As low-budget horror films featuring Nazi mad men go, Crawlspace is weirdly palatable and, at times, damn near ingratiating. It may have to do with the fact that the psycho in this case, Karl Gunther (Klaus Kinski), is one generation removed from the Nazi atrocities, as it was his father who carried out a variety of experiments in Hitler’s concentration camps. Once a physician, Karl’s more of a psychopath of the contemporary freelance variety who’s grown addicted to killing from his exposure to practicing euthanasia. In order to provide himself a veritable stable of future victims, the perverted good doctor has become a landlord of a rundown apartment complex that he only rents to young women he finds to be suitably comely. But Karl, in his mind, is a fair man: Every morning he plays Russian roulette with a pistol loaded with blood-laced bullets so as to allow fate a change to intervene on his debased games.
Writer-director David Schmoeller is obviously aware of the absurdity of this premise, and he imbues Crawlspace with a surprisingly subtle comic spark that renders the film less a horror quickie made to capitalize on real-life tragedy than as a parody of such movies. The film always seems to be threatening to get wilder than it ever actually does, and one of the frequent sources of its amusing energy is the fact that Karl is a bit of a pathetic schmuck who’s so obviously “off” that no rational person would be caught within a football field’s distance of his weird rat-infested apartments anyway. Karl’s also a peeper, and this plot strand allows Schmoeller to stage a handful of vignettes with the tenants that spoof domestic sexual hypocrisy in a fashion that’s status quo of the 1980s American horror film; there’s a bit in the beginning with Tané that’s particularly evocative of the sort of satirical erotic naughtiness that would characterize Brian De Palma’s films of the time. (Encouraging this association is the score by frequent De Palma composer Pino Donaggio.)
But Kinski is the real reason to talk about Crawlspace, as he imbues the film with a tension that firstly derives from the inexplicability of the great actor’s appearance in such a project, and later from the characteristically vivid and poignant oddness that Kinski invests in the role. Much has been made of Kinski’s authentic problems on and off sets, of the fact that he might have been legitimately insane (Schmoeller reported similar problems working with him), and that context renders the level of control that appears to be on display in the performance all the more remarkable. Kinski isn’t self-conscious of appearing in a low-budget horror film, as self-consciousness always appeared to be an alien concept to the actor, and the ways with which he threatens to sink the entire endeavor with the baggage of both his legend and his talent actually serves the film and heightens its black comedy. Crawlspace is essentially a grisly sitcom with a hook that’s admirably batshit in its randomness: What if Klaus Kinski was your landlord and he turned out to be just as deranged as you might presume him to be?
The image is soft in the background, but foreground clarity is strong without distracting evidence of grain level pruning. The colors have a newfound robustness that’s inviting and startlingly impressive, particularly the various shades of red and hot pink that predominately figure in the apartments of a few of the shallower characters. The English 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio mix is fine, if a little shallow, but that’s probably accurately indicative of how the film should sound. In general, this is a characteristically affectionate and attentive Shout! transfer of a largely unloved genre curio.
The audio commentary by writer-director David Schmoeller is sometimes marred by his still overt feelings of bitterness toward the reportedly highly volatile and demanding Klaus Kinski, but it offers quite a bit of interesting information about low-budget film production that’s also rich, of course, in Kinski anecdotes. It’s a shame that makeup effects artist John Vulich wasn’t a part of the commentary, as his short interview displays a youthful enthusiasm that would have probably meshed well with Schmoeller’s (in all likelihood understandable) weariness. The title of Schmoeller’s short film, Please Kill Mr. Kinski, says it all, as it offers the director a chance to directly vent about the actor’s methods, which were comprised of disobeying everyone on set, screaming at the top of his lungs arbitrarily, and then proceeding to do whatever the hell he wanted. Schmoeller concedes that, while Kinski is quite good in the finished product, he personally had nothing at all to do with the decisions the inconsolable actor made. Various TV spots and the trailer round out this well-assembled package of supplements.
Shout! Factory has rendered this strange and forgotten Klaus Kinski Nazi horror-comedy just a little easier to love.