When I was growing up back in the 90s I LOVED animal attack creature features. Although Alfred Hitchcock made the concept popular with his classic “Birds”, it was the success of “Jaws” in the 70s that led filmmakers over a decade later to attempt replicating Steven Spielberg’s formula where real-life monsters and predators replaced masked killers and demons giving us horrors that felt more grounded in reality. This gave birth to an entire subgenre of sorts that included the likes of “Anaconda”, “Deep Blue Sea”, “Lake Placid”, “Prey”, and even films that explored more “what if” scenarios like “Jurassic Park”. But in recent years the animal attack film genre has been corrupted by Sci-Fi B-movies like “Sharknado”, mocking the once great subgenre of horror. But one film released this weekend looked to right the ship and remind us why these animal attack features were so beloved in the first place and that movie is “Crawl”. One part creature feature and another part disaster epic, “Crawl” is meant to serve as a return to form for the nature versus man concept while also working in some commentary about global warming. It’s been praised as the “must-see horror film of the summer” so, naturally, I had to give it a look. Is it truly one of 2019’s best genre films or is it just another failure in the modern take on a once great formula? Let’s find out. This is my review of “Crawl”.
“Crawl” takes place mostly in Coral Lake, a fictional waterside town in Florida, as a Category 5 hurricane approaches. Kaya Scodelario plays Haley, a star swimmer for the University of Florida Gators, who has become distant from her father and former coach Dave (Barry Pepper) following his divorce from her mother. After being unable to reach Dave to make sure he has evacuated for the storm Haley drives to the family home where she grew up and finds Dave trapped and injured in the crawl space underneath the house. When she tries to help him escape she discovers that a pair of violent alligators have made their way into the crawl space cutting off their exit and trapping the pair beneath the house which begins to flood as the hurricane hits. Faced with limited time, few escape options, and two expert hunters of nature waiting to finish them off Dave and Haley must work together and use every survival skill in their arsenal to find a way to outsmart some of nature’s oldest living predators.
“Crawl” for me served as a nice breath of fresh air, even if it is imperfect by many standards. As I said I very much enjoyed animal attack movies as a kid because the idea that these predators really exist made the viewing experience so much more frightening. “Crawl” is no different, harkening back to a formula that once fascinated me so and rekindling my enjoyment of a subgenre that has been dragged through the mud over the last decade. Just on the surface and from an entertainment perspective “Crawl” gives you exactly what you want, some bloody animal versus human violence, plenty of great jump scares, and even more reasons to fear Florida’s famously ancient native predators. What makes it even more fun is that it avoids one huge mistake that many films of this kind tend to make. A lot of animal attack features use science fiction elements or unnatural concepts to justify the aggressive nature or knowledge their creatures possess. Sometimes this pays off, like with “Jurassic Park”, but a lot of times it feels like a gimmick. “Crawl” takes a more grounded route by presenting the alligators as simply well-oiled predatory machines. They’re not killers for the sake of killing, they’re legitimately hunting human beings as both a food source and invaders to what they perceive to be their territory. The film even includes an alligator nest hinting that the gators are attacking not for sport, but to protect and feed their young.
To me, this is what makes “Crawl” one of the best animal attack movies of the last two decades and even superior to many classics from the 90s. It’s so much more nature working against humans naturally than trying to vilify the animals that serve as the antagonists. Yes, the gators are supposed to be threatening and scary and you’re supposed to root against them, but they’re not mindless vindictive animals. They’re simply hunters doing what they do with some awesome bloody detail worked in and some accurate real-life hunting habits brought to the screen such as the animal’s famous barrel roll. But the gators aren’t the only villains in this story. Mother Nature serves as a secondary antagonist as the hurricane creates a believable roadblock for our heroes, allowing flooding to create a natural time crunch for Haley and Dave while also giving the alligators that much more of an advantage. It all culminates in the film’s central hidden message, nature taking back what humanity should have never took. The gators and the flooding are simply natural terrors that the humans have to face through only their own fault, and yet humanity itself is not considered an enemy. The whole thing plays out as an unfortunate reality that we all may soon face, especially in lands where human habitation may not have been appropriate. So on the surface “Crawl” does a lot of things right, providing a believable scenario, terrifying yet genuine interpretations of the animals captured through impressive CGI, and providing some thrilling and terrifying moments sure to entertain anyone looking for a great horror experience.
