Saturday, July 13, 2019

Keeping the Gators Fed

Kaya Scodelaria in Crawl (2019)

Crawl (2019, directed by Alexandre Aja) isn't nearly as much fun as Piranha, the director's last foray into the revolt of nature film, but it offers uncomplicated horror movie thrills and plenty of red meat in spite of that. I mean, sure. Horror fans are still waiting for Aja to replicate the intensity and what-the-fuck-ery of his debut film, High Tension, but it seems increasingly likely that he never will. If that means lean commercial horror movies like Crawl, well, there are worse ways a career can go. Crawl, for its part, is pretty entertaining in its own right.

Crawl follows collegiate swimmer Haley into the path of a category 5 hurricane to look for her father. Her father hasn't been answering his phone, and Haley and her sister, Beth, are deeply concerned, especially in light of his ongoing depression following his divorce from the girls' mother. Haley doesn't find him at the condo where he's been living after the split, so she gathers up the family dog and heads the family home. Her dad's truck is in the drive, but he's still not answering her phone calls or her shouts into the silent house. She hears a radio in the distance, though, coming from under the house. She takes a flashlight into the crawlspace and finds her dad there, unconscious and bleeding from a huge gash in his shoulder. As she hauls his unconscious body back toward the stairs, she finds her way blocked by a huge alligator. The reason for her father's condition becomes immediately apparent. Haley drags her dad to safety, but she doesn't escape injury as the gator gets hold of her leg. Soon both of them are trapped behind a protective screen of pipes, but they can't stay there for long. The crawlspace is beginning to flood. Worse, there are other gators waiting in the dark. In the broader area, the levee is close to breaking. They have a timetable to free themselves, and each of the people who come around in a position to help keep getting eaten by gators...

Barry Pepper and Kaya Scodelaria in Crawl (2019)

I say that this film is uncomplicated, and at a basic level, that's true. The film provides its central characters with just enough interpersonal drama to get the audience on their side, but at its core is the predicament it puts them into. There's no real subtext in this film unless you want to consider the crawlspace under the family house that's full of gators as a metaphor for a broken and dysfunctional family, but I'm not willing to go there. We also get some elements of the family crisis manifesting itself in Haley's crisis of faith in her sport. When first we see her, she's in the process of losing a swimming relay. This is an efficient way of providing both motivation for a shallow character and placing a skill that will be useful to the plot of the film in front of the audience without bending over backward later. The film is as "uncomplicated" in its formal construction as it is in its basic premise. These efficiencies show up most notably as a brisk running time, which is a welcome relief after a few seasons of long, slow art horror movies. Crawl, by contrast, doesn't stop very often to catch its breath.

Crawl (2019)

The central performances in Crawl by Kaya Scodelaria and Barry Pepper are better than what this subgenre usually gets. If you've ever watched a film by The Asylum, purveyors of shark mutations without end, you'll appreciate the cast of Crawl. The basic craft of horror movies has evolved to a pretty high level and it's hard to make apologies anymore for films that have wooden performances. The creature effects are pretty good, too, a mix of practical and computer effects that only occasionally show the film's modest budget. The film does a creditable job convincing you that it takes place in Florida, which is no small feat given that it was actually shot in Serbia.

The plot of the film is taken in part from an incident that happened in real life during Hurricane Florence, and the way the film roots itself in real life also streamline the production. This isn't a film that's at the mercy of shoddy monster design because, hey, alligators are real-life monsters and anyone who has ever seen one likely has felt an atavistic fear of them. An audience doesn't have to spend a lot of effort to suspend their disbelief that the film's beasties are anything other than real, even if they function more as mythological monsters--as Grendel's mum, for example--than as a natural creature. I mean, they LOOK like alligators even if they're a bit on the large size. They function as monsters, though, and the scene in which Haley enters the lair of the beast and discovers the hatching alligator eggs has a deep mythological feeling to it. This is, metaphorically speaking, our heroine entering the underworld and it's a feature peculiar to this subgenre (see also: Rogue and Alligator).

Kaya Scodelaria in Crawl (2019)

If this film doesn't have the gleeful pop sadism of Piranha, it certainly isn't shy about throwing characters into the meat grinder. I will admit that I smiled when alligators in the outside floodwaters took out the kids looting the convenience store across the street. That smile broke into laughter when the gators subsequently took out Haley's investigating police friend a little while later. This doesn't lack for gore, if that's your thing. But even these incidents fuel the plot, and they fit into the broader film like finely machined parts. If they mar the film, its by throwing the overuse of the designated hero immunity idol into stark relief. Both Haley and her dad suffer injuries that should incapacitate them at the very least, and still soldier on. Haley gets caught in a death roll and still manages to seem relatively unharmed at the end of the movie. But this isn't a pessimistic movie. There's a dog in the film and the dog makes it to the end, which tells you that this isn't a film that means to trouble your sleep a week later. It's a film designed to entertain at a purely surface level, and killing off the characters with whom you've spent the movie would be a bummer. Somebody has to live to tell the tale, after all.

Christianne Benedict on Patreon
This blog is supported on Patreon by wonderful subscribers. If you like what I do, please consider pledging your own support. It means the world to me.

No comments: