Blu-Ray Review: Crawlspace

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MSRP $19.97
STUDIO Shout! Factory
• Short Film – Please Kill Mr. Kinski by David Schmoeller
• Audio Commentary with Writer/Director David Schmoeller
• TV Spots
• Theatrical Trailer
• Interview with make-up effects artist John Vulch

The Pitch

The missing link between Psycho and The People Under the Stairs.

The Humans

Klaus Kinski, Talia Balsam

The Nutshell

Landlord Karl Gunther seems like a conscientious landlord who looks out for his female tenants. What they don’t know is that he has an elaborate network of crawlspaces that he uses to watch their every move. Can a new prospective renter stop this apartment building’s rapid turnover rate… or will Gunther continue to make a killing?

The Lowdown

Scream! Factory has been digging up a lot of old horror movies and almost all have been of “cult” status. Some have been honest triumphs that were unfairly overlooked during their moment in the spotlight (Prison) others were honest failures that probably deserved to remain buried (The Incredible Melting Man) but the bulk have been loveable warts-and-all movies that were spectacular enough to lodge in our heads for decades to come but too lacking in some key element to attain mainstream appeal. In the case of 1986‘s Crawlspace the cause of its success and the reason for its failure can probably both be attributed to one man: Klaus Kinski.

Kinski was the sole commercial appeal of this movie back in ‘86 and he was a very compelling actor to watch, but by all accounts he was also an angry, mean-spirited, asshole who picked fights with cast and crew and generally fucked up the production over small insignificant things which he chose to have a fit over. Kinski’s hatred of directors is infamous and one can only imagine that an Alfred Hitchcock movie starring Kinski would’ve been the stuff of legends, at least behind the scenes. In a special feature on this disc, David Schmoeller mentions that he was quoted in Kinski’s obituary saying that he was difficult to work with and says that he feels bad about it, but that it was also karmic retribution for Kinski because he was such a huge pain in the ass. Kinski’s cussedness constantly put the production behind and Schmoeller mentions that a common chant among the crew to him was “Please kill Mr. Kinski.” This would go a long way to explain why Crawlspace seems to rush by at an absurdly fast pace, but at the same time I don’t think this movie ever would have worked without him in the lead.

And who can stay mad at that face?

Everything the audience needs to know about Kinski’s “Karl Gunther” is revealed in the opening scene as a woman stumbles into his secret lair, finds a woman in a cage who Gunther informs her cannot talk because he has cut her tongue out, and is immediately dispatched by a hydraulic-powered spike attached to the ceiling. He then plays a game of Russian roulette, wins, and says “So be it.” He then posts an advertisement looking for a new tenant. That may not sound very impressive, it’s the way the scene uses visual to tell the story of the character through observations as the woman’s flashlight plays over a cage filled with rats, several devious traps, and a make-shift swastika. It exemplifies the “show, don’t tell” philosophy telling us all we need to know about the character, his motivations, and very obviously foreshadowing the means by which he will undoubtedly die.

Is a swastika being used as shorthand for sadism lazy even by 1986‘s standards? Yes. Does it make sense that Gunther would have a hydraulic spike suspended from his ceiling just cause and that a victim entering his hideout would just happen to stand in the exact right spot for it to be effective? No. Is it an extremely effective scene? Yes!

That opening is the thesis statement of the entire movie: it’s quick, it’s occasionally dumb, but it’s damn effective. Not one second of film stock goes to waste; every action that every character makes serves to flesh them out or shows us something which will be important later. At several points in the process of watching this I asked “This is the same guy who made Puppetmaster?”

It’s just so subtle!

While Crawlspace is technically proficient it’s also extremely goofy, I wouldn’t go so far as to call it campy but it takes place in the same surreal pop-art universe as a lot of other movies with Charles Band’s name attached to them. Colors are vivid, sets are elaborately decorated in a way that’s half lived-in and half art exhibit. Visually the movie most reminded me of Terrorvision.

The Terrorvision comparison also fits to the portrayal of the characters, though they aren’t nearly as over-the top. The women of Gunther’s apartment building are what a man with no understanding of feminism might imagine an independent woman would act like: there’s the piano playing sex-pot who enjoys having her boyfriend play a peeping tom/rapist, the southern woman who appears to subsist entirely on candy and liquor, and the ditzy soap opera actress who plays a soap opera actress on a soap opera and is a self-proclaimed gold digger. The only tenant of the building to kick this trend is Lori, played by Talia Balsam.

We know that Lori is the heroine for a number of reasons: she’s not afraid of rats, she’s got a smart haircut, and I don’t see anyone better around here. She is ironically the least developed character in the movie (aside from the victim from the first scene and the mute woman in the cage) which in a way does make sense due to how the plot approaches Gunther. It’s a shame that the closest thing to a positive female character this movie has is such a blank slate, but at least her blankness does serve some narrative purpose.

Karl Gunther is a bit more of a complex character than he initially appears. Gunther is a self-diagnosed murder addict and his Russian roulette game is representative of his last shred of conscience attempting to put a stop to him. This paint’s Gunther’s grand plan at the climax of the movie as a suicide attempt as well as a murder attempt. Karl really ties this movie together and it’s Klaus Kinski’s portrayal of Karl that makes him work.

This isn’t a still, it’s Klaus Kinski’s headshot.

Crawlspace is a non-slasher, a slasher with very little of what’s traditionally considered to be appealing to slasher fans, and it serves as a bridge between two other non-slashers that I hadn’t previously connected in my mind.

When we first get to know Gunther he immediately displays shades of Norman Bates. This isn’t surprising, Psycho is so ingrained in pop culture’s unconscious mind that it’s nearly impossible to write a story involving a psychopathic antihero without evoking Hitchcock’s movie at least accidentally. What’s less likely to be coincidental is the similarities between Crawlspace and The People Under the Stairs.

There are no original ideas and mistakes do happen — James Gunn maintains that Night of the Creeps and The Deadly Spawn had no influence on Slither. Plot points from Arachnophobia and Mimic obviously echo plot points from The Nest. I believe all of these to be unintentional — but in this case there’s just a lot of similarities to the point that I doubt that Wes Craven didn’t at least watch Crawlspace. It’s not exactly plagiarism but David Schmoeller at least deserves acknowledgment in the credits of Craven’s movie.

I’ve found no erotic fanfiction of her and Roach from People Under the Stairs, get with it internet.

Crawlspace at times seems to be in a hurry to reach its ending but each vignette serves the plot and for all its flaws it’s a work of mad genius and a great reminder for horror fans not to write off David Schmoeller as a hack. If you’ve never heard of this movie or are just rediscovering it on Blu-Ray I can say it’s definitely worth your time.

The Package

It’s the standard Shout! release: trailers and TV spots, a commentary by the director, and an interview with the make-up artist. There’s also the 1999 Short Film Please Kill Mr. Kinski where David Schmoeller talks about what a difficult, misanthropic prick Kinski was, aside from the dated film stock and Schmoeller’s cringe-worthy attempts to be funny it’s pretty good.

What it is really odd to me is the lack of fairly standard special features. At this point I have accepted that Shout! Factory considers English subs to be pretty low on the list of important things but the lack of a scene select menu is just kind of bewildering.

Video is presented in 1080p High-Definition Widescreen (1.85:1) with DTS-HD Master Audio Mono.


Out of a Possible 5 Stars

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