So, what could be wrong right? Well a few things. I preface my complaints by acknowledging that this is NOT supposed to be the kind of film where script, acting and believability are paramount (no pun intended) to the enjoyment of the picture. Nobody is going into “Crawl” seeking Oscar-caliber material…but it’s not too much to ask for relationships I can get behind or deliveries that make me believe what the actors are saying. And there lies “Crawl’s” biggest problem, the performances and chemistry of the leads who are the only two people with more than mere minutes of screen time in this film. Of the two main actors, Kaya Scodelario definitely provides the better performance. She really is all in on this one establishing Haley as an athlete who is too hard on herself and struggles with guilt over her parents’ divorce. Her journey to finding her inner strength in an unfortunate situation is as inspiring as you’d expect, and she takes full advantage of her time to shine. But the script does her few favors as the dialogue is, for lack of a better word, choppy and inconsistent. Sometimes it feels cliché and other times I thought it felt maybe a little to overwritten.
This is much more evident in Barry Pepper’s performance as the father, Dave. I really want to like Pepper but every time I see him on screen he just comes off as wooden or flat. He continues that presentation here and fails to compliment Scodelario’s talent by delivering numerous lines like it was his first or second read and even failing to be convincing when he’s unconscious. The relationship between Haley and Dave was also very unconvincing for me. I didn’t believe in this relationship. I felt little real chemistry between the two and in a film where that love for each other serves as a driving force for their survival you NEED to make me care about their bond. Instead, I just saw them as two random people with the mutual goal of survival. Like I said though, in the end, the average moviegoer isn’t going to care and “Crawl” doesn’t necessarily need these deeper elements to work. Just the idea of these two trying to survive together creates a lot of tension that makes for a fun horror thriller. But as someone who sees movies literally every week, I just felt like the lack of chemistry and the poor balance of quality between the two main actors really affected how invested I was in the overall product.
That also brings me to another complaint, one I recently included in my review of the “Child’s Play” remake which you can read here if you so wish. The father and daughter are not the only two humans in this movie, they just get 90% of the screen time. Several potential saviors are also brought in to add some fun violence to the picture including a pair of police officers in a rescue boat and a trio of looters. All of these characters serve as nothing more than bait so that the audience can enjoy the gators in all their violent glory, but because we know very little about any of these characters (only one gets even the tiniest bit of character development) we don’t feel for their fate and thus we have yet another situation where they’re simply expendable humans we actually want to die. While the brutal nature of these deaths are absolutely entertaining, wouldn’t it be SO much more enjoyable if we felt for them instead of seeing them as worms on a fishing hook so to speak? When you feel for the people involved it makes the predators that much more threatening. Making them kill a very minor character and some other nameless add-ons, several of which were seemingly irredeemable thieves, doesn’t provide for interesting losses. It simply showcases the gators’ abilities and while that certainly sets up just how big of a threat these creatures are to the main duo it does nothing for someone like me who wants to feel bad for these people and feel the weight of these losses beyond the gory entertainment value.
So, my final assessment of “Crawl” is that it’s perfectly fine, harmless, violent, well-made horror thriller fun and a return to form for the animal attack and creature feature subgenres…but it’s a flawed product in the end. “Crawl” does provide a lot to embrace including some fun real-life predatory monsters, a believable setup, and plenty of scary moments and bloodshed to satisfy any casual moviegoer. It even uses its monsters and storm-based scenario to provide some decent commentary on global warming and Mother Nature taking back what humanity should have probably never taken in the first place. But it suffers from an uneven script that creates issues with the performances. While Kaya Scodelario manages to overpower the flaws in the dialogue, Barry Pepper provides an unconvincing take as the father figure and together they don’t exactly make the most convincing pair despite the script’s very obvious attempts to lean on cliché after cliché remind us these two are supposed to have a deep connection. In the end these elements are not what people are going to be looking for in “Crawl”, but they’re flaws all the same and for me served as blemishes on an otherwise fun and entertaining product. If you can get past that though “Crawl” is more than worthy of your time and while I may not call it the best horror movie of 2019, it is among the most satisfying mainstream genre pieces the year has offered so far.