Crawlspace (1972)

They Wanted a Son…He Gave Them a Nightmare!

Cover image for 1972's Crawlspace

Aging married couple Albert and Alice Graves (Arthur Kennedy and Teresa Wright) call Richard Altec (Tom Happer) expecting that he will just repair their defective furnace, not that he would insinuate himself into their lives. A simple dinner invitation turns into him secretly—then knowingly—living in their crawlspace, and forming a bizarre little family unit. Richard is hiding a few dark secrets, though, and a lot of obsessive tendencies.

The frightened Graves, as seen in 1972's Crawlspace

Although hampered by some unlikely character motivation, CRAWLSPACE manages to eke out a fair bit of suspense and sheer discomfort. The primary characters evoke your sympathy, even as they baffle you with their actions. It is always apparent that this social experiment will end in disaster, but it’s the when and the how that keep you watching. When it’s all over, you’re left with sadness and melancholia, the mark of a quality slow burn that seems all too feasible in finale (if not in set-up) to be considered anything but effective.

Albert and Alice are childless, and although they attempt to play it off as if they are fine with this, the astute observer can see that they regularly question the value of this life choice. As Albert recuperates from a recent heart attack, their mortality suddenly seems much more real than ever before. They have nobody to help out with the chores that Albert once did himself, and more importantly, nobody to carry on the Graves legacy.

That’s why they are so quick to allow Richard into their lives. This shy and awkward young man causes their parental instincts to kick in, and they (almost absurdly) invite him to stay for dinner, lend him a rare and valuable book of poetry, and allow him to live inside their house.

Hairy Richard as seen in 1972's Crawlspace

There’s something off about Richard. That much is obvious from the start, and forms the very basis of the film’s plot. While watching, though, I couldn’t help but come to the conclusion that there’s something inherently off about Albert and Alice, as well. What normal person would react this way, inviting a total stranger into their lives and seeing nothing wrong with allowing an obviously disturbed young man to live inside their walls? Their regret at never reproducing is given as their rationale, but it still seems an unlikely response to the situation. Were Richard a child, it would be much more believable, but he is, by all accounts, a full-grown man.

Aside from Richard and the Graves, other notable roles include familiar face Eugene Roche as Sheriff Birge, Matthew Cowles as troublesome teen Dave Freeman, and the aging Dan Morgan in his last role as shopkeeper Mr. Harlow. For what it’s worth, very few of them act in strictly logical ways, either.

CRAWLSPACE was released in the glory days of Network TV Movies, of which I perhaps caught the tail end of and sorely wish would make a return. Although it doesn’t stand up quite as tall as some of its cohorts—DUEL (1971), DON’T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK (1973), and BAD RONALD (1974), for instance—it might have if the script were a little tighter in some places and the story fleshed out a bit more in others. Unfortunately, it carries out a little dance of dwelling too long and skipping too far ahead.

CRAWLSPACE was based on the 1971 novel of the same name by novelist Herbert Lieberman. Lieberman has written over a dozen novels, but this is the only one to have made the leap to the screen. Adaptation duties went to Ernest Kinoy, who was well experienced, having adapted a number of stories for science fiction radio programs such as DIMENSION X and X MINUS ONE, as well as LIGHTS OUT for television. He went on to script other TV movies that people also remember fondly including: THE PRESIDENT’S PLANE IS MISSING (1973), VICTORY AT ENTEBBE (1976), and THE HENDERSON MONSTER (1980).

CRAWLSPACE was directed by John Newland, who had not only hosted the paranormal anthology series ONE STEP BEYOND (1959-1961) but also directed 94 of the 96 episodes that were produced. As director, he also worked on THRILLER, ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS, the incest drama MY LOVER MY SON (1970), and the previously mentioned DON’T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK, amongst others. Reportedly, Buzz Kulik, who helmed BAD RONALD had a hand in this as well, though he for some reason went uncredited.

Maybe he was embarrassed about directing two television movies concerning young men covertly living in the walls. No need for it, though, as BAD RONALD and CRAWLSPACE would make for an excellent double-feature. If you’re feeling adventurous and up for a late night, throw Wes Craven’s THE PEOPLE UNDER THE STAIRS (1991) into the mix, as well. You’ll never look at your house the same way again.

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