Color, 1986, 80 mins.
Directed by David Schmoeller
Starring Klaus Kinski, Talia Balsam, Barbara Whinnery, Carole Francis, Tane McClure
Ascot Elite (Blu-Ray & DVD) (Germany RB/R2 HD/PAL), MGM (DVD) (US R1 NTSC) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9)

CrawlspaceBefore Full Moon Pictures, distributor Charles Band spent the '80s with an earlier company, CrawlspaceEmpire Pictures, which quickly became a familiar name to horror fans thanks to movies like Re-Animator, Ghoulies, Troll, and From Beyond. Their films were generally agreeable monster outings, even the more extreme unrated ones, but in 1986 they took a detour into seriously sleazy Nazisploitation territory with a little number called Crawlspace. This particular film marked the reunion of Band with writer/director David Schmoeller after their terrific 1979 cult favorite Tourist Trap, in between which Schmoeller made a bid for the mainstream with the early erotic thriller The Seduction with Morgan Fairchild. The two really struck gold with their third film, Puppet Master, which began as an Empire production but wound up as Full Moon's first release instead.

Of course, the real standout element of Crawlspace is the presence of actor Klaus Kinski, a compellingly unhinged screen actor (and, in real life, a famously reprehensible person), who brings a truly maniacal intensity to his role here as Karl Gunther, a boarding house landlord who only rents his rooms out to pretty women so he can spy on them through hidden nooks and crannies via the air ducts. Of course, being the son of a Crawlspacesadistic Nazi doctor, he's also a homicidal maniac who kills people with elaborate booby traps and vents his innermost thoughts to a caged, tongueless woman named Martha he keeps in a cage in the attic. He also plays Russian roulette after each killing, loading up a single bullet with the name "Esther" engraved on it, to determine whether his fatal pattern will continue. Enter Lori (Mad Men's Balsam), the latest tenant who's a bit smarter (and less kinky) than the other residents and might stand a chance of making it out alive.

As should be obvious from that description, this is Kinski's show all the way as any semblance of a normal plot repeatedly stops for the actor to smear on lipstick, yell "Heil Gunther!" in fascist regalia, and leer creepily at his fellow performers. (The fact that he actually was drafted as a German WWII soldier and his middle name was really Gunther makes it all even stranger.) The temperamental actor had given up any pretense of Crawlspacerespecting his directors, and in fact the following year he and Werner Herzog would famously (and violently) split for good on their last project, Cobra Verde. Immediately before filming Crawlspace, Kinski's irrational obstinacy during the filming of Revenge of the Stolen Stars had forced director Ulli Lommel to turn his character into a ghost to explain the complete lack of continuity or eye lines for Kinski's character.

The shooting of this film was considerably more turbulent, with Kinski screaming and refusing to acknowledge the word "action" on set. Schmoeller even made an astonishing nine-minute 1999 short called "Please Kill Mr. Kinski," detailing the attempts to fire the venomous thespian, an Italian producer's plan to off him for the insurance money, and the unbelievable pandemonium that ensued. (Given the revelations in Kinski's autobiography and his daughters' posthumous newsworthy comments about him, this film now almost seems tame.) What's remarkable is that the finished film actually holds together and still Crawlspaceworks as a perverse, creepy little thriller. The confined setting creates a suitably claustrophobic atmosphere, while the gaudy '80s decor and fashions give it a kitschy element that prevents the plot from becoming overly depressing. The booby trap murders are also executed with panache, not to mention the lively climax with Kinski pursuing Balsam at high speed through the air shafts. The classiest element is definitely the score by Pino Donaggio, Schmoeller's composer of choice at the time including his classic earlier work on Tourist Trap and the later Catacombs. Here he combines pounding electronics and an eerie recurring lament that pays off in the end credits, a solid piece of work that deserves a release someday beyond the scarce vinyl version from decades ago.

Originally released on tape by Vestron, Crawlspace first surfaced on DVD in 2002 from MGM in the US paired up with the more tasteful but similarly oppressive horror film The Attic. The anamorphic transfer was fine for the time and the trailer was included as an extra, but that edition went out of circulation a few years later and now sells for a pretty hefty price tag online. In any case, it's easily eclipsed by the 2013 German Blu-Ray, which looks pretty spectacular with a razor sharp 1080p transfer, beautiful colors, very natural subdued film grain, and more clarity and depth than its earlier appearance on the MGM HD channel. The DTS-HD English mono track sounds excellent, as does the German dub also provided.

Though the packaging doesn't play it up very much, this is also a fairly respectable special edition. (A Region 2 DVD is also available.) Along with the theatrical trailer (in HD), you get the entire "Please Kill Mr. Kinski" short, a vintage '86 promotional featurette (sourced from VHS) apparently created by Empire to sell the film, two TV spots, and a whopping 45-minute making-of selection of camcorder footage shot during production (yes, you get to hear Kinski shriek and boss everyone else around) including a lengthy interview by Jay Miracle. Kinski goes off for over half an hour outside the Rome studio pontificating on Crawlspace and pretty much any other subject that enters his mind, including his hatred for directors. Astonishing stuff, and definitely a recommended release if you can play Region B titles.

Reviewed on May 25, 2013.