Haley (Kaya Scodelario) is a student who is hanging onto her scholarship, but only just, since it hinges on her swimming ability and she has not done as well in that sport recently as she would have preferred. But as she gets dressed after a session in the water, her sister calls her and asks her if she knows where their father (Barry Pepper) is, for there is a severe weather warning in place what with a hurricane on the way, and she would prefer to be safe in the knowledge he had managed to get away from their Florida home and to shelter. Haley, who is fairly certain he is fine, agrees to see if she can track him down as he is not answering his phone - but the storm is closing in on their home.
What does that have to do with crawling? While Scodelario and Pepper did their fair share of such a physical activity here, the title referred to something in the rising water, namely the alligator population which have invaded the smalltown Haley's dad lives in. With a film this waterlogged, it's not perhaps apt to say director Alexandre Aja was keeping his powder dry, but he did defer showing us the CGI reptiles until it was absolutely necessary, despite everyone who wanted to see this being well aware that's what the threat was. Although there were few big hopes for this, it did pick up a cult following among those who liked a creature feature with no pretensions and a sense of bite.
Literally as well as figuratively, that was. When Quentin Tarantino proclaimed this as his favourite movie of 2019, people started to sit up and take notice, though if they watched it, they may suspect this preference was because of the leading lady spending more or less the whole thing barefoot. Nevertheless, Tarantino was not wrong when he recognised Crawl's quality: Aja was no slouch when it came to horror you could get your teeth into, and Sam Raimi was aboard as a producer, a fan of the director since Haute Tension. That they managed to work together on this kind of no-nonsense shocker was very pleasing, and they were obviously enjoying the project's ample possibilities.
Despite that Raimi name attached, there were surprisingly few lapses into humour, as if they had decided to leave any chortling to an audience who were appreciating what a professional job everyone was doing with what in a different variation could have been straight to streaming fodder. But you could tell they were setting their sights higher than that, as Scodelario set her jaw and was more than prepared to look those beasts square in their beady eyes, a heroine who aside from her superhuman swimming skills (you have to take it as read she could outswim an alligator and hold her breath underwater for five minutes or whatever it was) was believably vulnerable when necessary, rendering her bursts of innovation and survival all the more gratifying when she was able to muster her resources.
So infused with gritty determination was Crawl that every so often you would be uncertain if you were being fed a joke or a reference (is Haley quoting John Carpenter's The Thing, for instance?) that a Raimi-directed movie would be all over. But as our heroine finds her father injured in the crawlspace underneath their house - injured by an alligator bite - and the waters are steadily rising with a real tide threatening, there was genuine suspense in this, especially given its habit of dangling a lifeline for the two main characters only to jerk it away to increase the peril they were suffering throughout. By turning Florida into a ecological apocalypse, this tapped into the current events in a manner that was not labouring under politics that might have had audiences groaning, as it was the action we were here for and it was the action we were provided, every so often an incidental victim appearing to get bits of them bitten off. Ecohorror had been a feature of the genre since The Birds, and this was nothing new, but it was nicely done. Music by Max Aruj and Steffen Thum.
[Crawl is available on Blu-ray™, DVD and to Download & Keep from December 16th. There's a pretty comprehensive featurette on Paramount's DVD as an extra.]