It’s midsummer, and the debate rages on(line) about whether Ari Aster’s Midsommar is actually a horror movie or something else entirely: a dark comedy, a breakup movie, a cautionary tale about grad school, “The Wizard of Oz for perverts,” a meme machine, the list goes on. The deeply divisive critical reception and audience response to Aster’s epic freakout, combined with the broad range of interpretive responses generated by supporters and detractors alike, suggests a film designed with open-endedness in mind. Reviewing it for The Ringer a few weeks ago, I described it as “movie that can divide you against yourself.”
Whether or not Midsommar will stand up down the road as a (figurative) cult movie is anybody’s guess, but for the moment, it’s fully hijacked the genre-film discourse. Which is why it’s probably a good time to check in with two new releases that are far less ambivalent about their status as horror movies.
Where Aster has stated his reluctance to be pigeonholed as a genre specialist, the similarly alliteratively named Alexandre Aja has spent the last decade and a half honing his exploitation-movie craft, with uneven but attention-getting results. In 2003, Aja’s Haute Tension—a propulsive, violent thriller about a pair of female friends menaced by a serial killer—was hailed as a breakthrough for the so-called “New French Extremity,” an unofficial cycle of spectacularly violent Gallic movies pushing the boundaries of representation and audience endurance (other keynote titles include Claire Denis’s Trouble Every Day and Gaspar Noé’s Irréversible).
Aja’s film proved controversial both for its obscenely grotesque carnage (edits were required to secure an American release) and its brazenly borrowed narrative elements from Dean Koontz’s novel Intensity, eliciting a memorably nasty response from the author, who opted not to sue because “he found the film so puerile, so disgusting, and so intellectually bankrupt that he didn’t want the association with it that would inevitably come if he pursued [a legal] action.”
“Puerile” and “disgusting” would prove to be Aja’s calling card: His remakes of The Hills Have Eyes and Piranha are veritable smorgasbords of pulled-pork gore, with meat falling off the bone all over the place. (A bit in Piranha featuring a young woman accidentally scalped by an outboard motor is one of the sickest things I’ve ever seen in an American studio movie.) At the same time, you got the feeling that Aja was trying to be an artist: In The Hills Have Eyes, there’s a scene where a young boy wanders through a series of lunar-looking dunes crying out after his lost dog, whose name is “Beauty.” It looks as pretentious as it sounds.
What’s likable about Aja’s new thriller, Crawl, is how the director pares down his indulgences into a fine, sharp point. The Ringer’s Miles Surrey described Crawl as a “competent B-movie,” which is true enough, but with this kind of filmmaking, competence—a level of basic craftsmanship that has respect for both the conventions of genre filmmaking and the audience who appreciates them—shouldn’t be undervalued. And there’s enough of it on display here to elevate the grade to something like a B-plus.
The recent movie that Crawl most resembles is Jaume Collet-Serra’s The Shallows, which pits a stranded surfer played by Blake Lively against a great white shark patrolling the waters around the rocky outcropping she’s occupying until the tide comes in. It was a small-scale nightmare elevated into something rapturously poetic by Serra’s direction. (Serra, by the way, is the preeminent B-plus director of the 21st century, displaying competence so consistently and adroitly that it has started to look like genius.) Aja’s film swaps out the open water for a flooded crawl space and the shark for several oversize, relentlessly peckish Floridian alligators, but its protagonist, Haley (Kaya Scodelario), is the same kind of streamlined, type-A striver whom Lively played in Serra’s film. As Crawl opens, she’s driving through a rainstorm in rural Florida to check on her dad, Dave (Barry Pepper), unfazed by the torrential weather or the warnings of the authorities to turn back. In flashbacks, we see that Dave used to psych his daughter up at swim meets by referring to her as an “apex predator.” It’s in that same Darwinian spirit that Crawl pits her against the gators—a contest that is refreshingly fleshy and nonmetaphorical, even as an unmistakable eco-horror subtext swirls around in the form of the Category 5 hurricane that serves as the story’s other source of threat.
A case could be made that setting Crawl in the middle of an apocalyptic storm is an example of a movie deploying one gimmick too many. As an excuse for Aja to indulge his visionary side (and also to disguise the fact that the film was actually shot in Serbia), it’s a welcome and specific device. The Sunshine State backdrop unlocks humor, both in terms of local color (we hear a voice on the radio joking about “hurricane parties” and cautioning Floridians about shooting their guns into the wind) and a more mordant strain of social satire. There are really only two human characters in Crawl—Haley and Dave, who successfully tag-team it against the alligators even though the latter has his broken leg in a jerry-rigged splint—but the storm creates a context for other people to pass (or paddle) through in the background of the action. An episode involving a trio of looters trying to extract an ATM from a flooded gas station unfolds a bit of grimly cautionary slapstick, a sick joke about the futility of greed while the sky is falling.
