Crawl

Parisian Alexandre Aja is one of the more dependable horror directors out there, bursting out of with the exemplary Haute Tension and the surprisingly adroit remake of The Hills Have Eyes.

When it comes to creating tension, he definitely didn’t have to “Crawl” before he could walk.

This one’s a surprisingly character-driven effort however, absent the doctrinal “don’t mess with nature” environmental messaging so common among animal attack flicks, the furtive laboratory, the nuclear waste disposal site, the unheeded warnings from scientists, etc.

A swimmer from the University of Florida (yes, they’re nicknamed “the Gators”), Haley (Kaya Scodelario), gets a call that there’s a category 5 ‘cane coming to lay waste to Florida. She goes to check on the status of her pops, who was also her swim teacher, skirting law enforcement checkpoints to do so.

At the Coral Lake adode, dad is stuck in the um…”crawlspace” and under water and under siege: voracious gators have gotten in via the storm drain, a neat nod to the gators in the sewer urban legend, although very realistic as The Sunshine State is really gator country.

From there, the flooding pummels the homestead and wicked winds whip up, all created on a Serbian sound stage of all places, it should be said, very convincingly.

There’s some pretty good tension and the familial dynamic is nicely played up, as the dad was a bit heavy-handed pushing the fruit of his loins into sports and she’s more than a bit resentful, especially after a relay loss in the opening frame. But of course her swimming abilities will eventually serve her well.

And with Crawl, it’s pretty innovative to have animal scares confined primarily to a home versus being out in the wilderness, where this kind of thing would typically be set, the likes of Rogue, for example, or even a scaly creature wreaking havoc in a city (Alligator).

*** (out of 5)

Poltergeist

In the midst of this pandemic, we are all at home being swallowed up by our screens, so the little girl in Poltergeist is no different in a way.

There’s no getting around it: this one’s iconic and influential, a warm nostalgia bath of 80s goodwill, some amazing performances and cheap ‘n’ cheerful special effects.

Tobe Hooper may have helmed Poltergeist, but there’s no mistaking the Steven Spielberg influence, making this much more Close Encounters of the Third Kind than The Texas Chainsaw Massacre in tone and execution, for better or for worse. And horrorphile preference will color perceptions here, though that’s not to say the Spielberg influence means the gore will be tempered. There is one scene in particular that’s almost Fulci-esque.

The Freelings live a run-of-the-mill suburban existence in a planned Orange County community, meant to mirror the experiences Spielberg had growing up in Arizona sprawl, and a kid of Reagan wet-dream.

Steve (Craig T. Nelson) is a developer while wife Diane (JoBeth Williams) takes care of the kids, including Carol Anne, all wide-eyed and bangs. The young girl awakens and begins chatting with a static TV screen, then promptly disappears but not before declaring “they’re here.”

Who are “They?” That’s what Poltergeist gets to the bottom of, as weird goings-on transpire, such as a gnarled stump of a tree that transmogrifies, and a dining room set that does the same, kinda.

A team of para-psychologists join in into investigate, sagging the proceedings with a Ghostbusters-lite feel, before the the film dials it up another for a rip-roaring finale.

The real star here though, is pint-sized medium Tangina, played by Zelda Rubinstein, about whom the late great critic Pauline Kael said [she] “gives the movie new life and makes a large chunk of it work.

***1/4 (out of 5)

[Check out our discussion of Poltergeist on the Really Awful Movies Podcast!]