Friday, May 18, 2012

Crawlspace (1972)

Note: I wrote this piece on Crawlspace for a class I just took on Frankenstein. Our professor wanted us to take a theme from the novel and apply it to something else. After deliberating over several TV movies, including Chiller and Prototype, I settled on Crawlspace because I was rather intrigued by the theme of creating identity through the idealized family unit, and I also thought this movie had made some rather sly nods towards Mary Shelley's classic. I really slaved over this sucker and ended up getting a rather fabulous grade, so I wanted to share!

By the way, if you really wanted to get your Crawlspace-on, you can read this older review where I compare the film to the novel. I've been taking a lot of lit and film theory classes and I have to say, I love seeing all my old favorites through new eyes. Sometimes school is awesome!

And Just a word of warning: this piece is a little long. So read at your own risk!

Oh yeah, and I hope you Enjoy!

Crawlspace: The Belly of the Beast
Although Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was written more than 150 years before the 1972 made for television film Crawlspace, the filmmakers have used the story to explore the Othered in search of identity through the romanticized family structure while putting a contemporary spin on it. Many products of 70s television observed lost youth towards the end of the Vietnam War, but Crawlspace handles this material of desire to return to normalcy in more opaque ways. In the film, Richard Atlee’s past is a mystery shrouded in dystopia; he is a marker for the Other, or a modern day Frankenstein-like creature, unable to move into public life. Portrayed as a feral man-child with no stories, no history and hardly any words to explain his past even if he wanted to, he invades the crawlspace beneath the house of Albert and Alice Graves in the hopes they will become parental figures to him. As those who are different from the norm, both Frankenstein’s creature and Richard play on our social fears of the domestic. While Crawlspace maintains the notions of identity creation through the idealized family, it also uses Frankenstein’s monster as a springboard to explore the terrifying disintegration of that same domestic mold of the 1970s.

On the broadest level, Richard is simply an outcast, a symbolic representation of the collapse of the countercultural movement as they broke out of communal living and attempted to drift back into the social order. With no apparent ties to anyone or anything, he aimlessly goes from temporary employment to living in a cave. On a narrower scheme, Richard is emblematic of the failure of that social order he longs to return to. As the number of divorces rose in the 1970s and more people chose to live together instead of marriage, the once comfortable and safe domestic structure began to take on new forms. In response, the traditional family unit can be also be seen as moving into an outsider station because it has inherited a less-than-normal status, branded by changes in the structure.

Richard is drawn to the Graves because they are elderly and childless, living in their own exile on the outskirts of a small New England town. The stigma of their infertile existence is denoted when Alice tearfully reads a letter from her sister that mockingly pronounces, “You have no children to tie you down.” This posits both the Graves and Richard as Others because each lacks the complete nuclear family unit. Their need for a child gives Richard both a metaphoric and literal open door into their lives. However, the couple originally rejects Richard’s effort to claim the crawlspace and lock him out. In response, he scrawls the word “GOD” on the cellar door. He is asking the couple to go against nature, and play God, recreating the monstrous Richard into something that can ease back into the social norm. The gesture indicates a pronounced need for recognition that can only be achieved through accepting parents because that is the one structure Richard feels can authenticate a wholeness. The couple realizes their responsibility and let him move into their crawlspace.

Richard tries to appease the Graves by attempting to give them the son they long for and he transforms the crawlspace into a symbolic womb, where he gestates until he emerges into his rebirth. During his incubation period, which lasts two months, he mulls over small items that he has taken from the main house and through these objects such as yarn and poetry books he begins to assemble the family structure through a patchwork of domestic ideas. In the “pregnancy” scenes, Richard remains hidden from both The Graves and the audience as the camera rests on the face of Albert or looks into the darkened abyss of the house’s womb. This space between Richard and Albert allows the older man time to construct himself as the fatherly figure, encouragingly speaking to the darkness, asking Richard to join the family. Richard is only shown in shadows because he occupies a netherworld of nothingness, and the fact that no one can access a full view of him indicates the character’s own lack of self.

The attempt to craft a family dynamic is seen immediately when he finally emerges from the crawlspace to join the Graves at their Christmas Eve dinner, looking a little like a Jesus figure in a three-piece suit. Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons: Spring” echoes in the background, denoting the transition from the chilly winter gestation into rejuvenation and growth. As the new creation, he is taking on a more normal human form, although his matted hair and wild eyes speaks otherwise. In fact, they are about the only things that do speak, as the new family stumbles through a pleasant but awkward exchange at the dinner table as each new family member attempts to conform to the Other’s expectations.

