Crawlspace [1986]

I didn’t watch any films featuring Teutonic madman Klaus Kinski until I was nineteen years old because he earned a hell of a bad rap under my parents’ roof. Mr. Kinski was a bit of a bogeyman, and I remember my mother explaining that she wouldn’t watch any more films featuring his performances because she loathed a movie she saw him in, during which he was a mad Nazi murderer who crawled through the heating ducts of an apartment building, terrorizing the inhabitants. Having watched a number of Questionable Horror Titles with my folks, I assumed that this movie would be ENTIRELY too intense for my brain to parse, and as a result I avoided Kinski movies as well. During my tenure in art sk00l, I had the opportunity to see Werner Herzog’s adaptation of “Nosferatu” featuring Klaus Kinski in the title role, and his powerful screen presence was enough to lift this self-imposed ban.

I hadn’t thought about that movie with Kinski living in the walls of an apartment building until I was perusing my movie-watching options over the weekend and stumbled across “Crawlspace.” Yes, this was the notorious title that had resulted in my parents’ intense dislike of the actor. How could I possibly pass up the chance to slap eyes on this infamous-to-me nugget of bizarreness?


So how was the movie? Did it bear the fruit promised in that incredible Thai poster shown above? Well–yes: it does exactly what it says on that tin. “Crawlspace” is a film that’s virtually impossible to “spoil” since its modus operandi and outcome are telegraphed from Scene One. And Scene One goes a little like this: young lady sneaks into cobwebbed attic littered with Nazi memorabilia, encounters a mute woman in a cage, Klaus Kinski pops out, informs the young lady that his captive has had her tongue removed, and then triggers a booby trap that impales the young lady on a spear. The movie goes on in pretty much this vein for the entire eighty minute run time, and it’s unsurprising that this kind of content would be off-putting to a lot of audiences. Hell, I’m not even certain *I* liked this flick! It’s an especially nasty slasher film with an especially creepy performance from its lead–that will be a hearty recommendation for some, and a strong warning for other viewers. The film tracks Karl Gunther (Kinski), former physician/current demented landlord/son of a Nazi death camp commandant, as he murders his way through a series of tenants and visitors in his apartment building. He is addicted to the act of killing, and develops ever-more-baroque traps to snuff out the lives of his unsuspecting prey. He also spends a lot of time crawling around in the ducting of his building, which has been arranged with his covert navigation in mind, all the better to spy on the ladies who rent from him.

The idea of a malevolent person living behind the walls of one’s home is a concept that I find extremely disturbing, and Gunther’s battle with sanity (granted, it’s not a very hard-fought battle, but still) makes his deeds yet more chilling. It’s a little hard to understand why Gunther has any tenants at all, given that what they do know is that the building is infested with rats and that Gunther likes to make inappropriate passes at them. I mean, I’ve been hard up for decent accommodations before, but I’d like to think that I’d have the good sense to sniff out a Nazi-idolizing homicidal maniac prior to signing a lease.
Director David Schmoeller, who studied under masters of the surreal Alejandro Jodorowsky and Luis Bunuel, is best known for directing perennial fan faves “Tourist Trap” and “Puppetmaster.” Incidentally, “Puppetmaster” is another film that received the banhammer from my folks–Schmoeller has a talent for pinging the nerves, and for that I’ve got to give him credit, even if I share in my parents’ dislike of the “Puppetmaster” franchise.* In “Crawlspace,” Schmoeller creates a tonally bizarre film that has moments of black comedy and some mid-80s camp but has a real cruelty at its core that propels the story. There are detours into kooky pop culture satire in characters like the spacey soap opera actress and the Barbara-Streisand-idolizing singer/songwriter with a penchant for rough sex. The color palate varies between dusty sepia in Gunther’s attic lair to cartoonishly bright colors in the apartments of the lady tenants. I even spied at least two Patrick-Nagel-esque paintings decorating apartment walls! These zany moments do nothing to diminish the impact of the themes of torture and madness, and the echoes of Kinski’s ratlike expressions and ghastly obsessions linger in every scene.
*Don’t judge me.
“Crawlspace” is an exceptionally odd movie that could have been a bad-taste classic. As it stands, it’s a truly creepy flick, but I couldn’t help but feel that its elements never gelled into a cohesive ‘sploitationer. It’s a better-than-average slasher film, but it’s not as outstandingly bizarre as it could have been. I rarely say this, but I feel like the movie would’ve benefitted from an additional 10 minutes of footage to develop the characters of the tenants. It would both give more opportunity for comic relief and heighten the tension inherent in watching them get dispatched. Wholeheartedly recommended for slasher fans and Klaus Kinski enthusiasts, “Crawlspace” is a nasty and fairly unique shocker.

8 thoughts on “Crawlspace [1986]”

  1. The EnablingZone believes this flick is the cover subject for THIS

  2. Whoa, good review, Kate – if a Nazi crawlspace Kinski character is rough going even for you, I know I need to stay away. Knowing this film was made by the guy who did Tourist Trap it all comes into focus. I remember seeing that movie one afternoon on local TV, and even with my dad reading the paper in the chair next to me, I was traumatized, scared, depressed, worn out. Chuck Connors can’t possibly be creepier than Kinski, so I’m outta there! But I love you always!

  3. Just watched this last week and agree pretty completely. Schmoeller is an interesting director, one whose work always reeks of the ’80s but can actually build some unique tension (as long as it’s not in Netherworld). Crawlspace has some untapped potential, but Kinski is such a riot that I couldn’t help but enjoy the heck out of it.

  4. Joey Zone, I think that’s from a different movie–oddly enough, “Crawlspace” is pure Americana! Maybe a more enlightened KK fan than I will be able to shed some light on that ‘zine.

    Erich, I think this one really tweaked on my own weird fear responses. I haven’t seen “Tourist Trap,” but I got a similarly creepy/upset/mind-boggled response from “Puppetmaster.” There’s something really disturbing about Schmoeller’s work, and while I respect it, I’m not sure I *like* it wholeheartedly. If that makes sense… And I lahve you too, mister 🙂

    Doc M, you rule! Thank you so much for sharing–can’t wait to take a peek later today.

    Ivan, my mom was the best (both my folks are pretty cool/weird folks–I’m a second-gen freak). It’s nice to have family you can watch Steven Seagal flicks with 🙂 And definitely catch this one on Instant–it’s thoroughly bizarre and worth your time!

  5. Great review Kate! I love it that Kinski was verboten in your familial household. This film holds a huge place in my heart as the first professional film review I ever wrote. I still adore this film and truly feel like it is the film DePalma should have made in the 80’s. Both Schmoeller and Kinski had a lot to be proud of with this flick.

  6. Thanks, Heather! That’s supercool that this was your first professional review–there’s certainly PLENTY to chew on. Also, great point WRT to DePalma. I’m thinking this would make a great companion to “Body Double,” what with the voyeurism and general insanity going on 🙂

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