The Action Mutant…
would buy Klaus Kinski a drink, if he didn’t think it would be thrown at him.
review by Joe Burrows
Ah, Klaus Kinski. Today’s temperamental stars have nothing on you. Until his untimely death in 1991, Kinski was known as one of cinema’s more interesting actors. He had an on-screen presence that was far distinguishable from just about any other actor, as he would seemingly throw himself into whatever role he was playing. However, he was probably more known for being an absolute nut-bag off set. The stories of his temperament are nothing short of legendary. He played a hippie version of Jesus Christ while touring college campuses, with the portrayal consisting of him shouting profanity and losing it on stage. He would yell at interviewers on live TV, or maybe, just not talk at all. Kinski collaborated with the famed German director Werner Herzog on six occasions, many of which would lead to Kinski threatening the director’s life a number of times (hence the infamous photo on the set of Cobra Verde, where Kinski is maniacally holding a sword to Herzog’s throat). He was so infuriating on the set of Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo that the native extras offered to kill him! Frankly, an entire list of episodes like this would take an entire week to compile. Kinski was also indiscriminate about the projects he chose, admittedly going for the most amount of money for the least amount of work (and often not caring for how bad the movie may actually be). His reasoning: "So I sell myself, for the highest price. Exactly like a prostitute. There is no difference." Oh, and he once said that he would have done better than Adolf Hitler because he would have made his speeches sound better. And we haven’t even delved into all of the wacky shit this film from 1986 brings to the table!
The Plot, as it was:
Kinski is Karl Gunther, a landlord who seemingly rents his apartments out to only attractive women who are as dumb as compost. Of course, they can’t plainly see that there is more to Gunther than he is letting on. For starters, Karl crawls through his pristine heating vents and spies on his tenants. Seemingly not content on just watching them, he’ll occasionally let a rat loose or spook them by tapping a ball bearing with his pocket knife. When he’s not doing that, Gunther plays a daily round of Russian Roulette to see if fate wants him to continue his “life’s work”. Que? See, Gunther is a son of a Nazi soldier who came up with many ways to kill and implement torture. And guess who’s carrying on the family business? However, Gunther’s secret is in danger of being revealed by a man from his past (Kenneth Robert Shippy) and his newest tenant (Talia Balsam). At least he won’t have to worry about the disheveled woman he keeps in a cage in his study, seeing as that she’s had her tongue cut out. Ok…
Don’t shoot me…I’m only the reviewer!:
If you haven’t figured it by now, Crawlspace is a film that isn’t exactly on an even keel. On the negative side, writer/director David Schmoeller can’t seem to decide whether the film is sleazy 80s exploitation horror or chilling, 70s psychological horror. Both schools of thought collide head on and the result is a mess at best. There are kinky, lurid elements at times (see below) but they aren’t taken to full tilt due to the focus on the more disturbing, in-depth elements. In other words, Crawlspace doesn’t come off as well as the sum of its parts. However, the film (which clocks in at a sprite 80 minutes) isn’t so much a film as it is The Klaus Kinski Show. He brings so much charisma and outright creepiness to the proceedings that you can’t help but to be compelled to watch the crazy bastard deliver some stunning (if morbid) entertainment. His most effective moments are when he recites his journal entries, explaining his need for killing and torturing. His chilling voice, aided by Pino Donaggio’s score (which had me haunted for days after I first saw this, honestly), makes for a somewhat unsettling experience. It makes it kind of befuddling when the last 20 minutes of the film break into outright insanity, as Kinski slaps raccoon mascara and lipstick on and Nazi salutes Hitler on a projection screen. The climactic chase through the vents with Kinski and Balsam elicit more chuckles than suspense. By the end, you really can’t figure out what you just watched. All I know is that it was something oddly compelling and sometimes goofy, much like the man himself. Mmmmmmmmmmmmmm, that's good Kinski!
Body Count/Violence: 8. If you’re expecting a typical 80s horror gore fest, check something else out. There’s a good kill pre-credits (involving a harpoon) but the deaths afterwards are mainly off-screen or after-the-fact corpses. The latter does suggest some rather nasty goings-on, as the deaths involve various metal clamps and spikes. Gunther also kills a rat and a cat, along with cutting himself a number of times (and I won’t even mention the “chair”). Things could have been a little more graphic but the results and overall dark atmosphere make up for it.
Sexuality/Nudity: Soft-core starlet Tane McClure provides some kink post-credits, as she poses in red lingerie and cuts holes in her bra to reveal some nipple. She then engages in some sexual role play with her beau, which is more silly than erotic. After that, there isn’t much sexual stuff going on, though seeing Kinski just watching the women do normal things makes one feel dirty in itself.
Language/Dialogue: Fairly clean, actually. The romp in the bed with McClure and her boyfriend offers some sexual banter and such, but there’s nary a bad word otherwise.
How bad was it?:
Most critics either savaged it as pure sleaze (such as Maltin, who gave it zero stars) or just plain couldn’t figure out how critique it. Some horror critics praise it for its dark nature and psychological elements but ultimately say more could have been done.
Did it make the studio’s day?:
This was released in the U.S. on 5/21/86 by Empire Studios, the Charles Band company that eventually became Full Moon. No gross information but the film is available on MGM DVD as a “Midnight Movies” double bill release with The Attic.
(Note: In 1999, Schmoeller made a 9 minute short film entitled Please Kill Mr. Kinski! In it, he recalls how it was like to work with the legendary actor in all of his troublesome glory. Along with Schmoeller’s on camera narration, there is archival Kinski footage as well as behind-the-scenes footage from Crawlspace. It’s floating around on YouTube, so I suggest you give it a look.)
Entertainment value: ****1/2/*****
Copyright 2007 The Action Mutant.