Everyone Has a Dark Secret, I Just Wonder What His Is

[17 December 2013]

By J.C. Macek III

Crawlspace is one of a series of a subgenre of horror films that seems to have started with 1960’s Peeping Tom. These involve a sociopath (or sociopaths) in an apartment building (or home or dorm, etc.) spying and preying upon tenants in said building until they are picked off, one by one. Further entries into this type of horror film include The Toolbox Murders (1978 as well as its 2004 remake), Black Christmas (1974 and its 2006 remake), The Dorm that Dripped Blood (1982), Sliver (1993), Boardinghouse (1982) and, to a lesser extent, Don’t Look in the Basement (1973).

What sets Crawlspace apart is the story role by the actor who seems to have a doctorate in professional creepiness, Klaus Kinski. So notorious were Kinski’s antics on set (as opposed to merely “on screen”) that Crawlspace director David Schmoeller actually wrote, directed and starred in a short film called Please Kill Mr. Kinski about the unparalleled “fun” Schmoeller had directing Kinski on this film. That short film is only one of many extras included on Shout! Factory’s 2013 Blu-Ray release of this film. Other extras include an interview with makeup designer John Fulich (who was reportedly easier to work with), the theatrical trailer, TV spots and a feature commentary with Schmoeller himself.

The Blu-ray transfer is a cut above previous releases of the film, although it’s hardly perfect, with the occasional film flaw still blemishing the screen here and there. Still the high-definition treatment is enough to enhance the film much more than many of Shout! Factory, or, in this case, Scream Factory’s recent releases, primarily because Crawlspace was filmed almost exclusively on practical sets, i.e., in a real apartment house, and the clarity of picture only serves to make the setting appear more real, not less so, as with many set-based productions of the age.

Kinski portrays Doctor Karl Gunther, a German son of a Nazi War Criminal who became a physician in Buenos Aires, Argentina before becoming a landlord (catering exclusively to pretty ladies) in the United States. We soon learn that Gunther is a dangerous sociopath who learned to kill as a Doctor and has since become a voyeuristic killer in his own apartment building, often offing his own tenants as well as their male visitors.

Most of the time, Gunther can be found roaming around the ventilation shafts of the apartment (the “crawlspace” of the title) and spying on his tenants in any stage of dress they might be in and, occasionally, sending big, red-eyed rats into their apartments. So, yeah, nice guy… good landlord. One must wonder what his maintenance record is like.

Schmoeller does a fine job of showcasing the creepiness of Gunther (although the disc’s bonus features argue that Kinski did it all himself, his own way). These showcases include not only the killings and voyeurism, but also Gunthur’s nearly Saw-like traps, mazes, methods of torture and crazy collections (including a live woman he keeps as a pet).

Of course the creepiest moments generally involve Karl Gunther simply being Klaus Kinski. His diary (detailing his upbringing and how he came to be a serial killer) narrates the quiet moments in the film and the audience bears witness to the madman getting weirder and weirder and weirder. At one point, the psychotic Gunther even plays his part like a prototypical “Buffalo Bill” from The Silence of the Lambs.

Crawlspace revels in its sadistic oddities, but it falls short of true suspense except for at a few key moments. Part of this may be related to the fact that, as accomplished an actor as Kinksi was, his performance here is so over-the-top that it tends to inspire much more bathos than pathos, and the audience may just laugh at this silly little stalker man, as opposed to being truly terrified of him.

In contrast, actress Talia Balsam plays her character of Lori as a serious and capable young lady worth rooting for. Kinksi may have been going for something of a Joker-like level of madness (and judging from the makeup he smears on, that’s not far from the truth), but aside from a few disturbing moments, Gunther is much more joke than Joker.

The Scream Factory Blu-ray has the extras to hold the interest of any and all Crawlspace fans, especially when considering the Please Kill Mr. Kinski short, however for all the extras included here, there is no still gallery. This is a notable exception considering the film’s visuals, duct rollerboarding sequence and Gunther’s traps.

Taken for all with all, the Crawlspace Blu-ray is a treat for fans, but might not quite be enough to entice new fans to the film.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/177167-crawlspace/