Herein rests the key to Richard’s character, which lies in his search for recognition and structure. Richard is clearly a derelict who appears to the world as an outcasted infantile adult, but he works at maintaining a “normal” appearance so he can acquire companionship and acceptance. Even his physical imprint speaks towards a lack wholeness. The Graves are told their “son” is “not likely to be traced by his fingerprints,” indicating there is an absence of records to prove he exists and it also gives people an excuse to continually negate Richard of totality. In another moment in the film that cements this idea, Richard attempts to reenter society by running into town on an errand. He is immediately disregarded at the local store, where the employees and customers alike snub him. The clerk eventually takes his money but refuses to let him return home with the groceries. He is chastised for doing good and is seen as a pariah because he is an unknown entity and does not conform to town’s idea of a “respectable” citizen. He continues to be invalidated of full personhood, which leads to a collapse in his fantasies of living within the established social order. This is a turning point of the film because his demands become excessive on his adopted parents and he begins to commit acts of violence, starting with destroying the grocery store, and the viciousness quickly escalates to murder.

Despite the fact that he searches for a way to reinstitute the traditional, he is unable to fit in despite his hardest efforts to transform himself into a Good Son because he is incapable of giving the couple of the perfect child they crave. The character’s inner struggle and frustration is shown through his deviant acts in society. Identity will always elude him if he forces himself and others to create something inorganic. He can only act out in rage when his fantasies collapse precisely because he is constantly denied personhood and not allowed a stronger voice in society.

Richard’s transgression represents the potential of losing control of the complex forces that work against the very social order that he is trying to protect. That he shifts so quickly from subservient to dangerous signifies how easily the traditional family unit can crumble when it only exists to maintain another’s view of what is normal. Crawlspace deems Richard monstrous because he stands as a reminder to the audience of the era’s prevailing social fears regarding the fragmentation of the conventional family. He speaks to the idea that anyone can become Othered when a traditional norm is removed. It is no mistake that Richard tells Albert he stays with the Graves because he wants to feel “safe.” Safe does not mean the home is loving or even healthy. It only indicates that it maintains the societal dictation of how families should be constructed. Richard represents what he, and perhaps the audience of the 1970s, wants to not be, so he seeks solace in a dying tradition, attempting to create a patchwork of family for himself, but it is not a natural setup and easily falls apart.

The conventions of the psychological thriller allow the film to explore the dangers of trying to falsely construct a community to selfishly appease only your needs. The darkness of the crawlspace symbolizes Richard’s demons that keep him outside of society. It also emphasizes how perception can overtake reality in a battle of wills. While the Graves seek out Richard in a mutual response to building a family, it is an unnatural construction that relies on the couple acting and reacting blindly to Richard’s unstable state of mind.

As a metaphor for the death of the nuclear family, Crawlspace examines the ways in which people desperately struggle to maintain a situation whether it is beneficial to them or not. Richard stands for a social anxiety and because he reminds people of the failure of traditional systems, he is marked as monstrous, even though he attempts to fit into the norm. The Graves have a similar struggle, but it is Richard’s overtly menacing presence that expresses the anger over the failure of something traditional. He has not chosen to be an outcast and therefore he goes looking for a structure that will give him an identity as a “normal” person. However, like so many dysfunctional families that choose to stay together simply to maintain appearances, Richard and the Graves have isolated themselves further in an attempt to keep scrutiny away. While family units have managed to reshape themselves into new forms in 2012, Crawlspace remains an astute meditation on 1970s familial anxieties.


college soflaw said...
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KenR said...

Just the name ‘Crawlspace’ makes you curious and draws you towards wanting to see this unusual movie. 70s TV movies had a special something that set them apart from the dreary weekly TV series of the day (well for me at least) This one is special on several levels, first the above-average casting of Arthur Kennedy and Teresa Wright. Then the superior writing of Herbert Lieberman, add to this a reasonable screenplay adaption and some moody direction. Young Tom Harper is quite remarkable as the troubled youth looking for family connections but going about it all the wrong way (it makes you wonder what terrible experiences turned him into his present state!)

All the way through I kept thinking about the above par, thoughtful music score – then to my surprise, find it credited to the great Jerry Goldsmith (by this time, he already had several powerful feature scores to his credit so his participation was a surprise). The DVD release is fairly ordinary but anything is better than not having Crawlspace in your collection! This one stays in your memory by certainly being well above average and a constantly interesting curiosity, and anything that attempts something different deserves credit. It’s being marketed as horror but really is more of a quality character study.