When listing attributes that would make the perfect horror movie villain, there are several ways one could go. Do you want menace, danger, creepiness, psychosis, or just plain terrifying-ness? Let’s say a movie wanted to combine all of these; how would it do it? For starters, he’d have to be in a creepy profession, like a landlord. A landlord who spies on his tenants, how about? And in his spare time, he keeps rats and kills kittens. And he wears makeup while watching old film footage of Hitler. Because he’s a Nazi. And he uses torture devices. And he travels through a complex duct system in the building and has put in booby traps to keep people from leaving. And he keeps a tongueless woman in a cage. What if all of these things were in one person? Who could possibly play such a fiend? Klaus Kinski? Perfect.
All of this really happened in a movie called Crawlspace.
It’s not a big stretch for a film director to want to use possibly the scariest and craziest actor to ever live as the creepiest murderer they could think of. German actor Klaus Kinski had a wide and varied career, dating all the way back to the late ’40s, and made a name for himself in dozens of Spaghetti Westerns in the 1960s and ’70s. He’s perhaps best known for being Werner Herzog’s best friend, the only person who out-creepied the renegade director, and the pair collaborated on a handful of fantastic movies, including Aguirre: The Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo. Klaus Kinski was also out of his goddamn mind and was notoriously difficult to work with. He said he was Jesus in front of a live audience at one point. This is all to say that, in 1986, when writer/director David Schmoeller needed a disgusting villain, Kinski was the choice to make.
The entire film takes place in and around an apartment house of which Dr. Karl Gunther (Kinski) is the proprietor. Other than his own rooms upstairs, the house holds only four quite-large apartments, which Gunther rents exclusively to attractive young women. I ain’t mad at him for that. However, he has the strange desire to murder these young ladies if they discover anything unsavory about him. That I’m not so hot on. His only “friends” are the dozen or so fat, grey rats and the poor young girl with her tongue cut out he keeps in cages. When he’s not making metal implements of suffering and death, or writing in his extremely extensive journals, he crawls around the building’s elaborate and quite spacious duct work to spy through the vents at his unsuspecting ladies, including a soap opera star, an aspiring musician, and a woman with the worst faux-Southern Belle accent I’ve ever heard. Not to split hairs, but the movie should be called Vents, not Crawlspace.
If all of his ridiculous traits weren’t enough, Dr. Gunther is also the son of a Nazi doctor and is constantly being dogged by a strange chain-smoking man named Josef Steiner (Kenneth Robert Shippy), who is convinced Gunther killed his brother. Near the beginning of the film, a new prospective tenant, grad student Lori (Talia Balsam), inquires about the room for rent. Gunther makes, you guessed it, creepy, unwanted advances toward her, which she somewhat politel, yturns down. Lori becomes Gunther’s main fixation, though he still finds time to kill the boyfriends of the other girls. This dude can multitask. He takes to tapping a switchblade on a ball bearing, which he tells his tenants is just the sound of mice. JUST. And if THAT weren’t enough, every time he kills a person, which he claims is like taking opiates to him, he sits in a perfectly white room with a white table and chair and plays Russian roulette. He never wins, of course. Or loses. I don’t actually know the point of the game; is it to die or not die? Whatever the case, he doesn’t die.
This is the main problem with the movie: Gunther’s got too many things. He’s easily got the most quirks of any killer in any movie ever. Does he really need to be a Nazi AND a peeping tom? Does he need to play Russian roulette AND create torture devices? Does he need to be in the ducts at all? This certainly gives him a lot of character and makes him memorable, yes, but it’s at the expense of plot and story. The movie is only 80 minutes long, and about half of it involves Kinski just sitting on his own doing something creepy. And it’s a shame, because Kinski is actually giving a somewhat subtle and nuanced performance under the circumstances. It’s just all bad guy and nothing for him to really do, the weirdest character study in history.
Perhaps strangest of all are the string of sequences which make up our final act. About 20 minutes from the end, we get a scene of Kinski putting on makeup in a close-up (thanks for that by the way, movie) and then putting on a film of Adolf Hitler addressing the Nazi party. At the end of this scene, he puts on a Gestapo hat, “heil”s himself, and says that he’s a god. Then we cut to Lori returning home to find rats in her fridge and a dead guy in her tub. Gunther is very clearly standing at the window wearing a black double-breasted coat. Lori runs around the building while gates slam shut, keeping her in. She finds each of the other three poor girls murdered in various, horrible ways. Eventually, she makes it upstairs to Gunther’s attic lair, to which he has chased her, and she gets into the ducts. After crawling around, she gets back up in a different hole to the attic to find Gunther, watching Nazi films, in the same outfit and smeared makeup as the earlier scene. All of this is a lead-up to the big through-the-ducts chase finale.
So much of this doesn’t make sense. First: why did Gunther decide to go proper nuts and make a house of horrors for Lori? At this point, she didn’t know anything about his ways other than him simply being creepy. Second: how did Lori effectively go back in time to when Gunther was wearing makeup and watching films? He looks totally surprised that someone is up there, even though he’d just chased her to that exact spot. I think there was another scene (or several) that were cut in favor of the Halloween-style scary house sequence. The editing and continuity are so bad, though, that it actually made me think the reels were out of order on the streaming service on which I watched it.
So, regardless, Crawlspace is a very strange, unpleasant film that is worth a watch simply for Kinski’s terrifying face and mannered/whacko performance. It was one of the last movies he made and he was at his nuttiest here. It’s a shame the filmmaker felt he had to give the character so many evil traits. He cast Klaus Kinski. Kinski’s face does the job.