to the storm, have broken loose from a nearby farm.

Backed by a sturdy premise and a central pair acting ably with the requisite amount of vulnerability (both kinds), gumption and mealy-mouthed wisecracks, Crawl has the room to gorge on the fundamentals of horror cinema. A greater focus on texture, which is proffered in the tight and clammy confines of the crawl space, and eerily lit by cross-shaped openings in its walls, is never staid. Before it gets too familiar, it is expanded to include spaces like a gator den smeared in neon green rot that makes it look radioactive. Showing a good sense of tension ticking away, Aja and the script litter the arena with time and light-sensitive devices such as a torch that needs to be periodically wound, a phone that is dropped and must be stealthily recovered, and the rising flood levels.

It’s not just in the location but, of course, in the way bodies break. For while Aja hasn’t had a career with many highs, according to my own and many critics’ countenance, the one virtue he has consistently possessed is a knack for viscera. Evident from his use of Lucio Fulci’s regular gore wrangler Giannetto de Rossi for the make-up effects in Haute Tension and to the copious degree and detail of flesh tearing and bones splintering through skin to be found in Crawl, it seems set on landing some kind of record in tourniquets tied or on the protagonists’ capacity for grievous bodily harm. The source of which, the gators, are kept as a constant threat. Largely off-screen, though, in glimpses and tail-ends because they are diminished when revealed, as moments where the fault lines in the lower-to-middle-budget attempt at relatively realistic CGI are brought to bear. The creatures are scarier when in the shadows or the water. A few ripples and low-frequency bellows. A dark mass speeding past or the twitch of a tail and then any human they nab is a rag doll and the water gushes red and churns.

This tactility reaches its peak, as it should, in the film’s back half with the storm’s refusal to be held back behind a matte painting. The race to rescue that follows is a reminder that in a medium whose current mainstream is, to put it broadly, coated wall to floor to wall to ceiling in green screens, it has become an almost forgotten pleasure to see a soundstage, meticulously and carefully built up, get chaotically torn down. Leading to an ending that is perfect for a movie endowed with the intuition to start and maintain a good clip and then come to a full stop.

Crawl is showing in UK cinemas now.

Ruairí McCann

By Ruairí McCann

Ruairí McCann is a critic based in Belfast. He runs a monthly film column for Film Hub NI and has appeared in Photogénie, Ultra Dogme, Little White Lies, and The Thin Air.