"First the fire...then Olaf...one disaster after another!" - Lila Lash in The Sinful Dwarf
Sometimes a movie can pique one's interest solely on the basis of its title. Sometimes these films can be as much fun as their outrageous names suggest. Others are like the salaciously entitled The Sinful Dwarf (Dværgen , 1973), the "mother of all 'Dwarfsploitation' films," according to The Daily Grindhouse. (And don't think there aren't others: the late, lamented Mondo Video in Los Angeles, infamous for its gleeful tastelessness, had an entire section of videotapes grouped under the banner "Horny Midgets.")
Unfortunately, The Sinful Dwarf (also released under the more generic title Abducted Bride) isn't much beyond its undeniably demented title character. It has all the ingredients of John Waters' early underground classics but instead of humorously embracing its tastelessness it mostly follows the usual crude and routine pattern of soft-core porn, albeit with a twist.
Further undercutting the DVD's success is its poor full-frame transfer and some playful but misleading extra features.
Japanese DVD cover art
Apparently a Danish-British co-production, The Sinful Dwarf opens with newlyweds Mary (Anne Sparrow) and her would-be writer-husband Peter (Tony Eades) desperately looking for a place to live on less than £10 a week (!). They wind up renting a flat from Lila Lash (Clara Keller), an old hag with crudely-applied scars on her face, who lives with her crazed dwarf son, Olaf (Torben Bille, then in his late-20s). (How Mom can have a thick Cockney accent while her live-in son speaks with an almost unintelligible Danish one goes unexplained.) In classic Idiot Plot scripting their weirdo behavior gives the young couple pause - but not enough for them to get the Hell out of there as fast as they can, as any real world young couple would.
No, they decide to stay, and after a night of intense (and very boringly photographed) love-making, the next morning Peter dashes off in search of writing work. ("The whole house is really strange," the new bride enthuses, "Maybe you could write about it!") Later, Mary foolishly begins poking around the strange boarding house, trying to reconcile the mysterious noises coming from downstairs, screams from women kidnapped into a white slavery ring and kept in line with daily injections of heroin from Olaf.
Though the story so far would seem to promise over-the-top satirical crudity along the lines of Waters' Desperate Living, The Sinful Dwarf is merely crude. Like a lot of soft-core titles, what plot there is stops dead at regular intervals to accommodate hand-held-photographed sex scenes. While these are downright tame compared to the hard-core porn of today they're neither sexy nor filmed very well, though in other scenes attractive Anne Sparrow does fill out a sweater quite nicely.
However, neither she nor anyone else in the cast can act worth a damn. Except for Torben (as he's billed), everyone speaks with a hesitant, Cockney delivery that reminded this reviewer of Tony the bashful would-be jockey from the Up film series. Torben, supposedly, incredibly a TV kiddie show host both before and after this was released, is appropriately demonic-looking - his eyes practically bulge right out of their sockets while the wee one cackles menacingly. Some have noted that he's like a shrunkified Jack Black, but he also reminded me of Arch Hall, Jr. in The Sadist (1963), a far-superior no-budget thriller.
Video & Audio
Playfully but disingenuously Severin Films claims this was "fully restored from a 35mm print discovered hidden in a janitor's closet at the Danish Film Institute." That's pretty funny, but the crummy transfer throws a wet blanket onto the gag. In fact it's sourced from what looks like an old Harry Novak video transfer; his Box Office International distributed the film in the U.S., apparently under several titles. The image is full frame through probably shot with 1.66:1 framing in mind. It's very soft and murky and the colors notably dull.
Note: Severin's David Gregory helpfully contacted us with additional information about the transfer. According to him, The Sinful Dwarf was shot in (full frame) 16mm, adding, "The element we did a new [high-def] transfer from was a dupe negative. Though like you I believe it deserves to, unfortunately this film will never look like The Dark Knight, even after we sunk a serious amount of money into transferring and cleaning it up." While its 16mm dupe neg origins would explain things to a point, judged alongside other 16mm productions on DVD (e.g., Shock Waves, lots of British television), The Sinful Dwarf regrettably still looks sub-par to this reviewer's eyes.
Oddly, the 2.0 Dolby Digital mono audio for this English-language production is quite good, very clear; fans of composer Ole Ørsted will be pleased, as his avant-garde main title theme is the best thing in the picture. The disc, incidentally, is region-free.
Supplements include a U.S. trailer that's more faded but sharper generally than the feature, under the title Abducted Bride. Two radio spots as The Sinful Dwarf are also included.
In the tradition of William Castle one featurette, The Severin Controversy, has a video store owner expressing mock outrage at the film's DVD release and its supposed adverse psychological impact. Though conceptually a fun idea, it doesn't play all that well.
Anyone hoping The Sinful Dwarf would be one of those oddball, underground discoveries will be in for a big disappointment, while even those with a supreme tolerance and affection for such unlovable films will find not so much their morality but patience challenged. Skip It.
Film historian Stuart Galbraith IV's latest book, The Toho Studios Story, is on sale now.