Ah, the killer animal movie. This sub-genre has been with us since the silent era and man’s struggles to overcome or harness the forces of nature are a major part of human history. Yet, despite the fact that killer animal movies have been part of cinema for so long, this genre has produced precious few good films. For every King Kong or Jaws, there are about six dozen putrid B-movies where anacondas, giant praying mantises or killer shrews lay waste to man’s hubris to their heart’s content.
The latest nature run amok movie is Crawl, and what a fun romp it is. Director Alexandre Aja, and his screenwriters, Michael and Shawn Rasmussen, have taken the genre just seriously enough to make a satisfying popcorn movie.
Hayley (Kaya Scodelario) is a talented swimmer with a strained relationship with her father (Barry Pepper). When a hurricane hits Florida, she tries to bring him to safety, but the two are trapped in a basement that is quickly flooding, not to mention infested with hungry alligators. Hayley and her father must both fight the forces of nature, their own injuries, and worst of all parent/child emotional baggage in a desperate attempt to survive.
Crawl is a film that could have easily descended into camp, but our leads Kaya Scodelario and Barry Pepper take their roles seriously and so does the audience. Pepper can add Crawl to the long list of movies he has acted in which have erased the stain of Battlefield Earth from his career. Aja paces the film incredibly well, knowing when to have his actors talk it out and when to have his alligators pounce.
By avoiding the typical monster movie cliché of making the animals ridiculously large, Aja and company have managed to make Crawl a touch more realistic and therefore more urgent than most of its peers. And while Crawl isn’t strictly a horror film, Aja does create an intriguing Gothic ambiance out of that dingy basement; that basement is ridiculously large in order to serve the needs of the plot but it manages to feel incredibly cramped and claustrophobic thanks to the film’s mise-en-scène.
Crawl understands that in a world where technology has disconnected so many people from Mother Nature, the prospect of having to defend oneself from the dark side of the natural world is far more disturbing than any faceless demon or possessed doll. There have been good movies about sharks, bears, and monsters from outer space – alligators have finally had their day.