I’m pretty much on board with a horror movie about a creepy landlord who stalks his college-aged tenants, waging a low-level terror campaign against them by deliberately releasing pests into their living spaces. If he’s a sadist and a serial killer who keeps souvenirs of his victims (by which I mean body parts in jars), that just seems to go with the territory. If he’s also a hardcore Nazi sympathizer with a daddy fixation and a concentration-camp victim locked up in the attic, well, that sounds like it might be a little over the top. But if that creepy landlord-sadist-sociopath-Nazi is played by Klaus Kinski? Now you’re talking.
Trash impresario Charles Band released dozens of low-budget genre pictures in the mid-1980s, mostly through his Empire Pictures theatrical imprint. What issued from Empire was a stream of watchable dreck (stuff like the role-playing game exploitation pic The Dungeonmaster and the raped-by-an-alien classic Breeders comes to mind) punctuated by the occasional hit (like 1985’s Ghoulies and Trancers, the latter of which has generated no fewer than five sequels) and at least one stone genre masterpiece, Re-Animator. Somewhere in between, there’sCrawlspace. Shot on the cheap in Italy on an apartment-building set Band had already used for the recently-completed Troll, Crawlspace was developed as pure product. Writer-director David Schmoeller had worked for Band previously on Tourist Trap, and he shaped a scenario to fit the demands of the production–one of them being the presence of Kinski, whose shell-shocked Vietnam vet character was reconceived as the murderous son of a sadistic Nazi doctor.
What Kinski does with the role of Karl Gunther is pretty amazing; his disturbance seems genuine. Gunther greets prospective tenants with a smug half-smile and a twinkle in his eye, sucking his teeth and looking them up and down as he appraises their suitability as victims. Upstairs, in his top-floor torture chamber, he reads aloud to a woman in a cage (Martha White), her hair cropped short and her body clad in slate-grey Auschwitz duds. “I used to kill in the name of science,” he says. “Now I kill because I’m addicted to killing. It’s the only way I can feel alive.” The woman can’t respond because her tongue has been cut out, making Kinski’s self-absorbed monologues implements of torture. At this point it’s unclear how much his actions are driven by sadism and how much by delusion. (When she slips him a note that reads, “Please kill me,” he responds, without irony, “I can’t kill you–who would I talk to if you were dead?”) In these scenes, as Kinski shares little pieces of his black soul with an unwilling confidant, Crawlspace is truly disturbing.
Now, it’s possible that Klaus Kinski isn’t the biggest son of a bitch ever to stalk a film set, though it seems unlikely. Schmoeller has complained openly that Kinski was a nightmare to work with, questioning his authority at every opportunity and declining to take direction. On the one hand, Kinski’s attitude sent the film over schedule and over budget, squeezing any breathing room out of the already-confined artistic space in which the director was working. On the other, Kinski’s scenes are at least amusing and occasionally hypnotizing–a pair of shots in which he’s seen applying eyeliner and lipstick must be among the most riveting close-ups ever to grace a slasher film. Simply put, he elevates the material.
Not to say that Schmoeller doesn’t do some good work here. A motif in which Gunther, having taken a new victim, plays a round of Russian roulette before quivering his lips in expectation, murmuring “So be it” and putting out one more “Apartment for Rent” sign, gives his madness some psychotic structure and provides a neat hook for Kinski to hang his nervous performance on. An early scene that has a blonde in red underwear being spied on simultaneously by not one but two Peeping Toms hints at a more tongue-in-cheek tone than is really evident in the finished film, and there’s a shot of Kinski fairly rocketing through the titular metal-lined passageway on a tiny gym scooter, momentarily transforming him into a high-powered supervillain, that made me laugh out loud, hard.
Otherwise, it’s all pretty drab. Kinski’s female co-stars don’t have much to do. Led by Talia Balsam, they include singer Tané McClure–playing an ingénue who comes across like a proto-Lady Gaga–and “St. Elsewhere”‘s Barbara Whinnery, but they fail to come to life. Kenneth Robert Shippy shows some liveliness as a nosy egghead who’s followed a trail of atrocities to Gunther’s doorstep, and he gets a memorable death scene, yet Crawlspace is long on vaguely goofy vignettes and short on inventive, scary, and/or gory scenarios. It’s kind of a shame Crawlspaceisn’t a lot more lurid than it actually is, with added sex and violence to take Kinski’s performance even farther over the top. As a 1980s genre time capsule, Crawlspace is just diverting enough, but with a little extra push it could have been a bad-taste classic.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
In the director’s audio commentary that accompanies the new Scream Factory Blu-ray release of Crawlspace, Schmoeller happily admits that it’s not a very good film, lamenting the lack of time and energy put into developing the script. He offers a glimpse inside the Empire Pictures factory, describing a process in which Band would solicit suggested titles from his employees, have key art designed for the best submissions, and then use the resulting posters to get sales commitments in various territories. Then, and only then, would the successful concepts be developed into screenplays. ThoughCrawlspace didn’t come out of that process, Schmoeller still feels little attention was paid to making a quality product instead of a purely functional one.
Schmoeller’s anecdotes include fairly detailed descriptions of Kinski’s on-set behaviour, but the indispensable extra on the disc is “Please Kill Mr. Kinski” (9 mins., 480i), a fidgety, highly-mannered nine-minute short Schmoeller made in 1999 (eight years after Kinski’s death) that does an excellent job of conveying the frustration Schmoeller must have felt as he came to terms with the fact that his lead actor on the production would be an adversary rather than a collaborator. I don’t want to give the whole story away, but the behind-the-scenes drama may have been more compelling than what ended up on screen. This is a doozy.
Make-up effects artist John Vulich weighs in on the subject in his own eight-and-a-half-minute HD interview short, “Tales from the Crawlspace with John Vulich,” where he recalls the circumstances of the shoot. He’s a little more cheerful about the experience, owing in part to the fact that he was then a 21-year-old apprentice to John Buechler, and evidently had a good enough time rigging make-up effects with Kinski. “You can’t hope to direct Kinski,” he says. “At best, you can document him.” He remembers panicking at one point when he realized that Kinski was on set with a gun and a single bullet, and chasing down the prop master to make sure it wasn’t a live bullet.
But how does it look? Maybe my expectations have been lowered by too many Z-grade horror movies from the 1970s, but Crawlspace, from 1986, looks shockingly good. Colours are rich and saturated, film grain is (mostly) soft and velvety, and while the picture detail isn’t exactly tack-sharp, I suspect all the information from the source material has been transferred. Speaking of source material, the presence of only occasional flecks of white in the image (indicative of dirt on a negative element) makes me wonder if this master wasn’t created directly from the camera negative. It certainly is pretty. The 1080p presentation has been encoded to MPEG-4 AVC at a bitrate that hovers fairly steady at just under 30 Mbps, which allows the whole show to fit on a single-layer BD. The trade-off appears to be a bit of artifacting in the grain, which looks noticeably less organic in some of the darker scenes. Otherwise, this is a top-quality encode.
Audio is similarly fine, with the film’s original mono soundtrack accurately encoded in DTS-HD MA 2.0. The mix is unambitious but competent, featuring mostly clear (if a little bright) dialogue and an OK rendition of the Pino Donaggio score. Somewhat surprisingly and disappointingly in this day and age, there are no subtitles. Two TV spots and a short trailer, all at 480i, round out the disc.