The Film: Crawlspace (1986)
The Principals: Klaus Kinski, Talia Balsam. Written & Directed by David Schmoeller.
The Premise: Karl Guenther (Kinski) is the landlord of an apartment complex full of attractive young women. Karl is a man of many hobbies. Like playing Russian roulette by himself. Building elaborate death traps. Crawling around inside of vents to spy on his tenants. Dressing like a Nazi. And taking care of his two pets, a cute kitten and a women he keeps caged in the attic. You know, your typical German stuff. He also likes to periodically kill his attractive tenants, allowing for new vacancies.
Is It Good: Good is a relative term when it comes to a film like Crawlspace. As a cheesy, gonzo 80’s horror film it may not deliver much of what you expect. Most of the kills occur either off camera or are staged so as to avoid showing any blood. But in all other regards, Crawlspace has got the goods.
Foremost of the film’s many kooky charms is actor/madman Klaus Kinski. Kinski is certainly slumming it here, far removed from his career-defining work with Werner Herzog. But the man gives the role of Karl all he’s got. This is no phone-in. Kinski seems just as invested in this weird little nothing of a film as he was with Aguirre: The Wrath of God or Woyzeck. In many ways Karl was the part Kinski was born to play. Or at least the part he evolved to be born to play by the mid-80’s. Aside from maybe Peter Lorre, I’m not sure a better actor ever lived more naturally (or should I say unnaturally) suited to play a creepy voyeuristic murderer. And David Schmoeller (Puppet Master) wisely uses Kinski as a crutch. All he needs to do is put Kinski’s saggy, bug-eyed toothy-smirked face on camera and your skin crawls. I mean, the man is fucking creepy. After a certain point you have to laugh every time his face is on camera; which is a lot. I can’t begin to imagine what it was like for Talia Balsam (daughter of the great Martin Balsam) to hang around on set with Kinski while he was being all method. He was a weirdo creep in real life, now here he is playing a weirdo creep. And one who wants to murder you no less.
Crawlspace hits that delectable sweet spot between competency and crap where it is hard to precisely pin-point when the film is crossing the line from knowingly bizarre into accidentally ridiculous. The woman that Karl keeps in a cage in the attic is obviously knowingly bizarre, and really excellently handled — I love that Schmoeller has the confidence not to bother explaining who this woman is. Then there is Karl’s “killer motif.” Peter Lorre had his iconic whistle in M. Kinski has a much less iconic and rather nonsensical stalking schtick in which he rhythmically taps a metal ball bearing with a switchblade. Why? Who knows. Though in the universe of Crawlspace this particular sound is apparently the most intriguing noise in the world, as anyone who hears it can’t control the urge to investigate its source. Like many elements in the film, this odd detail is glossed over by the fact that we’re watching Klaus Kinski do with a smile on his face; which makes it creeponderful.
Karl is a fun villainous protagonist too. Having him play Russian roulette by himself each night is an interesting thematic choice. Karl tends to pull the trigger more than once too, which curiously seems to indicate that fate wants Karl to live and keep killing. Karl is a guy with some issues. Once a doctor, he reminisces fondly in his diary about killing patients. This backstory fuels Karl’s biggest obstacle in the film, Alfred Lassiter (Jack Heller), and man vengefully out to prove that Karl killed his brother while working as a doctor in South America. Fortunately for Karl, Lassiter makes that age-old movie character mistake — confronting a person you believe to have killed 61 people, alone in the guy’s own apartment, with the door closed. Lassiter actually closes the door himself. He’s very helpful. He was just one step away from telling Karl, “Just so you know, no one knows I’m here and I haven’t told anyone my theory about you being a murderer. Nor have I left any kind of written evidence of said theory. I’m also easily stabbed with deadly boobytraps. FYI.”
Crawlspace often goes for levity, and is fairly successful at it. Most of our supporting characters are comic relief. But the film achieves its biggest yuks accidentally. The most unintentionally funny on-going aspect of the film is Karl’s favorite spying location: inside the apartment’s ventilation system. For some reason, whoever designed this modest sized apartment building felt that it needed vents proportioned for Nakatomi Plaza. Not only are they huge, but they’re quite extensive. They also at times seem to exist displaced from our dimension, as we’ll cut from a shot of a wall that is clearly only about a foot thick to a shot of Karl inside the cavernous vent we’re being told is contained with this wall. It’s almost like the vent scenes where all shot first, when the movie was taking place in a giant skyscaper; then the budget got cut and things moved to a tiny four unit complex. This is a faux complaint though, as this is possibly my favorite facet of the film after Kinski. It just keeps getting more ridiculous too. The film fucking climaxes in a speed chase through the vents, in which Karl utilizes a wheeled cart to aid his pursuit. Why does this little building have vents stretching on for a long enough distance to allow Karl to use a vehicle in a chase? How is it even physically possible, unless the vents stretch like roots for yards and yards beyond the edges of the building? Eh, who cares. It also doesn’t make much sense how Karl can sit with his face pressed up against the grate of the vents without the occupants of the apartments being able to see him, even when they’re mere feet from the grate and starring right at it. Such is Crawlspace‘s wonky charm.
Is It Worth A Look: For fans of creepo oddball cinema, who won’t mind a lack of viscera, it is a solid mostly forgotten gem. Kinski fans will surely enjoy it too. It is also a fun entry in Charles Band’s pre-Full Moon filmography, and bears many of his production hallmarks.
Is It On Netflix Instant: Yes it is.