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 smarter-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.