Still haven’t guessed? OK, here’s where I give the game away: Crawl is a movie about big marauding alligators. The title also refers to a crawl-space – the cramped, flooded basement where Haley is trapped during the hurricane, having made her way back to her childhood home in search of her father Dave (Barry Pepper), who is also, as it happens, her former swimming coach.
For the most part, Aja builds the film around the possibilities of this single location, as the 2016 shark attack film The Shallows — clearly a partial model — did with a rocky outcrop in the middle of the sea. But in this case there’s more opportunity to cut away to gory vignettes occurring nearby — in a flooded convenience store, for instance, which becomes a surreal hunting ground.
It’s an ingenious device, allowing Aja to generate a degree of authentic tension while freeing him to indulge in cartoonish morbidity. Up to a point, it’s possible to care about whether Haley lives or dies; by contrast, most of the supporting characters are introduced only to be chomped up in an abrupt, often comic way.
It’s not always recognised how far the success of any thriller or horror movie depends on its actors, whose alarmed responses instruct the audience how to respond in turn. The key here is modulation: if Scodelario doesn’t look scared enough we’ll assume the alligators aren’t really scary, but if she peaks too soon the film has nowhere to go.
On the whole she meets the challenge — putting the emphasis on her character’s grit but without stinting on nervous glances and hyperventilation. At worst, she and Pepper give the impression of treating the alligators as rather too much of a manageable threat, especially in a lengthy scene where father and daughter take a breather to talk through their emotional issues with each other.
In context, their solemn emoting seems utterly ridiculous, topped only by the moment when Haley proves herself to her dad by swimming like the champ he always knew she was. It’s altogether possible that Aja is laughing up his sleeve: if so, the joke is at the expense of his actors, who tackle the material with all the sincerity they can muster.
Crawl is not a good movie in any sense of the term. But unlike last year’s overhyped and boring The Meg, it lives up to its schlock promise — delivering jokey shocks with a degree of expertise while retaining enough seeming naivety to let viewers have fun mocking its shortcomings.
The B-movie approach is exemplified by the special effects, done on the relative cheap but punchy for the most part. The “gators” don’t get that much screen time — where he can, Aja relies on evoking their presence through sound — but never fail to make an impact when they lurch into view.
A bigger technical issue is with the hurricane, so often a problem in the movies, however far traditional green screen methods have been augmented by modern digital effects: no matter what, the dark, menacing storm clouds on the horizon inevitably look pasted in. The problem, perhaps, is that actual footage of hurricanes looks rather the same way.