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Case Number 26709: Small Claims Court

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Crawlspace (1986) (Blu-ray)

Shout! Factory // 1986 // 80 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Patrick Bromley // December 20th, 2013

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All Rise...

Judge Patrick Bromley wonders where Bad Ronald is.

Editor's Note

Our review of Crawlspace, published December 21st, 2007, is also available.

The Charge

Someone is watching…

The Case

There is one reason to see the 1986 horror film Crawlspace, and his name is Klaus Kinski.

A frequent collaborator of director Werner Herzog and one of the few true madmen of cinema, Kinski is incapable of being uninteresting as an actor. He was a volatile and explosive man who made it known he hated directors, making him difficult to work with—a fact that comes up again and again on the special features of this disc. But he's also odd and intense and fascinating to watch, even in schlock like Crawlspace. Without him, this would be another forgettable horror movie from the '80s, a decade that was chock full of forgettable horror movies. With him, it's something, well, not quite good, but certainly special.

Kinski plays Karl Gunther, the landlord of an apartment building who only really rents to young, beautiful women. He spies on the building's residents by hiding in the crawlspace, eventually murdering them with elaborate torture tools of his own making; after each murder, he plays Russian roulette with himself with the knowledge that suicide is the only way he can be stopped. In the building's attic, he keeps a woman in a cage whose tongue he has cut out. She's there only to keep him company. Karl's newest tenant is Lori (Talia Balsam, The Wackness), a young woman who hits if off with the other ladies of the building immediately. When they're not being manipulated and tormented by Karl (he releases rats into their apartments at random), they're being picked off one at a time. It's business as usual until one day a man (Kenneth Robert Shippy) shows up with knowledge about Karl's past—namely, that he has direct ties to the Nazi party and tortured and killed countless patients during his days as a doctor in Buenos Aires.

What a promising start Crawlspace has: a woman is randomly murdered, Klaus Kinski is being Klaus Kinski, there's a mute woman locked in a cage for some reason, Klaus Kinski plays Russian Roulette and wins (loses?). So many interesting threads are introduced, and for a while I was convinced that Crawlspace was one of the underappreciated gems of '80s horror. Before long, though, the movie settles in not to formula—there's very little that's formulaic about it—but to repeating itself. There is a long middle section in which very little happens but the delivery of exposition, and while getting Karl Gunther's back story provides a lot of context for who he is and what he's doing, the movie works better without it. Just let him be some crazy guy killing the tenants of an apartment building. He doesn't need Nazi ties, or a history of medical experiments. It doesn't make him scarier.

Not that Kinski needs much help being scary. Crawlspace ultimately works because there is such a fascinating and compelling villain at its center. Writer/director David Schmoeller (of Tourist Trap and the original Puppet Master) understands what lightning he has caught with his leading man and makes full use of the actor; it's easy to imagine a version of the film told from the point of view of the female tenants, but Schmoeller wisely sticks with Kinski. He's completely believable as a guy who spies on women, who builds his own instruments of death, who has a woman caged in his attic and, most importantly, as a man who punishes himself after every murderous act by trying to kill himself. He does evil extremely well.

Crawlspace makes its HD debut on Blu-ray courtesy of Scream Factory, the fantastic horror subset of Shout! Factory that's been responsible for the rediscovery and reassessment of a whole bunch of genre titles since launching a few years back. Surely, this is the best the film has ever looked, with a 1.85:1-framed 1080p transfer that brings out a good amount of detail and really makes the colors pop. It's not reference-quality material, but fans of smaller cult horror film like this one should be very satisfied with the transfer. The only audio offering is a lossless two-channel mono track that's fine but unspectacular; dialogue is mostly clear (some of Kinski's lines are a bit challenging to make out) and is well balanced with the score by Pino Donaggio, which sounds a whole lot like a Richard Band score. His brother Charles Band is a producer on the movie, so I just assumed it was.

Because Crawlspace isn't one of the titles in Scream Factory's "Collector's Edition" line, it doesn't boast nearly the same amount of special features as some of the label's higher profile releases. There is a decent commentary track from writer/director David Schmoeller, who spends a lot of time talking about what it was like to work with the notoriously difficult and volatile Kinski. Their working relationship is also at the center of a short featurette, "Please Kill Mister Kinski," which mixes narration by Schmoeller with behind the scenes footage of Kinski freaking out on people. John Vulich, the film's visual effects designer, gives a brief interview in which he makes it known that his rapport with Kinski was generally very positive and different from everyone else's experience with the actor. Also included is the movie's original theatrical trailer and two vintage TV spots.

There's plenty to like in Crawlspace, especially Klaus Kinski's insane performance as the movie's villain. It's a quick watch—76 minutes before the end credits start to roll—so it never manages to wear out its welcome, even when it's spinning its wheels in the middle act. There are better Kinski performances and better Kinski movies, but Crawlspace is special in the way it marries his brand of weird sickness with '80s sleaze. This is the exactly the kind of movie that Scream Factory should be rediscovering.

The Verdict

Not guilty.

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Scales of Justice

Judgment: 79

Perp Profile

Studio: Shout! Factory
Video Formats:
• 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
Audio Formats:
• DTS HD 2.0 Master Audio (English)
• None
Running Time: 80 Minutes
Release Year: 1986
MPAA Rating: Rated R
• Blu-ray
• Horror
• Thriller

Distinguishing Marks

• Commentary
• Featurettes
• Trailers
• DVD Copy


• IMDb

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