Alexandre AJA (Dir.), “Crawl”, Paramount Pictures, 2019.
“…I said, ‘my pretty Creole girl, my money here’s no good;
if it weren’t for the alligators, I would sleep out in the woods’”
-Traditional, “Lakes of Pontchartrain”
I’m pretty conflicted about this film. On the one hand, I love a horror movie where the situation is everything and, when you inject some nasty creature into it, the stakes get raised enormously. On the other hand, it’s mainland USA alligators who are the menacing agents here and they are just not the predators that they’re painted as in this story. America has crocodiles – big nasty and brutish – but they are not equal to the ‘gators in number and few Americans have seen them or have had anything to do with them; alligators are familiar to everybody and that’s why they’re used here. Don’t get me wrong: a nip from one of these lizards is going to hurt, but it’s only under certain remote circumstances – like being asleep and outdoors; the situation that the guy in the quote above details - that they’d be able to unleash the kind of panic that this movie shows us.
It reminds me of the weirdness that happens in the “Jurassic Park” flicks. In the first film you can imagine the conference where the dino-experts came to Spielberg with the raw facts about the Velociraptor which most likely ended with the director saying, repeatedly, “yes, I understand – but can’t you make them bigger?” I get it: horror movies are not documentaries and the bigger the monsters, the bigger the box-office take, and turkey-sized real-world Velociraptors don’t ramp up the macho of the lead male actors as much as ostrich-sized ones do. However, credibility does have a part to play in all of this. If Alexandre Aja wanted Saltwater Crocodiles for his film, he should have just written a movie set in the Top End of Australia, not played the Maximising Card and dosed his bayou reptiles with a ton of CGI steroids. Or he could have set his story in Egypt – Nile Crocs are bad boys too.
And before anyone gets all “USA! USA!” on me, I should point out that absolutely no part of this movie was shot or staged on American soil. It was filmed in Serbia of all places and even the lead actress – playing a wannabe US Olympic swimming athlete - is British. So why this parochial need to bend the rules of nature and adhere to the North American milieu? The bottom line is - as it always is – product placement, and the ease with which, say, a packet of Doritos can be introduced into a scene in Florida, as opposed to one set in the Nile delta.
So, going in, if you’re any kind of herpetologist, you need to check your alligator knowledge at the door and be prepared to experience the ringing tones of Aja’s best Spielberg impersonation: “yes, I understand – but can’t you make them bigger?”
Back to my reason for liking this film, it’s one of those Haunted House type flicks where the environment absolutely dictates the action of the main players, once the monsters have been unleashed. This is the template of “Alien” and also of “Deep Blue Sea” and a bunch of other monster romps where an understanding of the locale is crucial to the plot. Here, our two leads are bailed-up underneath a house being renovated, trapped in the crawlspace there by rising floodwaters being brought in by a “category 5 hurricane”, one of those storms that Trump didn’t even know that they had numbers for. The weather has ruptured a stormwater outflow and allowed alligators from a secretive nest into the basement and the rising waters force the captives and the intruders upwards through the building until a climactic moment-of-truth on the roof. This path upwards through the structure is crucial to the plot and is an anchor for the narrative: it’s obvious from the early scenes that Aja wanted this to be not just an escape film, but one which takes his lead characters from the lowest point of their relationship to a resounding emotional high moment of redemption. Clunky? Possibly, but a good scaffold on which to build.
Before doing a bit of research, I thought I’d never seen an Aja movie before: I knew that he’d made “Piranha 3D” and so, not unexpectedly, I set my expectations fairly low. But then I discovered that he was the guy who made “Horns” from the Joe Hill novel and that lifted things to a new level. My issues with Joe Hill’s book were that it feels as though it runs out of steam towards the end and becomes bogged down with the author trying to amuse himself with all of the bad puns he can conjure onto the page; Aja, in translating the book to the big screen, trashed all of this pointless waffle – thank God! - and streamlined the narrative into a workable whole – with one exception. There was a point where he felt the need to inject a Heavenly counterpoint to all of the devilishness happening in the story by displaying an angel, something that – deliberately – doesn’t happen in the book (devils and Hellions of all stamps are excluded from the fraternity of Heaven; in short they don’t get to have friends or play with Them Upstairs, and must endure their selfish, lonely lives alone). So, recalling all of this, the redemption arc here in “Crawl” isn’t out of character in this director’s canon but, fortunately, there were no wings and halos this time.
The scares in this film are, as you’d expect, of the ‘monster leaps out of the woodwork’ kind, for the most part. We see our heroine, Haley, enter the basement in search of her missing father and suddenly a ‘gator takes a snap at her. Then, while trying to seek help, she leaves her parent behind, only to become trapped in another part of the structure which is too small to allow the reptile to pursue her. Then, having formulated a plan to distract and evade the ‘gator, she discovers that there’s more than one of them. And so on, and so on. It’s all pretty much par for the course, but what makes it work is that both characters abstain from doing things that are completely stupid (something that other films of this type allow to happen with eye-rolling regularity) and equip themselves in practical fashion: I cheered their use of hand-cranked torches for example, since that meant I could discount long tedious scenes of batteries fading into uselessness.
I was also expecting to see moments when Haley’s swimming athleticism would allow her to outswim an alligator. Thankfully, this also didn’t happen. Rather, the test for our lead was to challenge her desire to win, to “want it” as the expression goes. Yes, her skills in the water stand her in good stead, but the movie never tries to sell us the line that humans are better in the water than a creature explicitly designed for that purpose.
Finally, there’s a solid core of very dark humour running through this film that really helps to lift it from the mire. At one point, as floodwaters are rising, Haley catches sight of a small boat in the forecourt of a petrol station across the way. She cries out to the people piloting it and flashes her torch, trying to catch their attention, but they’re too busy trying to break into the ATM to catch on. By the time they do notice her attempts to communicate, the ‘gators have taken them out one-by-one. Chomp, chomp, chomp…
I’ve become aware that there are quite a few ‘Killer Croc’ films out there, all seeming poor cousins of the ‘Shark Flick’ which I’ve highlighted here in the past: “Lake Placid” and its sequels; “Rogue”, and “Black Water” as instances. I’ve seen “Rogue” and it’s definitely worth checking out, but I don’t think I’ll be setting course to cover all the monster reptile films out there: I’m not sitting through “Anaconda” again… Also, this last year has seen reports that the Yangtze, or Chinese, Alligator must now be considered extinct in the wild, so, for me, that’s the ultimate buzzkill for exploitation cinema of this kind.
As for “Crawl”, it’s slick and entertaining, it carefully avoids the major pitfalls of this type of movie for the most part and it does what it sets out to do in a grimly humorous fashion. Three Tentacled Horrors from me.