Crawlspace (1986)
Crawlspace (1986)

Genre: Horror Running Time: 1 hr. 20 min.

Release Date: May 21st, 1986 MPAA Rating: R

Director: David Schmoeller Actors: Klaus Kinski, Talia Balsam, Barbara Whinnery, Carol Francis, Tane McClure, Sally Brown, Jack Hiller, David Abbott




t starts with a splendidly macabre cold open, with a young blonde toting a flashlight and lurking around a quiet, seemingly abandoned apartment building. When she discovers a woman with her tongue cut out, groaning from inside a metal cage, she’s simultaneously alarmed by Dr. Karl Gunther (Klaus Kinski), a sadistic landlord running the secretive torture chamber in an upstairs room. Alas, the blonde is quickly skewered by a knife-thrusting contraption springing from the wall; it’s yet another murder by the evil doctor, and yet another twisted opportunity to play a game of Russian roulette, dictating whether or not he continues his reign of tenant terror.

A short time later, two people spy on a woman, singer Sophie (Tane), alone in her room and strangely cutting the lacy material from her bra to expose her nipples. One of the peepers is a switchblade-wielding stalker, who turns out to be just the boyfriend, Hank Peterson (David Abbott); the other is Gunther, peering from a crawlspace at the top of the room as the couple make love. The following morning, college student Lori Bancroft (Talia Balsam) rents the newly vacant apartment, for which Gunther will only consider a shapely female replacement lessee. She joins three other, current lodgers, including ditzy soap opera actress Jessica (Carol Francis) and the coquettish Harriet (Barbara Whinnery), who will become the prey of the killer voyeur, unless investigator Josef Steiner (Kenneth Robert Shippy) – a man convinced that foul play occurred back when 67 patients mysteriously died at a Buenos Aires hospital run by Gunther – can gather enough evidence to put the butcher away for good.

Kinski has such a startlingly wide range of expressions, with his wet blue eyes, continuously quivering lips, and twitching facial skin seemingly modeled from clay. His unique visage is particularly useful considering that his dialogue is whispered most of the time. A range of naturalistic idiosyncrasies and hair-raisingly psychopathic aberrations gives the character far more definition and authenticity than could be expected from a villain in this kind of film – especially since it’s a Charles Band production (the man behind the “Puppet Master,” “Subspecies,” and “Trancers” franchises). Were it not for Kinski’s casting and his outrageously over-the-top portrayal of insanity, “Crawlspace” would have been a very humdrum slasher indeed.

“Everyone has a dark secret,” comments Harriet as she unwittingly flirts with the homicidal proprietor. In these kinds of film, women are loose, undress in the most sensual of manners, and parade around their rooms in sexy lingerie. But unpredictably, though the film starts with goofy exploitation, it quite suddenly escalates for the last act, with nearly everyone getting massacred in a single night in bloodthirsty fashion. Although the story is underdeveloped and the victims unsympathetic, a few nasty moments should appease horror fans – including surgically removed eyeballs, a mutilated cat, squashed rats, Nazi propaganda, and a “Silence of the Lambs” bit wherein Gunther weirdly applies makeup in a mirror. A few good ideas, Kinski’s perfectly maniacal performance, and a clever finale (so good that it ought to be reused in a better project) make “Crawlspace” a fright flick with more potential than writer/director David Schmoeller (a regular Band collaborator) knew what to do with.

– Mike Massie

  • 6/10