Sam Raimi has a knack for finding garbage. The writer/director has spent nearly 40 years discovering material that others deem trashy, waving his hands over it and magically morphing it into gold. From the Evil Dead franchise to Darkman to even his three Spider-Man films, Raimi’s talent is using a combination of workman-like craftsmanship and winking self-awareness to make movies that are technically proficient while never losing their sense of fun. He’s attempted to use that talent as a producer, backing horror projects in the 2000s including The Grudge, 30 Days of Night, a remake of his own Evil Dead and Don’t Breathe. Raimi’s name on those projects gives audiences a sense of understanding of what they’re getting into: something spooky, goofy and with a flare to it. But just because Raimi’s name is stamped on a movie doesn’t mean his talent is funneled along with it.
As if Florida doesn’t have enough problems, Crawl focuses on its two constants: hurricanes and alligators. The former is the backdrop troubling college swimmer Haley (Kaya Scodelario), who is worried that her dad Dave (Barry Pepper) might have been left behind in the evacuation of her old neighborhood. She goes to her old family home to find her dad unconscious and mauled in the crawlspace under the house. When she tries to get him to safety, she meets the culprit of her father’s injury: alligators lurking in the darkness.
If this was the late 1970s or early 1980s, Crawl would’ve joined the pile of low-budget Jaws knockoffs and, if done right, could’ve had that schlocky charm to it. Sure there would be obvious miniatures and cheesy practical effects, but corny acting and over-the-top gore has worked well for B-movies in the past (especially ones associated with Raimi). Unfortunately Crawl exists in 2019 and computer effects can help or hurt the final product. While we can’t expect Crawl to use real alligators and it might’ve been even worse to use plastic mechanical gators, the CG creatures here are blatantly fake and it’s obvious every time they’re onscreen. As menacing as they look when their scales tread the surface like the famous shark fin in Jaws, it’s difficult to believe their presence is real whenever they show their teeth on screen. Director Alexandre Aja (The Hills Have Eyes, High Tension) blows it right from the gators’ first appearance, shooting the first surprise attack in the middle of a moving shot from the back left of the screen with no suspense. It’s more of a shrug than a shock and that’s what most of the scares and thrills end up being. The movie isn’t helped by its script penned by Michael and Shawn Rasmussen (The Ward) which is little more than bland character background, a joke or two and screaming of characters’ names. Crawl is the most basic of creature features but didn’t think to build any intelligence into its structure.
The best element of Crawl is the structure itself. The set of Haley’s old house makes for a pretty effective maze that she and her dad have to navigate. Most of the movie’s 87-minute runtime is in the crawlspace and Aja makes good use of its tight space and flooded grounds. There’s even a sense of fun in watching Haley carefully float between the gators as she tries to escape. The movie improves as the waters rise, turning the building into a mash-up of a haunted house and a waterpark ride as our leads pop into various flooded rooms to be spooked by the gators. The flooding amps up the ticking clock sense of tension better than any of the gators do, making Crawl feel as brief as its running time suggests. Aja keeps the focus of Crawl as a survival story, laying out what Haley and Dave have at their disposal and the gruesome injuries that hinder their escape. Aja is known for being a fan of gore and while this doesn’t have the buckets of blood that his previous movies have, he gets to color the flooded streets of Florida bright red when the gators chomp at the bit players in the background. He also makes sure his actors show their suffering of the broken bones and torn skin their characters endure.
Crawl still has simple characters to work with and since its antagonists are obvious pixels on a computer, its actors have to do the heavy lifting. While Scodelario has the look of a hardened survivor and does wear the grit of her fight on her sleeve, she doesn’t have much else to provide. She sucks whatever lightness is brought into the movie with its few jokes and her scenes of heartfelt emotion come off as robotic. Maybe it was just pure exhaustion from the constant crouching and selling the physical struggle of her character, but Scodelario’s scenes feel like they were all gathered from the first take. Pepper, despite being on his back for most of the movie, does manage to sell the emotional scenes he’s given and gets a laugh of two from the bits of humor he dishes out. He even takes the most punishment from the gators and still gives the right amount of investment.
Crawl gets exactly the amount of success it deserves for putting in as much effort as it does, a solid 50/50. It’s commendable that Paramount put out a $13.5 million horror film in the middle of the summer and at least Raimi is still using his clout for good (though it’d be nice to see a new Raimi movie soon). Unfortunately, good will and a director’s stamp of approval can’t save an undercooked, hokey thriller. For all the simplicity it offers itself, Crawl uses it as an excuse to float when it should’ve ridden its own wave of teased mutilation.