Based on the novel by Herbert Lieberman, Crawlspace is what happens when Albert (Arthur Kennedy, The Sentinel, The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue) and Alice (Teresa Wright, Best Supporting Actress for the film Mrs. Miniver, as well as The Little Foxes and The Pride of the Yankees) Graves take in Richard Atlee as their adopted son.
Well, let’s hold on a second. The Graves have moved to a small town to help Albert recuperate from his heart attack. And when their furnace goes, the repair company sends Richard to fix it. They invite him over for dinner and the furnace goes bad a few days later. When the new repairman shows up, he tells them that Richard disappeared.
Strange sounds come from the crawlspace. Turns out Richard has been living there. And even when the Graves adopt him and try to care for him, he refuses to sleep anywhere but the crawlspace.
Even after Sherriff Birge warns the couple about the boy, they keep him in their home. But then, Richard starts acting out. His violent outbursts toward the Graves and the entire town (particularly a general store) increase in intensity and menace.
Directed by John Newland and Buzz Kulik (who also did Bad Ronald), this February 11, 1972 TV movie is slow, haunted and pretty effective. You can see why the couple wanted Richard in their lives, as he becomes the only topic of their conversations. And as he begins to fix things around the house, he becomes oddly necessary.
“What the hell are we doing with a boy in the hole in our cellar?” You’ll wonder this same question! This is a real actor movie, with Arthur Kennedy really shining here, his anger toward what he perceives as Richard’s rudeness balanced by Teresa Wright’s need for someone to care for. The scene where she asks if she should add Richard’s name to Christmas cards is heartbreaking.
The police finally give up on trying to convince Albert and Alice to give up Richard and refuse their calls when a gang of boys he’s feuding with attack their house. Despite pleas for Richard to leave, despite offering him money, despite all attempt at sanity, Richard will not leave.
An attack from the gang of boys leads to Richard killing one of the men and Albert covers for Richard one last time. Alice loses her civility and screams that she wants Richard to leave. He attacks her, leading to Richard shooting him and dying for a stress-related heart attack. Only Alice is left behind in the crawlspace.
Crawlspace is filled with sadness. A couple that could never find a child. A man who can never find his place in the world. And even in the brief moments of happiness they find together, there is always the chance that it could fall apart at any moment. You can see the ending before the characters do, but that doesn’t lessen its impact.