2019 | rated R | starring Kaya Scodelario, Berry Pepper | directed by Alejandre Aja | 1 hr 27 mins |

Alligators never had their Jaws. They never had a movie that perfectly encapsulated why a movie-going audience should be terrified of real life man-eaters – despite being giant prehistoric monsters who can kill you on land as well as water. Movies have given us sharks, sharks out for revenge, super-intelligent sharks, sharks with frikkin laser beams, giant prehistoric sharks, sharks that go after diving cages, sharks that go after Blake Lively and sharks in tornados. For alligators, we’ve got 1980’s Robert Forester seminal B-movie Alligator ,where a mutant gator jumped out of the sewer mantel home plate of a child’s stickball game, a bunch of direct-to-video cheapos, the last 10 minutes of Rogue and one truly excellent micro-budget nerve-wreaker in Australia’s Black Water. Otherwise, movies don’t seem to know what to do with them. And for some reason all alligator/crocodile movies need to be Based on a True Story.

Until now. Crawl eschews all of this, delivering the goods as both a creature feature and a disaster movie. Like other tightly-wound high-concept horror films (Don’t Breathe or Lights Out), the story in Crawl only exists because the events in it play out exactly as they do, with writers Michael and Shawn Rasmussen working on a house of cards scenario to get our heroes in the gators path and solve the narrative constraints of this monster. They may or may not be borrowing very liberally from an even more obscure movie – Burning Bright, in which a hurricane traps Briana Evigan and her autistic brother in a house with a roving tiger.

As Crawl opens we meet Haley (Kaya Scodelario, The Maze Runner series) engaging in her one defining trait, being on the swim team. It’s an obvious asked-and-answered set-up for any future scenario where she has to hold her breath for a really long time and it’s beaten into us by director Alejandre Aja who has never exactly been a master of subtly. Hurricane Wendy is bearing down on Florida and having not heard from her father, Haley drives right into the middle of it to her childhood home to find dad (Berry Pepper) injured in a basement crawl space. With the flood waters rising, Haley tries to get her dad out of the house while a pack of large, vicious alligators descend on them both.

Aja, for reasons unknown, seems to be the only director from the French New Wave horror movement who has adapted to the Hollywood studio system, compromising just enough to getting movies made with his own brand of gory absurdism. Aja is a director to take literally, but not seriously, with most of his work spraying blood and inflicting pain but doing so with a wink and a nod to it’s own cheesiness. With Crawl however, Aja doesn’t fall back on camp and it might just result in his best American film to date. He makes this movie work, riding just the right tone of menace and fun, moving it along at a snapshot pace and creating new set pieces as the waters rise and change the landscape of the house that continually tax Scodelario – who swims, shoots, jumps around furniture, looks perfectly terrified and generally carries the movie in yet another strong female role that will go unnoticed because it’s in a horror movie.

There is a critical consensus that the superior horror movie trades in slow-burn atmospheric dread. That’s high class horror, the snobs can get behind. Aja doesn’t bother to slowly build up his monsters, bursting them out front and center early and showing them often. The Jaws formula be damned, Crawl is a full-on nerve-shredding, jump-scare machine. Jump scares get a bad wrap because they are so often mixed up with false alarm jolts used by inferior horror movies to pad out the running time. People wander around in the dark and zing! it’s just the cat and zing! it’s just the neighbor. Crawl is powered on jump scares, but Aja hits the sting like a master and they are never false. They are always something and that something is usually a hissing, growling alligator jumping out of waste high water to kill you.

Crawl is a blast. A nail-biting, nimble and giddy fun genre movie. The characters are thin, but the movie is economical, and while dad can’t stop talking about swim team and his ex-wife while being hunted by gators, the movie keeps family drama exposition to the absolute minimum. My biggest wish is that Aja had leaned into ridiculousness and swung for the fences in the finale. The climax here works – again, reinforcing the idea that Haley’s entire life has been leading up to a ¬†fight with a giant alligator like a Floridian Slumdog Millionaire – but I was hoping for a more explosive girl vs beast showdown. Had Crawl come up with something as wild as the climax of The Shallows it would have cemented it’s status as the best alligator movie in a very long time. Still, Aja has put together a slick, first-rate creature feature here against every studio impulse to not take this kind of movie seriously. It’s sure to inspire a long series of direct-to-video knockoffs.