Film Review: The Girl in the Crawlspace (John Oak Dalton, 2018)

Full disclosure: I have had numerous conversations with John Oak Dalton about Indiana films, and received a screener of the film prior to the premiere at the Hoosierdance International Film Festival in Kokomo (it plays on September 14-15, 2018). The film is finished except for a few audio tweaks. I may update this review when the final  release is available.

Promotional material

John Oak Dalton’s directorial debut, The Girl in the Crawlspace, is an interesting marriage of Indiana cinema and Ohioan cinema.  John Oak Dalton began his film career with support from the late African-American, Indianapolis-based director Ivan Rogers and even did some editorial work in Rogers’ Forgive Me Father (2001).  He has spent most of his career writing numerous screenplays mostly for the Polonia Brothers and Dayton’s Henrique Couto who produced this works.  It stars mostly Ohio talent, but was largely shot in Indiana (Mooreland and Farmland) with some footage shot in New Lebanon, OH, which is the location for Couto’s Calamity Jane’s Revenge (2015).

The movie feels more like a thriller or a mystery than the average straight to video horror title.  It does not include sex or gore, which are staples of video horror.  Rather it is more interested in the psychology of its main character, Jill (Erin R. Ryan), who at the beginning of the film escapes from her kidnapper known as the Crawlspace Killer.  The local marshal, Woody (Tom Cherry), encourages Jill to go to therapy with local therapist, Kristen (Joni Durian), who returned from Los Angeles with her screen-writer husband, Johnny (John Hambrick), for a number of reasons some of which are not clear until later in the movie.  Jill reveals in a session that they was a television set in the crawlspace she was kept in, and that she watched numerous films during her captivity, but none of the movies she describes can be found by Kristen, which creates suspicion that there is more to the story than meets the eye.  Was the right kidnapper found?  What is Jill’s creativity covering?

Jokes about small-towns in Indiana abound as does movie references, especially at the pen and paper game group that Johnny attends to kill time as he tries to find more work writing scripts.  The use of references by John Oak Dalton isn’t Godardian or Tarantinoeque.  I see it more along the lines of Rob Zombie’s The Devil Rejects, which used a referential film critic to advance the narrative rather than using quotes and pastiche for mood and characterization.  Many of the references are commonly known titles, especially for older audience members, but they become increasingly more obscure.  A key plot point revolves around slash fiction, a type of fan fiction that revolves around relationships between fictional characters of the same sex, which is an interesting concept that works well in the movie and is not overplayed for laughs.

The eastern Indiana locations of Mooreland and elsewhere remind me of Zack Parker’s movies made in Richmond and Muncie though those are much more populated areas.  But Zack Parker’s films like to play with the structure of film narrative like Tarantino or Nolan’s MementoThe Girl in the Crawlspace has a mystery element to it, but the film is not written or edited to mislead the audience. Anyone familiar with this type of story will be able to solve the mystery at the heart of the film early in the movie, but this does not detract from the quality of the film.  Sometimes a film is not so much about what happens as how it happens.  John Oak Dalton has written a strong script with a clever plot and mostly good dialog.  Another connection to previous Hoosier movies is the element of racial politics found in this movie reminding me of Scott Schirmer’s Found (2012), which included an element of hate-crimes against African-Americans in gore-filled detail to show the flaws of masculinity.  The Girl in the Crawlspace has a plot point of one of the kidnappers killing children of migrant workers, but neither shows any of their corpses or any living migrant worker.  I think including the element of people taking advantage of Hispanics while not showing it works in the movie’s benefit because it would be easy to take this idea to exploitation extremes.  Mentioning it, but showing only white characters in the end sends a more powerful message about how small towns can be exclusionary and dangerous for people out of the mainstream.  Even Jill before she was a kidnap survivor was thought of in gossipy, negative ways because she is different from others.

I enjoyed the movie, but could see reasons others may not. It is a regional title through and through.  While most of the main actors are great, some of the secondary characters overact or underact, however I do appreciate that this movie gives the Dayton actor Rachael Redolfi one of her biggest and best roles yet.  The editing was sufficient does suffer in some moments.  The warm digital colors of the image work well for the film and make clear it is a digital movie so those expecting a movie that fakes the appearance of film will not get that.  I would have liked to have seen the movie fly off the handle, like a Dario Argento film, once the true identity of the Crawlspace Killer is revealed, but I understand why a more measured and grounded approach to the story fits the desires of its writer-director.  That is not to say the film is without any moments of the fantastic.  Joe Kidd plays a silent, mysterious western figure that appears in Jill’s vision from time to time that plays well with the numerous discussions of westerns in the game group.  John Oak Dalton ends the movie with the possibility of a sequel.  Whether it gets made or is more of a joke remains to be seen.  Overall, it is a good transition for the director from screenwriter.  It would be great if he continues to write for others while directing some of his own scripts.  Let’s hope for more Hoosier movies of this caliber.

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Robert Riley-Mercado is a co-founder of Big B and Mo’ Money. Some of his favorite directors are Fritz Lang, Joseph W. Sarno, Jean Rollin, Jess Franco, Sion Sono, Erich von Stroheim, D. W. Griffith, Kathryn Bigelow, Lav Diaz, Athina Rachel Tsangari, Paul Morrissey, and Apichatpong Weerasethakul.  You may find him watching movies at university cinemas throughout the Midwest.


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