Between the elemental terror of its premise, the full-bodied commitment of its two leads (both of whom give credible chippy, beaten-down performances), and the consistent wittiness of its staging—including what has to be the most elaborate and unlikely homage of all time to Psycho’s shower scene—Crawl has plenty going for it.
What will make or break it for some viewers, though, is Aja’s reliance on CGI instead of practical effects (I’m imagining a version of this movie made in 1985, with full-scale puppets, and it’s glorious). In The Shallows, the shark was a mostly photorealistic antagonist, and Crawl is aiming for comparable authenticity in its creature design. For whatever reason, though, these gators don’t have the tactile presence necessary to be truly scary, nor have they been given any enjoyably cartoonish traits. They’re weightless digital creations submerged in the underwater equivalent of the uncanny valley. It’s telling that the tensest moments are the ones where we can’t see them at all. Cultivating a sense of threat without actually showing the monster is a tactic as old as Jaws, and yet Crawl, for all its skill, is a bit too dependent on spectacle for its own good—we can suspend our disbelief, but only so far.
As tightly as I was held by most of Crawl, its well-tooled, mechanical grip can’t compare with the weird, ephemeral sense of thrall cultivated by German writer-director Tilman Singer in Luz—a genuinely bizarre, insidiously creepy exercise in style (and produced as a student thesis film) that may end up as the year’s best horror debut.
Set almost entirely in a single location (a rundown police station in an unnamed German city, in what seems to be the analogue-era 1980s) and organized around an oblique plot line concerning demonic possession, it’s the sort of movie that sacrifices exposition for atmosphere, winding up all the richer for it. You don’t watch it so much as breathe it in. Figuring out exactly what is going on in Luz is tricky, which is exactly the way that Singer—as obviously a devotee of horror history as Ari Aster—wants it. There are points of reference here, from Argento to Cronenberg to Raimi, but the configuration of those influences is original and assured. Singer’s story concerns dark forces vying, on several levels, for control—of a human subject, her soul, as well as her memories and her perception of reality itself. Control is also Singer’s goal, and his low-fi puppet-master act is impressive.
Luz’s title refers to its heroine, a Chilean émigré and former Catholic schoolgirl turned taxi driver played by Luana Velis in a brilliantly malleable performance. The character’s elasticity—her mix of toughness and vulnerability—is tied to the way that she’s being manipulated in the narrative: She mends most of her screen time in a hypnotic trance administered by a psychiatrist named Dr. Rossini (Jan Bluthardt).
Ostensibly, the doctor is trying to get Luz to reconstruct the circumstances of the car crash that has left her wandering the city in a daze. But there are ulterior motives to his treatment, and said motives don’t even belong to him. By the time he’s summoned to the police station, we know that Dr. Rossini has been inhabited by a supernatural force—apparently a female one—who has a history with Luz, and is using his professional access to draw the young woman back into her orbit.
“Our father, why art thou such a dick?” asks Luz in the movie’s first scene—a sacrilegious query tempered only a bit by its monotone delivery. It’s unclear whether she knows what she’s saying, but Singer definitely does: the liberating aspects of blasphemy. The long stretch where Rossini tries to penetrate Luz’s consciousness and lead her through a replay of recent events is a bravura combination of filmmaking and performance, with a self-reflexive dimension. The testimony is being recorded, and as a result, the interrogation room begins to resemble a theater, or maybe a film set, with Rossini as an increasingly demonic director surrogate. The initially deadpan, gradually terrified demeanor of the two detectives overseeing the process seems to be intended as a mirror for the audience. Because Luz is hypnotized, she doesn’t realize that she isn’t really in her cab, talking to a passenger, and yet Velis’s acting is detailed enough that Singer doesn’t have to place her within flashbacks; she evokes a whole world from her static perch on a folding floor.
This less-is-more philosophy is crucial to the film’s effectiveness. Instead of letting his lack of resources be a liability, Singer leans into the benefits of minimalism, including dread-filled long takes whose mundane menace is indebted to the great Japanese horror director Kiyoshi Kurosawa. (A double bill of Luz and Cure, an unsettling meditation on free will and mind control, would be instructive.)
Where Crawl’s satisfaction lies in the way it gives the audience what it wants—jolts, laughs, and a healthy dose of catharsis in the home stretch—Luz destabilizes our expectations, risking confusion and even boredom without even a flicker of compromise. Unlike Midsommar, there’s no question that Luz is a horror movie, but it’s no less vivid for coloring inside the lines.