Written and directed by David Schmoeller in 1986, Crawlspace (not to be confused with the made for TV movie of the same name) is a twisted thriller that once again found the writer/director working with producer Charles Band (then with Empire Pictures, prior to starting Full Moon). They'd previously worked together on the excellent Tourist Trap, a PG rated horror picture starring the inimitable Chuck Connors, but this second, R-rated collaboration found them working in much sleazier territory.
The film features the immortal Klaus Kinski playing Karl Gunther, an aging man of German descent who once worked as a doctor in Buenos Aries. That's behind him now, his past is complicated and sordid to say the least. These days Gunther runs a boardinghouse. He's quite specific about who he will rent to, however. He only boards beautiful young women who rent from him completely unaware that he's rigged up the air ducts to allow him to crawl around and peek at them. There's more to Karl than this, however. His father was an infamous Nazi surgeon responsible for all manner of reprehensible deeds and those ties run deep. Karl, it would seem, has inherited that taste for cruelty and murder, the latter being something he is able to use his home to get quite creative with, even going so far as to keep a woman named Martha (Sally Brown) captive in a cage, her tongue cut out, like an animal or some sort of pet.
And so we see Karl take out a few of his tenants in often times gruesome fashion and when he's done with each successive killing, he loads up a six shooter with a single bullet and plays a game of Russian Roulette. Karl's world gets rocked when he decides to rent to pretty Lori Bancroft (Talia Balsam), a cunning young woman who Karl would be foolish to underestimate…
At eighty minutes or so in length, Crawlspace is a lean and efficient horror pictures which Schmoeller keeps moving at a solid pace. Set almost entirely inside the building that Gunther owns, the film makes great use of its sets with Kinski working his way through the ventilation ducts secretly spying on the bevy of beauties he sees as both tenants and, of course, likely victims. Kinski is, it should go without saying, the chief reason to sit down with this one. Though he's not quite as manic here as he was in other, more over the top performances he definitely hits that right balance of unhinged and intense with his take on the character. Schmoeller has gone on record discussing how difficult Kinski was to work with on this film, he more or less played the part as he wanted to not as the director wanted him to, but for better or worse this is Kinski doing what Kinski does best. Notoriously difficult to work with throughout his career, he's absolutely the right type of actor, both in terms of his physical appearance and his ability to create characters, to play a demented German lunatic with Nazi ties, an addiction to murder and a fondness for Russian Roulette.
The rest of the cast are decent enough, but this is Kinski's show all the way. The female borders are all attractive and likely all cast for that reason and that reason alone but they do fine with the material. Talia Balsam is decent as the women who proves to be Gunther's foil to a certain extent while the others do decent enough work acting scared whenever Gunther does something horrible to them: unleashing rats into their room, torturing them, using a switchblade menacingly… you get the idea. Sally Brown is also very good and completely sympathetic as poor mute Martha.
Ultimately this is a little predictable and definitely on the dark and sleazy side, but Kinski delivers the goods here. It's quite well made and genuinely creative at times (it would seem to have been an influence on the Saw franchise) and it builds to a sufficiently twisted conclusion. There's some great imagery here, particularly in the last half of the film, and on top of that we get a great, if slightly dated, score from the one and only Pino Donoggio.
Crawlspace is transferred in AVC encoded 1080p high definition and framed at 1.85.1 widescreen. Detail is solid and color reproduction is nice. Black levels are pretty solid and thankfully shadow detail looks good here as well. Some minor crush and compression artifacts show up in some of those darker spots but for the most part, the movie looks very good in high definition. Texture is quite strong, you'll pick up on fibers in the different outfits that the characters wear and not it in some of the items used to decorate the sets, while skin looks nice and natural. There are no obvious instances of heavy filtering, artificial sharpening, edge enhancement or overzealous noise reduction. All in all, the movie looks very good here, fans should be pleased.
The only audio option on the disc is a DTS-HD 2.0 Mono track in the movie's native English. While this isn't the type of movie to offer up a reference quality listening experience, you get the impression as you watch the film that the lossless mix does a nice job of replicating the movie's original audio. Some of the scenes demonstrate better depth and range than others but the levels are properly balanced throughout and there aren't any problems with any hiss or distortion. The scores and effects sound nice and dialogue is always clear and easy to understand. The only complaint here is that there are a few scenes where Kinski's soft spoken character speaks very, very quietly. Subtitles or closed captioning would have helped here but there aren't any on the disc.
Extras on the disc kick off with a commentary track from David Schmoeller who opens up about his original ideas for the movie, how they at first dealt with a Vietnam vet but changed into the character we see Kinski play in the final version of the movie. He talks quite a bit about working with the notorious leading man cast here and some of the issues that arose on set, how he dealt with them and how they affected the production and he also talks about how some of the people dealt with the assorted bits of insanity that seemed to more or less take over periodically as the shoot progressed.
Schmoller also appears in the nine minute short Please Kill Mister Kinski, which is a mix of Schmoller delivering some on camera first-person narration and some great behind the scenes footage of Kinski being Kinski, which means basically flipping out on everyone. Tales From The Crawlspace With John Vulich is a nine minute piece in which the special effects supervisor shares his experiences from the shoot, noting that he got along with Klaus in a different way than many of the others who were involved in the production and discussing his contributions to the film as we see it on this disc. Rounding out the extras on the disc are the film's original theatrical trailer, a pair of television spots, menus and chapter selection.
Obviously Kinski devotees need to pick this one up post haste, but even if you're not a diehard Klaus fan, if you appreciate twisted horror movies with some creatively sick set pieces and a good score, you'll likely find that Crawlspace is worth checking out. It's a well-made picture and Shout! Factory have done right by it with this Blu-ray release, offering up the film in excellent condition with solid audio and a nice selection of extras as well. Recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.