In the aftermath of the enormous success of “Jaws,” a cascade of movies about dangerous predatory animals chowing down on people followed; one was “Alligator,” a 1980 effort bolstered by a clever script from John Sayles that balanced shocks with a tongue-in-cheek approach. (A dreadful sequel came ten years later.) Alexandre Aja’s latest is a throwback to that era, but though it might be the director’s best movie to date, that’s not really saying much. An efficiently-made but progressively more absurd genre exercise, even at less than ninety minutes it wears out its welcome well before the predictable close.
Though actually shot in Serbia, the story by Michael and Shawn Rasmussen is set in Florida, as the state is at the point of being battered by a hurricane named Wendy. Haley Keller (Kaya Scoledario), who’s on a swimming scholarship at Florida State but is having trouble concentrating because her parents have separated, gets a call from her sister about not being able to reach their father Dave (Barry Pepper); could Haley check on him?
Haley finds Dave’s apartment empty save for his dog Sugar (Cso Cso)—which she considerately takes along—and, ignoring instructions from kindly local cop Wayne (Ross Anderson), drives through police barricades to reach the old family homestead and search for dad; she might be estranged from him now, but they were extremely close when she was a kid (played by Tina Pribicevic in flashback) and he was her coach. She locates him trapped in the crawlspace under the house, where he was injured putting up protection for the pipes, and now must try to free him before the storm hits with full force and the rising waters flood the place. But as she struggles to extricate him, not only do the waters come, but a couple of huge alligators worm their way in through a drainage pipe.
The rest of the movie is just an extended series of hair’s-breadth escapes from the jaws of death, complete with lots of gotcha moments as the gators periodically lurch into the frame with teeth showing, although Haley does suffer some nasty bite marks in the process, and in order to become ambulatory again, Dave has to reset a bone in his leg—a pretty gruesome operation Aja and his cameraman Maxime Alexandre shoot up close. Of course since the the episodes have to escalate in intensity, the ridiculousness quotient goes up at each step, until finally a tidal surge (apparently from a dam) forces Haley and Dave to scramble up to the roof to avoid the raging waves. Since both of them make some pretty boneheaded moves along the way (Haley ventures into danger to retrieve her cellphone, Dave keeps yelling out stuff like “You can do it!”), you might find yourself occasionally inclined to root for the gators.
Because it would be inconceivable to allow either of our heroic protagonists—the spunky girl or the father she’s trying to reconnect with—to bite the dust (or get gobbled up), the makers have to insert others to act as gator grub; you can’t have a horror movie of this sort without a few gory deaths, after all. So at one point three looters show up to drag an ATM and whatever else they can carry from a nearby convenience store, and at another Wayne and his partner come by to check on Dave and Haley. You can guess what happens to them all.
It must have been a difficult shoot for Scoledario and Pepper, thrashing about in mud and water as they must, and they get through it all right, even if their characters are—as is so often the case in movies like this—paper-thin. The other humans are even blander, but Cso Cso puts up with everything like the good doggie s/he is (which is not unimportant, given that Aja and editor Elliot Greenberg are pretty shameless about inserting reaction shots of the animal at every opportunity). The survival of the canine will be more important to some viewers than that of the pet’s owners, of course, so the makers are careful to keep Sugar’s safety along the way a primary concern.
More important, of course, are the alligators, who appear early and often. The effects, which presumably involved the use of plastic mock-ups and CGI (with perhaps an occasional shot of a real critter to add a note of pure realism), are okay, if sometimes a bit risible—the fault of a screenplay that too frequently demands a suspension of disbelief greater than what’s possible. That goes for the storm and water visuals too, though the final wall of waves that nearly submerges everything smacks of old-fashioned model work that Alexandre and Greenberg can’t entirely disguise. (Incidentally, would helicopters really be flying overhead at the height of a hurricane?) Generally speaking, the Serbian locations are reasonably good stand-ins for Florida, decked out as they’ve been with American signage, but the set decoration sometimes goes to extremes in the clutter department (Alan Gilmore was production designer).
Throughout “Crawl” the laughs are entirely unintentional—Aja plays things out with utter, grim seriousness. It’s therefore a jolt when he abruptly replaces the brooding score by Max Aruj and Steffen Thum with the goofy fifties pop tune “See You Later, Alligator” over the final credits. It was fine when one of the “Nightmare on Elm Street” pictures switched on “Mr. Sandman” at that point because those movies always had a jokey undertone, but here the choice seems designed to persuade viewers that the movie was always intended as a lighthearted riff rather than a genuine thriller. It seems that Aja is hedging his bets–as well he might, given how old-fashioned, despite its modern effects, the movie is.