Crawlspace

ON

Now available on DVD

Cast:

Arthur Kennedy as Albert Graves

Teresa Wright as Alice Graves

Tom Happer as Richard Atlec

Eugene Roche as Emil Birge

Dan Morgan as Harlow

Matthew Cowles as Dave Freeman

Directed by John Newland

Review:

When we watch most horror films, we can safely enjoy our fear knowing it’s highly unlikely that our eventual fates will match those of the hapless characters on screen. We won’t be flayed by Cenobites, for instance, or be possessed by the arcane influence of the Necronomicon, or find ourselves at the mercy of a pack of vampires. But the downward spiral of the characters in 1972’s made-for-TV chiller “Crawlspace” offers a more universal dread to contend with – the potentially high price to be paid for middle-aged regrets.

Directed by John Newland, who more famously made his mark on TV horror history the following year with 1973’s “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark,” “Crawlspace” has none of the fantastical elements of that tele-terror classic. Based on a novel by Herbert Lieberman, “Crawlspace” introduces us to Albert and Alice Graves, played by Teresa Wright (“Shadow of a Doubt”) and Arthur Kennedy (“Fantastic Voyage,” “High Sierra”), an elderly couple who have recently moved into a rural home. Arthur’s health is poor, prompting the move from the city to a quieter lifestyle. But oh, if the Graves only knew what horror was waiting for them…in the crawlspace! (Cue commercial break)

Being made-for-TV (and made-for-TV in 1972, at that), “Crawlspace” is understandably light on action and scares. Although there is a car chase later in the film, which sparked a smile from this viewer as the makers of “Crawlspace” clearly felt obliged to obey one of the key commandments of ’70s television: Thou Shall Include A Car Chase. But that one high-speed pursuit aside, “Crawlspace’s events unfold at, well, a crawl. For some, that will be a welcome return to more character-driven chills. For others, it will prove to be deadly dull.

Wright and Kennedy make a convincing couple and it’s their performances that make “Crawlspace” as compelling as it is. Working from Ernest Kinoy’s adaptation, Wright and Kennedy make the Graves a heartbreakingly believable pair. In the later years of their lives and having never had children of their own, Alice is instinctively drawn to a young man (played by Tom Happer, an actor who had previously appeared on several “Dark Shadows” episodes) who is delivering oil to their home as the film opens. She invites him to stay for dinner, much to the surprise of Arthur and in turn Arthur generously lends the boy a book of poetry much to Alice’s surprise. As the boy leaves, they both contemplate the unforeseen feelings that the boy’s presence has aroused in them. Already an air of wintry melancholy has permeated the film, abetted by the fine, understated score by Jerry Goldsmith (“The Omen,” “Poltergeist”).

As some time passes, the Graves begin to hear noises in their basement crawlspace. At first, they’re alarmed to find out that it’s the boy (who has long since quit the gas company) using their crawlspace as a makeshift home. Arthur installs a padlock lock on the basement’s hatch door in an effort to send a message to the boy to look elsewhere for shelter. But when the lock sends the desired message, Alice can’t hide her sadness. As a sympathetic Arthur notes days afterward, “You haven’t stopped thinking about him, have you?” When the boy next approaches the cellar (courtesy of the kind of POV shot that would soon become synonymous with the likes of “Black Christmas” and “Halloween”), he finds the hatch not just unlocked but propped open with a board. As the Graves lay in bed listening to the boy enter the hatch and shut it, they draw closer – not in fear but out of happiness that a wish has been fulfilled. They hear the sound of rustling in the basement coming through the vent in their bedroom and they know that their “son” has come home.

This one scene alone would’ve sold me on “Crawlspace.” Beautifully acted, it’s the only instance I can readily think of where the protagonists of a horror movie have deliberately invited the monster into their home rather than acted to repel them. The middle section of the film then tracks the Graves’ efforts to coax the boy – whom we learn is named Richard – out of his familiar “safety zone” in the crawlspace. With many of these scenes involving Albert talking paternally into the dark of the crawlspace to an unresponsive Richard, “Crawlspace” is often deliberately, dryly funny – especially when the polite, educated Arthur has to ask Richard to show consideration for him and Mrs. Graves by not continuing to use the crawlspace as an outhouse (“There’s no reason why you can’t use the facilities upstairs.”).

The hardest hurdle the makers of “Crawlspace” had to leap was making the Graves’ ill-advised actions come across as believable and on that count, all involved do an expert job of making every turn of the story seem dramatically – and often poignantly – real. When Alice starts knitting sweaters for Richard (as she asks Albert at one point before he journeys down to the basement: “Get a look at his arms, I have no idea how long to make his sleeves.”) or taking pleasure in signing Richard’s name on a Christmas card to her sister (as Arthur gruffly remarks: “She’ll think Richard’s a new poodle or something!”) we don’t question why they continue to let this stranger occupy their basement. We feel their longing to have a family.

Things come to a head on Christmas Eve as they leave a new suit at the entrance of the crawlspace as a gift for Richard and invite him to wear it and join them at the table for a holiday dinner. When it looks like Richard isn’t taking them up on that invite, Arthur privately explodes to Alice: “What the hell are we doing with a boy in our cellar? How did we get into this?” But as the evening goes on, Richard does come to dinner. And as much as he looks like a typical longhaired youth of that era, when Richard emerges from the basement in his brand new suit, most modern viewers will likely look at his awkwardly shaggy appearance and immediately think they’re looking at one of the cavemen from the Geiko commercials. But that aside, Richard’s first dinner with his surrogate family is a touching event.

From there, Richard becomes more and more integrated into the Graves’ lives – proving himself to be a capable handyman. But as the Graves learn, normal people don’t live in crawlspaces. They also learn that the best place to go looking for a new addition to your family isn’t with the dude who’s taking dumps in your basement. But thanks to Wright, Kennedy and Happer’s performances, we really want this unlikely family to succeed and it’s easy to feel crushed when it becomes clear that it can’t.

Kinoy’s screenplay shows sensitive insight in depicting Wright’s and Kennedy’s individual responses to the growing difficulties of Richard’s presence. While Alice is drawn to the fantasy of having a child (as Arthur accuses “You took him to your bosom in some crazy menopausal fantasy!”) as long as he remains an uncomplicated, unseen figure she can dote on from afar, she comes to resent and fear Richard’s very real emotional instability (thankfully, Kinoy’s screenplay never explicitly explains what demons drive Richard’s actions). And Arthur, on the other hand, develops a touching protectiveness towards his troubled son (an ironic turnaround from the hard assed approach Kennedy’s character in Let Sleeping Corpses Lie took towards similarly long-haired vagabonds). It’s no small accomplishment on the part of “Crawlspace’s collective talents that we can empathize with both Arthur and Alice right up until the story’s tragic end.

Wild Eye’s release of “Crawlspace” is a completely bare bones disc that moves straight to the main menu with only chapter selections as an option. But that’s fine – as is the fact that the quality of the print is as grainy as it is. This is the kind of film that would lose its appeal by being remastered. It needs that raw look, that naturally washed-out texture, to be effective. There’s a perpetually rainy atmosphere that pervades “Crawlspace,” with every scene having a gray pall over it.

Long unknown and unseen even by many of the most ardent followers of ’70s TV terror, “Crawlspace’s debut on DVD will be a welcome guest in the homes of horror fans looking to squeeze a neglected low-key gem into their collection.