Crawlspace: When the Makers of a Sleazy '80s Slasher Movie Nearly Killed Klaus Kinski for Real
“You can’t hope to direct [Klaus] Kinski,” Crawlspace‘s chief makeup artist John Vulich once said about the 1986 low-budget horror movie‘s leading man. “You can only document him.” It’s fair to say Kinski’s fellow cast and crew members found that out the hard way. In fact, the bulging-eyed German actor’s behavior on set was so relentlessly antagonizing that one producer allegedly put forward an idea which would ensure he could never inflict such a reign of terror again: bump him off.
Kinski had inadvertently disrupted proceedings before he was even cast in the sleazy slasher movie, which was released 35 years ago. Writer/director David Schmoeller (Puppet Master) had initially intended for his monster to be a disturbed Vietnam veteran who turns his attic into a makeshift POW camp. But Charles Band, the film’s executive producer, didn’t believe that audiences would respond well to a narrative steeped in such relatively recent history. Instead, he suggested the baddie should be a Nazi. And who better to play this villain than a man who’d actually served in the German military during World War II?
Capturing Klaus Kinski
In 1943, when he was just 16 years old, Kinski had been conscripted into the Wehrmacht before being captured at the end of the following year by the British on his second day in action. In the film, Kinski plays twisted landlord Karl Gunther, an ex-Hitler Youth member whose father was executed for his crimes at the Dachau concentration camp.
Kinski was no stranger to characters who mirrored his own past. In 1961’s Dead Eyes of London, he played a criminal with little remorse about the pure evil he carried out under Nazi orders. Gunther, however, does appear to harbor feelings of genuine guilt about his roots, regularly subjecting himself to self-harm and even engaging in solo games of Russian roulette in a bid to put his demons to rest.
Of course, any potential sympathy is lost within the lengthy pre-credits scene when Gunther kills one of his all-female tenants in cold blood—and in front of another he keeps locked up in a cage. We also later learn the madman was responsible for 67 mercy killings at a hospital in Argentina; uses his apartment block’s ventilation vents to satisfy his voyeuristic urges; and enjoys setting elaborate booby traps to rack up the body count (there’s one particular murder that might put you off sitting on a chair for life). Those behind the Saw franchise may well have been taking notes.
It doesn’t appear as though Kinski had to dig deep to get into the mindset of a crazed madman. Unaware of Kinski’s reputation as a troublemaker, Schmoeller had originally been excited to have a cinematic icon at his disposal. After all, this was the man who’d delivered arguably the definitive portrayal of Count Dracula in Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979) and had worked with everyone from David Lean to Sergio Leone. His long-running relationship with Herzog also produced some of the most ambitious European cinema of the late 20th century.
Had Schmoeller talked to Herzog before rolling up to the first day of shooting, though, he might very well have gone into hiding. Although Herzog made five arthouse classics with his fellow eccentric countryman, their relationship—which stemmed back to the time they shared a boarding house in the 1950s—was constantly fraught.
Herzog would even go on to make a film, 1999’s My Best Fiend, which documented just how much Kinski could push someone to their limits. Their Amazonian adventures were particularly combative. One Peruvian extra offered to take the actor out during the filming of 1982’s Fitzcarraldo, while Herzog had threatened to do the deed himself a decade earlier if Kinski made good on his promise to quit the filming of Aguirre, the Wrath of God (fortunately, for both Herzog and Kinski, the actor stuck around).
Please, Kill Mr. Kinski!
To have one movie made about how your personality can drive people to homicide is damaging enough. Yet in the same year that My Best Fiend arrived in cinemas, Schmoeller—in a 9-minute short that’s undeniably more entertaining than the feature film itself—revealed that Kinski’s life also came under threat during the filming of Crawlspace.
The short, titled Please Kill Mr. Kinski, was named after the crew’s exasperated and increasingly loud requests to permanently do away with the film’s star, while Schmoeller animatedly recalls just how badly his lead (and rather esteemed) actor misbehaved from the offset. Within the first three days of shooting, Kinski had been involved in six fistfights and set production back by 48 hours. Kinski also took umbrage with the terms action and cut—two words that are regularly heard on any film set—and insisted on being filmed continuously. He also flat-out refused to utter any lines that didn’t take his fancy.
Apparently, Schmoeller did try to fire Kinski, but Band was so keen to have such a marquee name on the poster that he refused to allow anyone else to take the actor’s place. Subsequently, another producer (who many presume to be Italian Roberto Bessi, though that remains unconfirmed) decided the most viable option was to meet the crew’s demands and kill Kinski, then cash in on the insurance money.
Schmoeller wisely rejected this rather extreme solution, saying that, “Kinski was an awful man, but he didn’t deserve to die." And he insists that, contrary to some naysayers, he didn’t exaggerate anything in his trip down memory lane. “As far as I am concerned, Kinski is responsible for all his own ‘myth-making,’” Schmoeller told Du dumme Sau, a blog dedicated to the source of all the discontent, in 2011.
Band was one of those who doubted Schmoeller’s version of events, telling Coming Soon in 2016 that the idea of a celebrity assassination was “the most ridiculous fabricated story.” Nevertheless, he did back up the director’s talk of on-set fighting, recalling the moment he walked in on Kinski grabbing Schmoeller by his lapel during a heated debate about shot-framing. And in Tales from the Crawlspace, a special feature on the movie’s 2013 Blu-ray release, Vulich described Kinski as “certifiably insane” while recollecting the panic he once felt on set after realizing that the German had been left unaccompanied with a gun.
Vulich’s diagnosis might not have been too far from the truth. In 1950, just a few years after launching his acting career, Kinski spent three days in psychiatric care after attempting to strangle the doctor who’d helped fund his artistic endeavors. He was subsequently identified as "psychopathic."
So was all the hassle worth it? Probably not.
Crawlspace was widely panned upon its release, with the Los Angeles Times summarizing, “You could probably spend a better 90 minutes crawling through steam tunnels.” Even Schmoeller has apparently admitted that it’s not a particularly good watch.
Ironically, the only real praise the film received was directed toward it’s leading man, who died five years later of a sudden heart attack. Whether Kinski knew it or not, he was lucky to have died of natural causes, and not at the hands of a fed-up director, producer, actor, or colleague—as so many had threatened before.