Just based off his looks alone no one did creepy better than Klaus Kinski, even when he played a good guy; those bulging, searing eyes and cracked smile never made anyone feel at ease. So when he was given a role that went all in on villainy, he usually picked up the blade and ran with it. In the case of Crawlspace (1986) however, a creepy character study in obsession and escalating madness, he eases up on the throttle a little and in turn offers up one of his most memorable performances.
Produced and released by Charles Band’s Empire Pictures in late May stateside, Crawlspace wasn’t a success with critics or audiences; many found the subject matter of stalking and voyeurism tacky and distasteful (an Empire Pictures film distasteful? Never!) but did allow faint praise for Kinski’s work in the film. The praise should be more than a whisper though; it should be a piercing scream much like the man himself offered throughout the tumultuous production.
Working with Kinski was always an uphill battle, something that writer and director David Schmoeller (Tourist Trap) learned as soon as the madman was brought on for the role. Schmoeller’s first draft concerned an MIA Vietnam vet who returns home to find his wife and kids gone; he soon sets up shop in an apartment building with Viet Cong traps much like he endured during the war. Band had no interest in digging into Vietnam (this was fashioned before the Platoon boon), and told Schmoeller if he made it about an ex Nazi, he could get Klaus Kinski. So he did, and sure enough they did. The new story went something like this:
The son of a Nazi, ex physician Karl Gunther (Kinski) runs an apartment building, and he only takes in attractive female tenants. His latest vacancy (due to the previous one snooping around and ending up on the receiving end of a swinging swathe) is filled by Lori Bancroft (Talia Balsam – The Supernaturals), a kind student from the nearby college. Lori finds Gunther to be friendly and helpful at first, but we already know that he uses the crawlspaces throughout the building to spy on his tenants, and when his insatiable need arises, kill them. Will Lori discover the truth before it’s too late?
It really doesn’t matter, as her story isn’t the main focus of Crawlspace, Gunther’s is. While she is the traditional protagonist (and typical for the era, more “virtuous” than her fellow tenants), Schmoeller wisely uses his 75 minutes to focus mostly on Gunther, his strange writings, and behavior. While he does punctuate the film with standard thrills and misdirection, they all come at the service at Kinski, who is simply mesmerizing. (So is the music of returning collaborator Pino Donaggio, who offers up a swelling score to emphasize the Gothic nature of the setting.)
Gunther’s apartment is littered with homemade booby-traps, a projector for watching Nazi propaganda films, and a woman with her tongue cut out, kept in a cage – so, as he tells her, “he would have someone to listen to him”. And listen she does, as he replays his life into a journal; it’s his confessions that raise the film somewhat above (or perhaps adjacent to) exploitation. Through Schmoeller’s words and Kinski’s actions, we see a man who eventually succumbs to the inevitable darkness that was his destiny from birth. At no time are we asked to sympathize with Gunther, but through his journal we learn how he came to be. His total disconnect accelerates as the film progresses; after each kill, he loads his gun with one bullet, and when the chamber comes up empty he puts the gun down and says, “so be it”. It’s too late for this doctor to heal himself.
As for exploitation, Crawlspace seemed ready made for that label upon delivery; and while the voyeurism is inherently grotesque, it isn’t the focus. Gunther does spy through his seemingly cavernous ventilation system, but other than some brief semi nudity and a moonlit sex scene, the camera is on how he reacts to what he’s watching. (Kudos to legendary Fulci cinematographer Sergio Salvati for making the claustrophobic setting live and breathe with scope and grandeur.) More keeping in line with tradition, Gunther does have an adversary in Josef Steiner (Kenneth Robert Shippy – Superboy), who’s certain Gunther killed his brother when he still practiced as a doctor. Don’t get too attached to this storyline either, as Gunther is pretty good at covering his tracks.
The truncated running time certainly helps keep the story where it needs to be; we really only have time for one perspective, and while Balsam is very appealing, there’s little to her character. Everyone is a rodent for Gunther to experiment on and toy with; as an audience we sit back and observe his own desperate journey straight into hell. And whatever hell Kinski put the cast and crew through (everyone survived, I believe) on Crawlspace, the results are worth it.
Crawlspace is available on Blu-ray from Scream Factory.Next: Drive-In Dust Offs: DOGS (1976)