The Alamo Drafthouse in Austin, Texas is something of a Mecca for movie geeks. In addition to first-run theatrical fare, the Drafthouse regularly showcases cult, foreign, and classic films. For the last four years, Alamo programmer Zack Carlson has hosted a late-night horror movie celebration called Terror Tuesday (it used to be on Thursdays) and if you are a lover of horror, both esoterically brilliantly and obscurely awful, this night was invented just for you.
So I decided, since I am already a fixture at the Drafthouse, despite their best efforts to get rid of me, why not provide coverage for this weekly treat? The Terror Tuesday Report will dissect the movie shown as well as provide a barometer for the audience reaction to the film; as many of these films demand to be seen with an audience, this proves a vital component to the evening.
This week's film: Crawlspace.
The premise here is that Klaus Kinski, possibly the scariest actor to ever tread this plane of existence, is the landlord of an apartment building in the city. His tenants are all, conspicuously, young, attractive women. By all appearances, this is an average, dull domicile; but that's only because the girls can't see the evil that lurks in the walls. Apparently Dr. Gunther, Kinski, is a bit of a bastard. He's the son of a prominent S.S. officer executed for his crimes against humanity. While hiding in Argentina after WWII, he completed his medical education and began working at the national hospital in Buenos Aires. And by working there, I mean he was experimenting with euthanasia and developed a taste for homicide. Now, back in the states, he's constructed a series of tunnels in the ventilation system to spy on his young tenants and psychologically torture them. Will they be added to his collection of victims? Can they survive his onslaught of terror? Seriously, what is up with that guy's face?
I enjoyed Crawlspace quite a bit; a bizarre little gem. I had never heard of the film so I got to go into Terror Tuesday harboring my preferred amount of foreknowledge: none. I was excited when I found out that director David Schmoeller had also directed Tourist Trap; a modest, but effective backwoods horror flick from 1979. I was a big fan of Tourist Trap and was anxious to see a Schmoeller film from my favorite decade of all time: the 80's. With Crawlspace, for which he also wrote the screenplay, he strives for atmosphere above all else. There are an abundance of shots featuring Klaus simply watching his tenants with wide-eyed creepiness or quietly, happily constructing strange implements of death. The whole film plays on that most basic of our fears that we are being watched and takes it to another level entirely. I for one would sleep soundly with a blood beast living under my bed if the alternative was Klaus Kinski crawling around in my walls.
We cannot possibly talk about any film starring Klaus Kinski without talking about what a loony tune he was. Zack actually showed a short documentary from Crawlspace director, Schmoeller, about how horrible it was to work with Kinski and endure his egomaniacal behavior. The name of the documentary? Please Kill Mr. Kinski. Apparently Kinski had a pathological hatred for any and all directors. This may stem from one bad experience he could have had during his career or possibly because he had a God complex; once proclaiming himself to be the new Christ. He would show up late, refuse to take direction and, upon hearing that the director intended to fire him, feigned nervous breakdowns on set to intentionally sabotage the film. It sounds superfluous but knowing just how insane he was gave me an insight into his performance in Crawlspace.
Klaus does a great job selling us on the sinister nature of this man. Clearly, Dr. Gunther is not someone we would want to meet alone in a dark alley or even alone in the halls of our apartment building as the case may be. He is intensely spooky and the scene where he puts on the Nazi officer's hat and watches film of Hitler speeches is supremely unsettling. I know it's fashionable to paint Nazis as the villains because, well because they're freaking evil, but something about the idea of ex-Nazis or neo Nazis on screen always makes my hair stand on end. But I wonder how much of the effectiveness of Kinski's performance can be attributed to his acting prowess, and how much is due to his unfortunate features. The guy resembles a punch-drunk chipmunk and his eyes were doing that far-off crazy stare in both the film and the documentary footage of him offset so I am not sure that was an actor choice as much as a God-given gift. Regardless, the guy is creepy as they come and I really wish he had done more films like this before Satan called him home.
The only real problem I had with Crawlspace is with the pacing. This movie has a structure that perplexes me so greatly as to make me wonder if there weren't significant portions of the film that had to be edited to finish the film on time. In the documentary, Please Kill Mr. Kinski, Schmoeller talked about how the film was three days behind after only two days of shooting thanks to Klaus' childish tantrums so it is not outside the realm of possibility. The film opens with a bang offering so little in the way of exposition that I questioned whether the reels were in the right order. We are thrust into the apex of a story that abruptly ends and serves as a foreshadow for the rest of the film. What follows is an hour of methodical character construction and suspense-crafting that is truly unique, if a bit slow. Then suddenly, as if growing weary with his own script, Schmoeller leapfrogs over the remaining plot points that would bridge the story arc and launches into the climactic chase.
It's fascinating how quickly this plot escalates. Sure, Kinski had been spending the entire film torturing people, but up to that point it had been mostly relegated to the ancillary characters. With the lead girl, who is distinguishable as such less from the standpoint of the story and more because the camera points toward her more often, he slowly builds a relationship and employs more subtle tactics. But then without provocation, he launches a full scale assault on her that takes us right to the end credits. As calculating as the rest of the plot was, I was shocked at how suddenly it shifted to the finale. Normally we would have seen a collapse of their relationship that would have sent him over the edge or her invading his privacy to make a horrifying discovery before he unleashed hell on her. But no, it's as if Kinski's character just gets tired of waiting around and cleans house all at once. Very strange, but not entirely detrimental to the film.
And there is a smattering of silliness in Crawlspace. The early scenes of one of the girls having sex with her boyfriend may overuse certain ejaculatory lingo in a brief span of time, but who am I to judge? There is also the point in the chase through the air ducts wherein Klaus unveils his secret weapon. It's more or less a motorized piece of plywood that jet-propels him through the shaft. Hilarious! But these are balanced out nicely by the heavier moments; Dr. Gunther playing Russian roulette every morning as his way of letting fate take the blame for his killings for example.
This was a fascinating evening. First of all, the scourge of Mardi Gras meant that another event was scheduled in our usual theater. So we were forced into the much smaller second theater on the opposite side. I cannot tell you how appropriate it felt to be watching a movie about a psychopath in a crawlspace whilst seated in the most claustrophobic theater Austin has to offer. It definitely intensified the eerie factor as we watched the tight-quarters horror on screen and struggled to maintain our own sense of personal space. But more than that, the experience sort of heightened the communal aspect of a bunch of horror geeks coming together in their appreciation for film. I don't want to bombard you with sappy cliches but it made it feel more familial; disturbingly so, but still.