Reviewing low/no-budget indie horror can be a mixed bag. A lot of the time you have to set aside issues with effects or acting because, come on, there’s no money to invest in those aspects of the production. Instead, you have to pay attention to things like the execution of the writer/director’s concepts, how they stretch the budget to allow for at least one or two solid performances or set-piece scenes, or even how they incorporate humor to allow for a lack of “serious” filmmaking. This is why most low/no budget horror films go for the easy humor and self-deprecating storytelling.

The Girl in the Crawlspace lacks budget and professional acting talent but makes up for it in spectacular scripting that works to highlight the skills of its performers and a directing style that aims toward telling the story cleanly and clearly without any overt gimmicks or self-indulgence.

As the feature film directorial debut of writer John Oak Dalton (Peter Rottentail, Haunted House on Sorority Row, Scarewaves, Amityville Death House, Jurassic Prey, Calamity Jane’s Revenge, and In Search Of), The Girl in the Crawlspace is restrained. Surprisingly so, given the eye-catching exploitation-ready title. This is a film that doesn’t rely on cheap thrills, boobs, gore, or other silliness – not that there’s anything wrong with that. It relies on a strong script, first and foremost.

The first big surprise is that we open not with a girl in a crawlspace, but with her escape after seven years missing and presumed dead. Jill (Erin R. Ryan) has survived the Crawlspace Killer and is now adrift in her small, Indiana hometown, homeless and psychologically shattered. Sheriff Woody (Tom Cherry) suggests to recently-moved-back-home psychologist Kristen (Joni Durian) that maybe she could help Jill get her life back together. Kristen is trying to do something of the sort herself, as her husband Johnny (John Bradley Hambrick), a struggling screenwriter trying to kick a drug habit, isn’t really trying to fit in to small town life.

There’s actually very little typical horror in The Girl in the Crawlspace, as Dalton instead leans heavily into psychological tension and emotional conflict. And that’s a good thing. What could have ended up some sort of derivative torture-porn, instead becomes something unique and exceptionally well done. Despite being dialogue-heavy, the plot moves smoothly and quickly, with Dalton dropping not only a variety of film references but other pop culture tid bits – particularly during Johnny’s Dungeons & Dragons sessions with the locals.

I won’t spoil how that gets started, but these scenes are highlights of the film just for how much fun Dalton is having telling this story.

This levity is balanced by brief but heavy therapy sessions with town folk who’ve lost children over the years to the Crawlspace Killer, along with Kristen’s own developing doubts about whether the killer, shot by Sheriff Woody, was acting alone. In addition to these moments, we also see the world from Jill’s perspective, and that means hallucinatory interludes that force her to question what’s real and what’s not – and whether she ever actually escaped from the crawlspace in the first place.

Dalton’s script also keeps things moving by changing up the settings a little more than one usually gets with low/no budget films. He makes great use of the town, moving back and forth from tight interiors to spacious outdoor shots that function to tie Jill and Johnny together thematically. They both spend a lot of time outdoors, feeling trapped and restrained inside.

There’s a lot more going on subtextually here than one might expect and it’s almost disappointing that the narrative climaxes with what, on the surface, seems like a traditional ending. However, the final shot of the film cleverly lets us know that a dangling plot thread isn’t really dangling at all, without explicitly making everything plain to the audience.

As far as directorial debuts go, The Girl in the Crawlspace is a strong one. Dalton’s handle on dialogue, pacing, and staging scenes is superb and his decision to open up with a psychological thriller rather than a gorefest is about as brave a choice as one can make. I can’t wait to check out his next film, which has already wrapped production, Scarecrow County. It promises to be dramatically different from The Girl in the Crawlspace, promising “color gels and weird angles, plus ghosts, psychic powers, dream sequences and plenty of people running from pitchforks and machetes.”

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