Monday, March 23, 2009

THE SINFUL DWARF (1973) d. Vidal Raski

Reviewed by Rick Trottier

One of the most endearing qualities of independent cinema is that there is no limit to what can be tainted, debauched or twisted to become absolutely loathsome. Just as we saw in great literature written by masters like Ray Bradbury, the simplest and most innocuous things can be made to be utterly terrifying, as Mr. Bradbury did in stories like The Long Rain and Boys! Grow Giant Mushrooms in your Cellar. While indie-film makers have been creating flicks that exploited or lampooned all manner of charming icons or heart-warming imagery since the earliest days of The Silver Screen, the pinnacle of excess was reached in the 1970s when the boundaries of censorship and decency were rolled back consistently during that epoch of permissiveness. The people who benefited were movie lovers, for the world was treated to tales of dope fiends, sex addicts, perverts and maniacs. THE SINFUL DWARF (aka DVAERGEN) must be recognized as one of the Pillars of the Depraved Exploitation Temple, for it mines just about every possible vein and just like a sadistic dentist, it finds as many sensitive nerves as it can and plucks at them viciously throughout its duration.

THE SINFUL DWARF is the story of drunken and dissolute Lila Lash and her diminutive and degenerate son Olaf. Lila owns a rooming house that was once the nightclub where she performed as a singer/dancer in her more successful youth. The house and Lila have fallen on hard times and now, with the help of Olaf, she must peddle the flesh of young women she keeps enslaved to heroine in her attic. When a young newlywed couple named Peter and Mary rent a room at Lila’s, they step into more than they bargained for. While Peter spends the day trying to get writing gigs, lovely Mary allows her active imagination to run wild and then gives into the powerful lure of curiosity in an attempt to find out why there are strange sounds coming from the attic. As has almost always been the case in such a situation, “curiosity kills the cat”, and Mary lands herself in a very harrowing predicament.

If you are a fan of wildly entertaining, low budget but still “thoughtfully” composed exploitation cinema from pioneers like Dave Friedman, THE SINFUL DWARF will probably delight, not that there aren’t problems with it. When I first saw the Harry Novak logo come up at the beginning of the film, I was nervous due to my many disappointing experiences with Mr. Novak’s “motion pictures”, but then my prior research asserted its contemplative self, commandeered my emotions and helped to calm my fears. Knowing that THE SINFUL DWARF was a Danish production, I assumed Mr. Novak’s influence would be less pronounced and to some degree I was right. The story of this flick is absolutely typical exploitation gold, for it is a mix of a very good plot concept, very lecherous and licentious moments of ‘skin-tastic” salaciousness and loads of slower narrative components, some added in to intensify the “creepiness” factor, others added in to develop a sense of atmosphere and many were just good old padding used to lengthen the runtime of the film. If you go into THE SINFUL DWARF expecting a rocket ride of nonstop sleaze from the opening titles to the closing scene, you will disappointed and should be slapped for your stupidity, for this is an early 70s softcore/exploitation flick and as such it is going to be a mixed bag. Certainly there is nudity aplenty and we are treated to the beautiful Anne Sparrow (Mary) in wonderfully form-fitting fashions and often times out of her garments as well. While all the girls in THE SINFUL DWARF are comely, most are a bit slender, but Ms. Sparrow steals the show with her striking face, intensely expressive eyes, luxuriant blond locks and outstanding figure. For those hoping for some naughtiness, there are numerous sex scenes shot with the usual Harry Novak energetic style that lacks panache and skill, but still delivers the goods, especially just as much “man-ass” as it does the female form. There are drugs, sex slaves and bondage, but what carries the weight of THE SINFUL DWARF are the facial expressions and guttural verbiage of Olaf (Torben Bille) and the utterly horrifying visage and singing/dancing of Lila (Clara Keller). Not since Arch Hall Jr. in THE SADIST has there been a face as disturbing as that of Olaf. Watching his creepy countenance for 90 minutes could give you nightmares if not thoroughly unseat your sanity, but he is completely entertaining none-the-less and I found myself wishing there was more of his presence. Ms. Clara Keller does the most outstanding job of creating a female equivalent to Klaus Kinski or Udo Kier that I have ever seen. If you have ever had the privilege of observing either of those actors in one of their more unsettling performances like CRAWL SPACE or MARK OF THE DEVIL, you will know exactly what I mean. Her liquor besotted and makeup besmirched appearance sporting “Roaring 20s” garb is truly distressing to say the least. These two combine to create the most unpleasant dastardly duo since Bonne and Clyde. While they may not be as active as the afore-mentioned bank robbers, they are undoubtedly more fun.

