Not to be confused with the 1986 schlock-horror movie starring creepy Klaus Kinski, this particular Crawlspace is a TV movie of the week from the early seventies. Elderly couple, Albert and Alice Graves (Hollywood veterans Arthur Kennedy and Teresa Wright) show kindness to dishevelled, young handyman Richard Atlec (Tom Harper), inviting him to dinner and lending him a book of poems by William Blake. One night Arthur awakens to hear something moving about in their cellar. He discovers Richard has lost his job and now lives in the crawlspace, stealing food from their refrigerator and roaming the woods by day. Having always longed for a child of their own, the Graves settle into a quirky family unit making Richard their surrogate son. But Sheriff Birge (Eugene Roche) remains suspicious of the stranger and the bigoted townsfolk soon push jittery Richard over the edge.
Distributors Wild Eye are promoting Crawlspace as a horror movie, but it’s more a character-driven psychodrama. The story is involving and quite moving in parts (aided by Jerry Goldsmith’s delicate score), but occasionally inconsistent. The core relationship offers a wry parody of the post-1960s family dynamic, with Richard as the troubled, long-haired, rebellious youth and the Graves as concerned parents. Alice worries why Richard continues to scavenge (“He gets plenty to eat at home.”) and is eager to see him progress in life (“He can’t just take any job.”) Albert is so anxious to have a son he happily settles into a bizarre routine of having heart to heart chats with the cellar dweller. However, the film treads an uncertain line between conservatism and a plea for tolerance. It attacks small town prejudice and narrow-mindedness, but equally upholds Sheriff Birge’s smug declaration: “Sometimes you find people aren’t your neighbours - they’re outsiders.” After Richard trashes a hardware store, Alice goes from including his name on Christmas cards to grimacing: “I wish they’d just kill him.” Still, she and Albert remain very sympathetic characters, easy to warm to. Just decent folks who want to help.
While many thriller movies made for TV now seem terribly tacky, this is sincerely played throughout and benefits from John Newland’s presence behind the camera. A genre veteran who helmed everything from Star Trek and Night Gallery episodes to Fantasy Island, Newland is best known as the host/producer-director of One Step Beyond. His finest work includes little-seen, western folklore/fantasy/horror Who Fears the Devil (1972). Newland’s direction is unobtrusive for the most part, relying on his capable cast to let the story unfold, although a sudden car chase (No Seventies TV movie complete without it) feels tacked on. Tom Harper is pretty good as withdrawn wastrel Richard. Sadly, he doesn’t seem to have done much more in his career. Teresa Wright, an exceptional actress, performs beautifully here. She won her Oscar for Mrs. Miniver (1942), but was truly superb in Alfred Hitchcock’s amazing Shadow of a Doubt (1943) - essential viewing for all film fans. The equally engaging Arthur Kennedy was a rock-solid character actor in westerns, thrillers and dramas like A Summer Place (1959). By the late seventies he was a familiar face in Italian trash like Emmanuelle on Taboo Island (1976) and The Humanoid (1979). Amusingly, the DVD packaging ignores the alleged curmudgeon’s presence in Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and plays up his star-turn in cult zombie flick Let Sleeping Corpses Lie (1974). Bet he’d have loved that.