Welcome to 4:3 & Forgotten — a column where I get to look back at TV terrors that scared adults (and the kids they let watch) across the limited airwaves of the 70s. This week’s entry has all the trappings of a horror movie — home invasion to boot! — but by the time the end credits roll the film’s terrors and violence are overshadowed by tragedy. Emotional suffering can be pretty horrific too you know. Settle in to your armchair and turn on the tube, because it’s time to enter the Crawlspace.
When: February 11th, 1972
Albert (Arthur Kennedy) and Alice (Teresa Wright) are an older couple who’ve left the rat-race of the city behind after Albert’s heart attack gave them both a jolt. They’ve settled into a small town, and with the help of a handyman named Richard (Tom Happer) they’ve got their new house into a comfortable state. Retirement goes well for a little while, but things soon take an odd turn when they discover someone’s dipping their fingers into Alice’s pie at night. Pies plural, actually, as she makes ’em both sweet and savory, and the elderly couple quickly comes to realize their nocturnal visitor is doing more than just eating their baked goods. He’s also made a home for himself in the basement crawlspace.
They’re understandably unnerved at first, but as they’ve never had children of their own it’s not long before their paternal/maternal instincts kick in leading to some questionable acts of kindness. If you’re thinking “hey it’s bonkers that these old coots would be nice to a home invader hiding in their walls” then that is the correct response, but common sense is overruled by optimism and an odd situation grows into a dangerous and deadly one.
Crawlspace is a bit of an oddity in how it shifts from terrifying premise to heartwarming tale to emotional devastation. That’s an impressive arc for a feature film, but for a television movie it might just be unique. Writer Ernest Kinoy (White Water Summer, 1987) adapts Herbert Lieberman‘s novel, and like the book, what’s packaged as a horror film is actually something far more affecting.
Director John Newland opens the film strong with some creepy sequences as the couple discovers the truth in their basement, and it must have struck a nerve in him as he returned a year later with the terrifically creepy TV film Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark. He proves himself just as capable when it comes to the more mundane sequences too allowing viewers time to grow closer to the old couple even as we yell at the screen telling them to get this weirdo out of their house. Richard’s hair grows out, he scratches “god” into a wood panel, and he stresses that he enjoys running alone in the woods for fun. So no, we’re not surprised when the cracks start to show.
The delicate balance in home between this artificial family is shaken after Richard’s bullied in town and the young punks follow him home, and the situation quickly ramps up with the young disheveled man being a lit fuse heading towards immolation. It ends in subdued horror that’s more sad than terrifying, and like some of the best genre films it never feels compelled to explain Richard’s motivation. The dude’s got a job and a home of his own, but one day he just snaps and moves into the old couple’s basement. He’s clearly done with his past life, and as evident in a holiday dinner scene he’s finding real warmth in the couple’s kindness. They’ll pay for that kindness.
Crawlspace isn’t really the Hider in the House-like thriller it starts as and instead offers a grim look at social outcasts and the power of loneliness. It’s not news to see how emotions lead to bad decisions, but it still makes for an affecting piece of 70s TV and a reminder not to let strangers live in your basement.
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