Collins’ Crypt: Klaus Kinski - Terrible Landlord, But A Terrifying Villain

Collins on CRAWLSPACE.

One thing I liked a lot about doing Horror Movie A Day was discovering sub-sub-genres in horror; things that went beyond "slasher" and into more specific territory, like "Revenge For A Prank Gone Wrong" slashers (Terror Train, Slaughter High, Prom Night...), or the fact that I saw at least three zombie comedies that were inspired (far too much and thus painfully so) by Clerks. But for whatever reason, I only found a small handful of "creepy landlord" movies; the best being Sleep Tight from Jaume Balagueró, and the worst being The Resident, which starred Hilary Swank who was hopefully getting a nice paycheck for her trouble. Coming in in the middle is Crawlspace, which coasts entirely (and, rather impressively) on the casting of Klaus Kinski as the villain. The script may be underdeveloped and even somewhat stupid, but Kinski makes the movie terrifying just by showing up.

I suspect the reason that there are so few of these films (there is also 10 Rillington Place, which I have yet to see) is that there's only so much a landlord can do to his tenants before arousing too much suspicion and ending the movie early. To its credit, Crawlspace doesn't go too far overboard until its final reel (of four; it's a mere 80 minutes with lengthy opening credits), as long as you can believe that this apartment building has a series of air ducts that wouldn't make John McClane feel a TV dinner. Kinski easily makes his way around them throughout the movie, spying on his tenants and occasionally releasing rats into their rooms, or making noises to distract them from their lovemaking. When he's not in the titular crawlspace, he's in his attic room, designing his booby traps and writing in his journal. See, Kinski's Karl Gunther (laziest German name ever!) is the son of a Nazi war criminal, and is kind of obsessed with his father's work and death itself, but seems to harbor some guilt about it - every time he kills someone in the movie, he tries to kill himself via a solitary game of Russian Roulette.

If you're a fan of Kinski it's a must-see; he's firing on all cylinders here, but also forced to act relatively normal around his tenants. There's a wonderful bit early on when our obvious Final Girl heroine is checking out a recently vacated apartment (heh) and rambling about her previous home, which was apparently haunted and had vampires for neighbors. Watching Kinski feign interest (and later burn himself on a stove) is simply divine, but fear not - by the end he's completely off the rails, smearing lipstick on his face and rolling around the air ducts on a mechanic's creeper as he chases his victim. His unhinged performance more than makes up for the fact that the movie is shockingly threadbare; we barely get to know any of the other residents, nor do we ever find out much about the girl he's got chained up in his room as a sort of pet.

Weirder still, nearly every kill in the movie is off-screen; if not for some nudity this would probably get a PG-13 today (hell, maybe even 20 years ago). The opening scene has a pretty tame kill, but after that the most violent thing in the movie is toward a tennis shoe (the tip gets sliced in one of his traps). In a couple cases the off-screen death leads to a surprise (the heroine has a slasher-y "find all the dead friends" sequence, without even a hint that any of them had been killed earlier), but most of them play out the same way - someone goes into a room or is startled by Kinski, and then they cut to him putting their eyes or finger in a jar. Even the damn conclusion is left to our imagination - one character fires a gun at another, and then there's a cutaway to the gun on a table followed by credits. Did the bullet hit? is he/she dead? We will never know. Again, it's a short movie, so the lack of any kill scenes or much character development makes it feel like a mere skeleton of a feature film, like they shot the basic stuff but none of the specifics.

Then again, maybe they just didn't want to deal with Kinski and decided not to shoot them. According to Schmoeller's commentary, the interview with makeup man John Vulich, the short film titled "Please Kill Mr. Kinski", and pretty much every single thing ever written about him, Kinski is a giant pain in the ass who made shooting conditions borderline impossible. By the 3rd day of the shoot he had already gotten into several fist fights with crew members and acted openly hostile toward Schmoeller (getting angry with him saying "action", among other things), prompting one of the producers to suggest firing him. However they were unable to do so, as the film had been sold in some markets on the strength of Kinski's name, which led to the OTHER suggestion that became the title of the short film - there was apparently a legitimate plot to have him killed so they would have no choice but to recast (or simply shut down and use the insurance money to recoup their losses). Ultimately they didn't do that (he died 5 years later of a heart attack, however), but I wouldn't be surprised if they reduced some of his scenes to be rid of him sooner than originally planned.

But even without any footage of him really DOING anything (one guy basically kills himself by seemingly going out of his way to activate one of Kinski's traps), it still manages to get under your skin thanks to its basic scenario - what if the guy who has a key to your house, otherwise a complete stranger, was also a murderer? The reason home invasion films work as well as they often do is because there's nothing more upsetting than the idea that you're not safe in your own home - but with these sort of movies it's even worse since it's someone that you can't even lock out like a masked invader. Sleep Tight is easily the best because it maximizes what he can do without being noticed - letting himself in and doing terrible things to her medicine cabinet, for example. And of course, he's the one she calls when there's a problem with the apartment, adding to the ickiness. Kinski doesn't do much in their apartments when they're not around, but there's a bit early on where a girl is struggling with her groceries and he opens her door for her - it's an underplayed bit, but an effective one.

According to the IMDb, there's a new film that's supposedly a loose remake, but it doesn't seem to follow the same story; it actually sounds more like the Gary Busey thriller Hider In The House than Crawlspace. I wouldn't mind a proper update; not only could it fix many of this one's problems (even Schmoeller admits it's not a very good film, but I'll take it over Puppet Master!) but it would help solidify this "sub-sub-genre"s place in the land of horror. I pity whoever would have to try to live up to Kinski, however. There's something about his notoriously horrible behavior (and rumors of an even more deplorable personal life) that makes him fascinating to watch (and effortlessly boosting his ability to be scary), and I can't think of anyone with that sort of reputation nowadays that would fit the bill. But that's probably a good thing.