Charles Band had a beau­ti­ful thing going in the mid-‘80s when he bought a sound­stage in Italy and got access to a pool of top-notch local tech­ni­cians.  This setup cre­at­ed a gold­en peri­od for his Empire Films, allow­ing Band to cheap­ly but slick­ly pro­duce a bunch of cable t.v./VHS-era favorites dur­ing this time like From Beyond, Terrorvision and The Caller.  Another gem from Empire dur­ing this era was Crawlspace, a sleazy yet art­sy blend of psy­cho-thriller and slash­er from the under­rat­ed David Schmoeller.  It’s one of Klaus Kinski’s best exploita­tion flick roles from the ‘80s and an inter­est­ing American vari­a­tion on Italy’s gial­lo thriller style.

Crawlspace first shows its dar­ing by mak­ing an anti-pro­tag­o­nist out of Karl Gunther (Kinski), an eccen­tric, Euro-mul­let­ed old­er gen­tle­man who runs an apart­ment build­ing.  He only rents to beau­ti­ful young wom­en and it’s not just because he has per­vy ten­den­cies.  That’s just the begin­ning of his psy­chosis: Gunther is the son of a Nazi sur­geon who devel­oped an “addic­tion” to euthanasia, fol­low­ing his father’s exam­ple as doc­tor before switch­ing to being a land­lord.

Gunther spends his days writ­ing his mem­oirs, tend­ing a young mute female pris­on­er he keeps in the attic (he cut her tongue out) and mur­der­ing the occa­sion­al ten­ant or inter­lop­er.   However, a psy­chotic can only cov­er up his tracks for so long — and Gunther’s pre­car­i­ous appear­ance of san­i­ty is threat­ened when he has to deal with a Crawlsp-possmarter-than-aver­age new ten­ant (Talia Balsam) and a Nazi hunter named Steiner (Kenneth Robert Shippy). Cue a paint-the-apart­ments-red finale, com­plete with Gunther com­ing unhinged in a glo­ri­ous­ly Kinski-esque way.

Even by mid-‘80s Empire stan­dards, Crawlspace just over­flows with all sorts of baro­que, odd­ball details.  Schmoeller’s script has the kind of episod­ic, dream­like struc­ture that cult movie fans asso­ciate with the gial­lo film, not to men­tion a vari­ety of flashy mur­der sequences that blend bru­tal­i­ty with kink.  It’s obvi­ous that Schmoeller is hav­ing a great time set­ting up all the details of Gunther’s bizarre back­sto­ry and also goes to town with all the bizarre booby­traps that Gunther uses to ter­ror­ize both ten­ants and inter­lop­ers (the neat­est is a chair that has a lethal sur­prise in store for the per­son who sits on it).

The gial­loesque feel of Crawlspace is also deeply felt in its visu­al approach.  Schmoeller showed a flair for DePalma-esque styl­iza­tion and set­pieces ear­ly on as a direc­tor (see Tourist Trap for proof) and he indulges that knack here.  Highlights include a creepy kill scene that opens the film, an attack on an amorous ten­ant by a prowler that isn’t what he seems to be and an all-stops-out finale that incor­po­rates the title loca­tion, a bar­rage of mur­der­ous booby­traps and scenery-chew­ing galore from Kinski.  That said, it is worth not­ing that Schmoeller is able to off­set his baro­que sen­si­bil­i­ties with a dis­tinct­ly American sense of pac­ing: despite all the unique flour­ish­es and the array of char­ac­ters, Crawlspace man­ages to clock in a tidy, taut­ly paced 80 min­utes.

Schmoeller’s efforts ben­e­fit from the assis­tance of a gift­ed crew of Italian tech­ni­cians.  Lucio Fulci favorite Sergio Salvati served as cin­e­matog­ra­pher and he spices up the set­pieces with slick, prowl­ing cam­era moves.  Another key styl­is­tic ally for Schmoeller on this film is reg­u­lar DePalma sound­track artis­te Pino Donaggio, who con­tributes a rich­ly tex­tured thriller score that blends dri­ving string and horn orches­tra­tions with pul­sat­ing syn­the­siz­ers.  There’s even a lament, sung in Yiddish, that is more poignant than any­thing you’d expect to hear in a film like this.

However, the major draw of Crawlspace is the wild and wool­ly per­for­mance from Kinski.  This famous­ly dif­fi­cult actor was at his most ornery dur­ing the shoot — Schmoeller lat­er made a short about the dif­fi­cul­ty of wran­gling the actor enti­tled “Please Kill Mr. Kinski” — but the results show the trou­ble was worth endur­ing.  He digs into Gunther’s array of quirks with aban­don, mum­bling Method-style as he cre­ates a mem­o­rably twist­ed seri­al killer.  By the time he’s smear­ing lip­stick across his face and shout­ing “Heil Gunther!” again­st a back­drop of Nazi pro­pa­gan­da films, cult movie fans will think they died and went to Exploitation Movie Heaven.

In short, Crawlspace is one of the best and most unusu­al films to emerge from Empire dur­ing its ‘80s hey­day — and that’s say­ing a lot given Empire’s mem­o­rably weird slate of films.  If you like Kinski or Argento/DePalma-styled kink thrillers, it’s a must-see.