CRAWLSPACE. To Kill Kinski

“Crawlspace” is a thriller by David Schmoeller from 1986.

Maciej Kaczmarski

1 May 2024


A well-known anecdote recounts that during the filming of Aguirre, the Wrath of God, Werner Herzog threatened Klaus Kinski with death. While shooting Fitzcarraldo, a Machiguenga tribal chief offered the director to have his warriors kill the actor. Herzog declined, but this was not the last time Kinski’s life was threatened.

Retired doctor Karl Gunther owns and oversees a small apartment building, renting exclusively to beautiful, young women. The units are elegant and spacious, with reasonable rent, and the host is polite and composed. However, Gunther, the son of a Nazi war criminal from Dachau concentration camp, is actually a sadistic serial killer who abducts women and tortures them in an attic torture chamber. He has rigged the building with deadly traps and ventilation shafts to spy on his victims. His next target is Lori Bancroft. But Gunther’s plans are complicated when a man shows up at his apartment, aware of his infamous past. It is revealed that Gunther was once a hospital chief in Buenos Aires, where he killed nearly 70 people through forced euthanasia.

American producer Charles Band of Empire Pictures commissioned David Schmoeller to write a screenplay suitable for the set of Troll (1986) at Dino De Laurentiis’ former studios in Rome, directed by John Carl Buechler. Schmoeller, known for films like Tourist Trap (1979) and Crawlspace (1982), came up with a story about a Vietnam War veteran who, after returning, constructs a prisoner of war camp replica in his attic. Band, feeling America wasn’t ready for such a film, suggested the protagonist be an insane Nazi killer. Despite Schmoeller’s doubts, Band promised to cast Klaus Kinski in the lead role. The script was tailored for the German actor known for his exceptional performances and difficult personality. Schmoeller was aware of Kinski’s performances but unaware of his character.

The director quickly learned firsthand what it meant to work with Kinski. The actor first rejected proposed costumes, then bought expensive clothes in Italy, charging the producers, and after filming, claimed all the clothes. In the first three days, Kinski caused significant delays, getting into fights with cast and crew. He refused to speak his lines and became furious when Herzog said “action” or “cut,” insisting that the director address him only as “Klaus.” When Schmoeller agreed, Kinski demanded complete silence on set, starting and ending his performances as he pleased. “Kinski was an uncontrollable monster,” Schmoeller recounted. The director wanted to fire him, but Band insisted Kinski’s name was too lucrative.

Kinski was infamous for his disdain for directors, venting in his provocative autobiography, I Need Love!: “Arrogant, puffed-up, neurotic posers! […] No so-called director ever served me anything other than crap and bad breath.” He openly admitted to acting only for money, but his name drew large audiences (he appeared in over 130 films). When Band decided to cast him in Crawlspace, an Italian producer (likely Roberto Bessi) conceived a plan to kill Kinski for insurance money. The plan failed, but throughout filming, the crew jokingly referred to Schmoeller as “Please Kill Mr. Kinski,” inspiring the title of a short film documenting their struggles.

Crawlspace premiered in May 1986 and was not commercially successful, though the losses were minimal given its $1 million budget. Reviews were mostly negative; “The plot construction is so inept that the film seems to start halfway through. Apart from Kinski […] and Sergio Salvati’s cinematography, this film has nothing praiseworthy,” wrote Michael Wilmington in the Los Angeles Times. Kinski likely would have agreed with critics, as he once said of his films: “One is no different from another, and they are all worthless. All I can do is extract as much as I can from this garbage.” Over time, Crawlspace’s reception softened, now considered a solid B-grade thriller. Troy Howarth, author of Real Depravities: The Films of Klaus Kinski, praised Kinski’s performance as Gunther’s with “fierce intensity” and called the film a “must-see for Kinski fans” – sentiments I can get behind.

Indeed, Schmoeller’s film is better than it seems, though it falls short of his later work, Puppet Master (1989). Both films benefit from Sergio Salvati’s excellent cinematography and claustrophobic settings (a cramped apartment building in Crawlspace, a vast hotel in Puppet Master). While not highly original – drawing inspiration from Psycho (1960), Peeping Tom (1960), and the story of serial killer H.H. Holmes – the film is satisfying due to Kinski’s magnetic presence, even in less compelling movies. Ultimately, Schmoeller admitted Kinski was a brilliant actor, even if he wanted to kill him on set.