Directed by David Schmoeller
Distributed by The Scream Factory
Crawlspace (1986), one of the last films in raving-mad actor Klaus Kinski’s storied career, is less popular for its content and mostly infamous for producing one of Hollywood’s great tales so outrageous you’d swear it was apocryphal gossip. David Schmoeller, writer and director on the picture, was a defeated man. Kinski had gotten the best of him by continually rebuking his authority on set, telling the director how he should be doing his job, and generally making life for all the other crew members a living hell. When Schmoeller told the film’s Italian producer his woes, the next day the producer came back with a simple plan: kill Klaus. And he was serious. He wanted to have Kinski killed, collect the insurance money, and replace him with a more genial actor. As much as Schmoeller wanted this, he advised the head of the studio about the producer’s plan and eventually nothing came of it. But for a brief moment in time, serious consideration was given to intentionally offing a major international star because he was a boil on the ass of all those around him. I sometimes wonder how Kinski would have reacted had he known, though based on some of the tales from Herzog’s sets I doubt he’d had so much as bat an eye at what he would have considered an idle threat. So, while time hasn’t exactly remembered Crawlspace too fondly, it has continued the dissemination of one of Klaus’ most memorable legends.
As a film, just about everything feels like a letdown. Ironically, the one person the production wanted to get rid of is the only one keeping the ship afloat: Kinski. The story follows the exploits of Karl Gunther, the son of a Nazi surgeon, who runs an apartment building which seems to rent exclusively to good looking women. Karl has a custom-built crawlspace located in the air duct system, one which allows him to spy on every tenant in the building. He also has a tongue-less, caged woman held captive in his office because otherwise he’d “have nobody to talk to.” Karl is a very demented man. A new tenant moves into a vacant apartment, giving Karl one more woman to torment. He has little regard for human life, his own included. Each time he kills someone, he plays a game of Russian Roulette – using a bullet with his own name on it – and every time his life isn’t taken he says “So be it” while also becoming more convinced of his status as a god among men. But like any good cinematic psychopath, Karl can’t keep his charade up for too long before he goes completely off the deep end, forcing new tenant Lori (Talia Balsam) into a showdown against a madman.
This is a film that, on paper, looks like it should kill. Directed by Schmoeller, who helmed the woefully underrated Tourist Trap (1979), the film also features a score from Pino Donaggio, effects work from John Carl Buechler’s studio during its prime, cinematography by frequent Fulci collaborator Sergio Salvati, and starring the Mad German himself, Klaus Kinski. How can it go wrong? For one thing, despite being made right in the thick of 1980’s horror excess there is a total dearth of on-screen action. Nearly every single kill happens off-screen, with only minimal effects work being used for a series of smaller, forgettable gags. Not only is there no satisfaction when we get to the requisite heroine-runs-into-every-dead-body gag during the climax, but it immediately begs the question “How the hell did Klaus murder all of these people in a couple of hours?” The opening murder looked to have been setting the stage for a multitude of nasty, Jigsaw-style kills thanks to Gunther’s interest in making homemade murder devices, but unfortunately it’s one of the few kills we get to actually witness. The film does get major points for realizing the infamous Metallica slogan “Metal Up Your Ass” with sphincter-clenching results. Ouch.
This film lives and dies based on Kinski’s performance, period. Sure, it doesn’t hurt that Tane McClure is one gorgeous talented slice of ‘80s rack action. Nor is it a problem that legendary character actor Martin Balsam’s daughter, Talia, is incredibly adorable in a bookish sort of way. Or that all of the other tenants are attractive to varying degrees. These things are welcomed and expected in a horror film circa 1986. But there has to be someone anchoring the picture, and that all comes down to Kinski. He’s a veritable loon in the most charismatic way possible. Gunther has so many disturbing facets that you’ll feel like the film only began to scratch the surface of his capabilities. This is a guy who applies mascara and lipstick to himself, smears it across his face, then puts on a Nazi cap and salutes himself while SS propaganda films play at a high decibel level projected on the wall of his office. It’s like the filmmakers distilled every evil thing you could imagine a Nazi doing, added to the depravity, and then made it flesh via Karl Gunther. Kinski may have been the ultimate terror to work for, but, man, could that guy still deliver an unsettling performance. Similar to his character, the man did things on his own terms, every single time, and his lore in Hollywood will be infamously retold for… ever, probably.
Crawlspace had previously been available thanks to MGM’s defunct Midnight Movies line, paired up as a double feature with The Attic (1980). Now, Scream Factory has delivered it to blu-ray with a solid presentation alongside some worthwhile extras. The picture here is quite nice, with a healthy layer of grain adding to the filmic appearance. Black levels are surprisingly rich and deep, rarely getting hazy or gray. While detail on the whole is above average, finer details and background elements remain unspectacular. There is an abundance of color seen throughout each apartment, allowing for a broad palette with many bold, strong shades faithfully reproduced in high definition. The English DTS-HD MA 2.0 track is a bit on the weak side, though. Pino Donaggio’s score is adept at balancing tension and levity, ratcheting up the intensity as Gunther stalks his many victims. I wish there’d been a memorable theme for the film, but Donaggio’s work is always exemplary even when it’s not among his best. The track itself is a bit thin, though dialogue is never difficult to discern or anything. The soundfield is a little confined in 2.0, but I don’t think a multi-channel modernization would do much to aid it. As a low-budget international production, it sounds about as expected.
As usual, Scream Factory makes the most of the supplemental department, providing a few choice features to cover all the bases. An audio commentary with writer/director David Schmoeller kicks things off. He got the gig after producer Charles Band had built an apartment set in Rome and wanted to use it for another film (keen-eyed fans may notice it’s the same building from 1986’s Troll), so Schmoeller whipped up a script and went to Italy. He speaks about Kinski’s difficulties on set, too, though it doesn’t dominate the conversation. His voice sounds a bit shaky at times, but he’s got plenty to say and rarely leaves a gap. “Interview with Makeup-Effects Artist John Vulich” is an eight-minute conversation with one of the guys who worked on Buechler’s crew. His experience was different from Schmoeller, being a young single guy who gets to work in Italy for a few months making horror movies and applying makeup to a (mostly) nice Klaus Kinski. He also explains how he did some of the film’s effects. The real gem included here is a short film, written/directed/edited/etc. by Schmoeller, called Please Kill Mr. Kinski (1999), wherein the director candidly recounts the details of the aforementioned story about Kinski almost meeting an early demise due to his difficulties on set. It’s been available to see online for years now, but it’s awesome that Scream Factory included it here since it’s really part-and-parcel with the feature. You have to watch one before or after seeing the other. The disc’s extras are rounded out with a selection of TV spots and the film’s theatrical trailer. And, unlike most other non-Collector’s Edition Scream Factory releases, this does include reversible cover art, though the art displayed is superior.
Less interesting than the stories surrounding it, Crawlspace is nonetheless a unique horror entry, if nothing else. The peeping tom plot isn’t anything original; the reason to watch is for Klaus Kinski’s absolutely stark-raving performance as the psychopath son of a Nazi doctor. It’s a shame the film didn’t feature a few more gore gags as outrageous as the main antagonist, especially since Buechler did so much nasty work in the mid-80s. I really suggest watching Please Kill Mr. Kinski first; it spoils nothing but you will view the film from a slightly skewed perspective knowing that everyone working behind the camera was quaking either in fear or anger at the torturous days Kinski put them through.
3 out of 5
3 out of 5