Thanks to Steven Spielberg, it’s commonplace to find an aquatic horror flick in the summer rotation. Compared to Jaws, however, most are laughable substitutes, shredded by critics and bombing at the box office. Fortunately, Crawl wades through the floating garbage to reveal itself as a worthy exercise in tension and minimalism. Simply put, a college athlete ventures out to save her injured father during a Category 5 hurricane—then realizes a pack of alligators have sized her up for their next meal.  

Kaya Scodelario (Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales) and Barry Pepper (Saving Private Ryan) are effectively cast as father and daughter/childhood coach and swimmer, respectively, and both shine in moments without dialogue thanks to their physicality. Excessive grunting aside, entire inner monologues are expressed through gestures and eye movements, allowing us to empathize with their pain and anxiety as they're relentlessly hunted. Stereotypical snarky banter written by Michael and Shawn Rasmussen (The Inhabitants) accentuates their presence as physical performers by adding chemistry and tenderness.

Director Alexandre Aja (that Hills Have Eyes remake and Piranha 3D) shocks anyone familiar with his unimpressive work thus far. It's hard to imagine this side of him existed this whole time, and he doesn't waste a moment of screen time. Visual clues serve as subplots and climax as Scodelario and Pepper use hints to solve debilitating problem after problem. It also seems like Aja preternaturally understands the beatitudes of pacing and shadow—best friends of any capable horror director.

But instead of exploding, Crawl sputters out in the last 10 minutes, even as cinematographer Maxime Alexandre (The Nun) effortlessly trails the two leads through flooding crawlspaces, threatening outdoors, unstable houses and even a swimming pool. His unique eye makes it easy to keep track of the action, especially while squirming in your seat. Editor Elliot Greenberg deserves equal recognition, splicing sequences for a rhythm that finesses the terror rather than forcing it, and in way that offers few respites; be assured that even during a rest there's no real safety.

Sadly, though, the cards are stacked against Crawl thanks to past contributions—and yeah, Aja's resume is partially to blame. But before considering competitors involving haunted dolls, or worse, Northern European cults, take a chance on this little summer horror flick. It's so worth it.

8
+ Incredible performances; pacing; tension

– Didn't save anything for the end.

Crawl
Directed by Aja
With Scodelario and Pepper
Regal 14, Violet Crown, R, 87 min.