When making a low-budget movie, it’s essential to make the most of what you have available. Writing a sweeping epic that encompasses dozens of locations and hundreds of extras is wonderful, but once you actually get down to the process of filming you’re often left with a big, empty field with a few bored kids (who had nothing better to do that day) picking their noses in the background. Locations don’t have to be expensive, but they do have the be available and accessible by cast and crew, and – ideally – far enough away from humanity that you can scream, shoot and swear as loud as you want without someone calling the police.
Or you can write based on what you already have.
While this obviously can be very restricting, you would be surprised how often handcuffing yourself can elicit unique levels of creativity, and will obviously save you significant money and time. At the end of the day, you can’t really beat a big, empty room that you have carte blanche to adjust, dirty or demolish. This room can be dressed and redressed to provide a near unlimited number of possible locations, and – in a pinch – can always be used as your green-screen room, production office, screening room, or (with the inclusion of your trusty filthy mattress) a bedroom. Dressing up the room is easy. Slap some paint on the walls, and see what sort of materials are available to flesh things out – we used to call our local dollar store our “prop department” since it made for cheap and disposable set dressing. And we could always find ridiculous toy guns (given a none-too-convincing coat of black spray paint) for armament. The things we do for art!
Alternatively, you could set the whole film in one room. And to really cut down on costs and time you could do all of the many on-set jobs – direction, cinematography, music, FX, writing , editing, acting – yourself. That’s what Chris Schwartz did for his 2006 film THE CRAWLSPACE, and despite your very reasonable reservations on such a one-man-band approach to filmmaking, he somehow pulls it off. Part SAW tribute, part impressive experiment in doing things yourself, the film overcomes some shaky acting and pretensions to become a surprisingly tension filled experiment that makes the most of its hour running time.
Schwartz plays Mike, a young guy abducted from his house, drugged, and forced into the crawlspace under his vacation home. It’s really just a filthy basement dressed up with various disgusting looking buckets and broken pieces of furniture, but the windows have been blocked with piping leading to a car’s exhaust pipe in case someone thinks that Mike is misbehaving. That someone is “The Director” (also played by Schwartz with heavy vocal distortion) who regularly phones Mike to remind him that he’s appearing on his The Director’s personal reality show, and that he’s going to be given several tasks to complete over the next few days in order to win his freedom. At first these tasks are fairly vague, but a quick search around the crawlspace reveals a wrapped up corpse and a dismembered finger which suggests that the captor means business.
Eventually – after plenty of groping around in the dark and grunting – Mike is given the opportunity to phone a friend, and chooses his pal Ryan who immediately comes over armed with a baseball bat. Unfortunately The Director comes out with a gun and, as you might expect, gun beats bat and Ryan is unceremoniously gunned down. Mike responds by finding a 2X4 and demolishing the camera that is recording his every move. Real mature, Mike. The Director shoots him in the leg for being such a jerk-ass.
The next day exhaust starting to pour in through the window and Mike is given a rifle with a single bullet. The Director stands by the car and ol’ Mike can either decide to shoot the director (meaning his own death) or shoot the pipes sending the exhaust into his window. While positioned as a difficult moral quandary, I imagine everyone would just shoot the pipe right? Yep, that’s what Mike does. I relate to his decision.
Next some water starts pouring in through the window, but while I was hoping for a quick cameo by The Hell of the Upside Down Sinners it’s actually used by The Director to send electric shocks to the cripple Mike by touching a live wire to the stream. Pretty nasty. It looks like this is to set up some sort of elaborate test, but.. nope. It’s a fight to the death! One which Mike just about loses before duct-taping his hand and electrocuting his nemesis to death. If I were him, I would have shouted “GAME OVER!” while I was doing this. But that’s just me. Mike walks out the door to freedom, but the words of The Director still echo in his head as he hobbles toward his future.
So, yeah. It’s like one of the SAW films, except it’s really just one guy being tortured by some maniac on a phone. And that one guy also happens to be the one DOING the torturing. Also, the tests are significantly less elaborate than the ones that are the trademark of that series, which actually works to the advantage of THE CRAWLSPACE since it makes the whole thing – which is still rather silly – seem a bit more plausible. It’s unfortunate that the assigned tasks never seem very coherent and the ending comes out of nowhere, but these are minor complaints considering there are moments of genuine suspense – which is a rarity for any no-budget production.
Image quality is a bit grimy, but it’s all surprisingly watchable and never gets a chance to wear out its welcome. Schwartz’s acting is severely limited (and he spends too much time talking to himself) but his grasp of camera angles and making the most of his limited space is impressive. Even better are the moments of sudden action which throw the viewer off guard. While the editing is something choppy and definitely rough around the edges, it also suits the snuff-film look of the whole production.
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of THE CRAWLSPACE is its great, droning guitar soundtrack (by, you guessed it, Chris Schwartz) which both punctuates the scares and provides a significant amount of atmosphere. It’s simplistic, but – as in the best John Carpenter tradition – often simple can be very effective. Music in these sorts of productions are usually based around what is available rather than what is appropriate, so the soundtrack here is a pleasant surprise.
Most no-budget films which feature the same names again and again throughout the credits tend to be laughably awful. Whatever talent is available is inevitably stretched too thin, leaving a muddled, confusing mess that simply looks, at best, unprofessional. That Chris Schwartz has been able to make something so tense and watchable out of THE CRAWLSPACE has to be considered a fairly massive accomplishment, and his success comes from not overreaching – keeping his plot and locations simple, and turning his limitations into advantages. While, as usual, the acting is weak, and the plot takes a little while to get going, the resourcefulness on display makes me very interested to see what Schwartz could do with a little more help.
Three Nightmares out of Five
One Nightmare – No-Budget Perfection, Two Nightmares – Shocking Success, Three Nightmares – Shows Potential, Four Nightmares – Not Much Fun, Five Nightmares – Please Kill Me
Join us this week for an interview with THE CRAWLSPACE director Chris Schwartz
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