Klaus in the Haus: Crawlspace (1986)

Matty gives the thumbs up to a terrific little chiller that was famously hell to make.

Written and directed by the brilliant David Schmoeller (Tourist Trap (1979), Puppet Master (1989)), CRAWLSPACE is a distinguished and disturbing jewel in the Empire International Pictures crown — though nowadays this modest mini-classic is probably best known for the behind the scenes antics of its star, Klaus Kinski. Originally conceived as a First Blood (1982)-esque tale about a damaged Vietnam veteran going bananas in his apartment, Crawlspace was readjusted when Empire bigwig Charles Band told Schmoeller that if he made the film’s villain a Nazi instead, he’d be able to get him Klaus Kinski. “You give me Klaus Kinski, and I’ll give you a Nazi,” came Schmoeller’s reply — a response the criminally unsung fright auteur would soon rue. 

An amazing artist but a reprehensible piece of shit as a person, Kinski’s deranged behaviour on the set of Crawlspace has been well catalogued over the years, most notably by Schmoeller himself in his excellent documentary short Please Kill Mr. Kinski (1999). However, for those unaware, the bug-eyed crackpot’s rap sheet included: deliberately derailing Crawlspace’s schedule due to his complete refusal to say any line as written; verbally and physically assaulting the crew; harassing supporting player Tané McClure; and being such a colossal prick that producer Roberto Bessi briefly considered having him assassinated until ‘alternative corrective measures’ were put in place (which, if one source who wishes to remain anonymous is to be believed, involved Band calling in a favour with a couple of mafia goons who promptly took the wayward thesp for a ride in the back of a black limo in order to encourage him to tow the line). Still, credit where it’s due: the bastard submits a helluva performance as serial killer Karl Gunther.

Treading a fine, grey-shaded tightrope between the tragic and terrifying, Gunther is the son of a sadistic concentration camp doctor. Expertly presented and delivered, both Schmoeller and Kinski paint a vivid picture of the character’s complexities, and the tensions caused by their fractious professional relationship are echoed on screen. Like Crawlspace’s making, Gunther is buoyed by chaos. He’s a man simultaneously haunted by his father’s atrocities yet so obsessed with them that it was inevitable he’d tread a similarly murderous path. With scholarly command, Schmoeller remains fixated on Gunther throughout. When Crawlspace begins, he’s already mid-rampage, but the helmer delights in slowly drip feeding us the reasons why we’ve gotten to this point: from Gunther’s early days as a hospital GP, and his fascination with euthanasia; to the discovery of his evil papa’s diaries, and his current tenure as the landlord of a boarding house, preying upon the all-female residents and locked in a cycle of masochistic rituals (“so be it” as his mantra goes).

While the thrust of the plot is, really, pretty standard ‘women in peril’ slasher fare, replete with victims no more than stock, Schmoeller bolsters Crawlspace with strong stylistic muscle and fosters a genuinely uncomfortable and creepy atmosphere. Fuelled by Gunther’s Peeping Tom activities as he prowls the eponymous wall cavities, there’s a potent, unshakable sense that the icky little lunatic can and will appear anywhere and at any time. The melancholic air that Schmoeller laces the film with is to be commended, too. Any horror movie that features Nazism and all of its iconography invariably runs the risk of being exploitative, but the way in which Schmoeller eschews obvious pratfalls (i.e. Gunther could have very easily been a goose-stepping caricature) in favour of exploring the Third Reich’s impact on those touched by it demonstrates a solicitude that lingers longer than any lurid sensationalism or puerile shock value. It also results in Crawlspace’s most startling image: that of Kinski in an SS officer’s hat, bright red lipstick slathered across his chops, eyes blackened, Sieg Heiling as the grinning Gunther finally succumbs to his inherited madness.

Trivia buffs take note: Crawlspace was made in Italy during Empire’s heyday at Dinocitta Studios, Rome, shooting on the same tenement set as John Carl Buechler’s Troll (1986) and at the same time as Stuart Gordon was lensing Dolls (1987).

USA ● 1986 ● Horror ● 80mins

Klaus Kinski, Talia Balsam, Tané McClure ● Dir./Wri. David Schmoeller

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