THE SINFUL DWARF benefits from Severin Films’ very sincere efforts to restore this motion picture. Found in a Danish Film School’s closet, the 35 mm master was probably in rough shape and was likely to be of poor film stock to begin with. Dark and grainy at times and with some relatively hollow audio, we are still treated to a colorful and strikingly attractive film despite the low budget efforts of the original film makers. The interior sets are such a bizarre mix of compelling images of baroque beauty that has “gone to seed” mixed with repellant scenes of gloomy hallways, filthy attics and scabrous bathroom fixtures. The marvelous contrasts of diametrically opposed visually imagery of both the sets and the cast members makes this motion picture work in a startlingly effective manner. When added to the consistently utilized motif of children’s wind up toys and teddy bear-like dolls, the resulting admixture of childhood icons and behavioral depravity is even more delightfully sickening. The toy shots used in the opening credits stuck with me throughout the film and whenever things took a “dark turn”, the mental juxtaposition was quite forceful. The performances of the principal actors are also competent and occasionally strong. In addition to Ms. Keller and Mr. Torben Bille, Anne Sparrow is not just a pretty face, she is able to act too and does a very good job in her role. It is a crying shame that THE SINFUL DWARF was her only film, for I would have done just about anything to see her continue as an icon of the exploitation genre. Tony Eades plays the part of Mary’s husband Peter and he gives a solid performance as well. Most of the time, exploitation actors and actresses were not always that good to look at and were even less winning as performers, but in THE SINFUL DWARF, we get the whole nine yards. Finally, one can’t even escape from the music of THE SINFUL DWARF. There is an eclectic and unsettling mix of playful incidental themes, innocently classical strains and deeply disconcerting modern soundtrack elements that strengthen all of the emotional reactions that are meant to be manipulated. Sadly, the score could have been used even more consistently, but when it was, the impact was like a fist to the solar plexus.

Since THE SINFUL DWARF has such a checkered past as a “lost exploitation classic” and an infamous title of loathsome lechery, I fully expected there to be little or no bonus features to be had, and got another surprise. In addition to two radio spots (30 seconds and 60 seconds) and the trailer, there is a 10 minute faux mini-documentary called “The Severin Controversy” which looks at the “lasting impact of watching THE SINFUL DWARF”. Set in a small video store and surrounded by titles of other sordid splendor like AMAZON JAIL, “The Severin Controversy” discusses with two of the store regulars what life has been like since first viewing THE SINFUL DWARF and the many cautionary comments each “Johnny lunch pail” has for potential “dwarf-a-maniac”. This featurette is a real “hoot” and was a perfect way to bring to a close my “dwarfsploitation” cinema experience.

Watching THE SINFUL DWARF will not warp you permanently for there are far more alarming viewing options to be had in the world both past and present. Go in expecting this to be a “long, strange trip” and that the Master of Ceremonies will be pint-sized in build but mighty in mischief and you will probably be entertained. Like SIMON, KING OF THE WITCHES, this is not classic horror, but rather a mix of ideas blended in The Devil’s Kitchen Aid food processor and served cold, just as revenge should be, for this is The Beast’s pay back for being cast out of Paradise. If you watch THE SINFUL DWARF, you will descend just a few steps further on that ruinous path into The Void, but that’s okay. Do it for Olaf.

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