The Sinful Dwarf/Abducted Bride/Dvaergen (1974) ***½
All commercially viable art forms are also at least partly business, but the movies make more obeisance to Mammon than most— if only because the startup costs have traditionally been so much higher. Among other things, this has made cinema one of the very few creative media in which the salesmen can become legends alongside the creators themselves. Samuel Goldwyn and the two Carl Laemmles need no introduction among serious movie fans, for example, while Samuel Z. Arkoff and James H. Nicholson are no less famous in other, less reputable circles. Then you have guys like Harry Novak. Novak is curious case, for he started his career at RKO during the troubled reign of Howard Hughes, ended it as a distributor of hardcore porn, and occupied nearly every rung of the ladder between those two levels at one point or another along the way. His Box Office International company traded in every form of salaciousness current in the 1960’s (Kiss Me Quick, The Agony of Love, and Mantis in Lace were all BOI releases), then branched out into horror and hicksploitation in the 70’s. Box Office International also lived up to its name by importing some of the weirdest European exploitation movies to be seen on American screens in those days, and that brings us to The Sinful Dwarf. This was primarily a Danish production, although it has a largely British cast and appears to have received at least some of its funding from American sources. What it resembles most closely is a cross between Private Parts and Bloodsucking Freaks, and it’s every bit as twisted as either of those notorious films.
A gimp-legged dwarf (Torben Bille, who would later try his hand at a lighter-hearted sort of sleaze in the Agent 69 Jensen movies, In the Sign of Scorpio and In the Sign of Sagittarius) hobbles down the street on a crutch-handled cane, heavily laden with parcels and incongruously carrying a clockwork stuffed poodle that walks and barks. The dwarf drops some of his packages as he passes by a girl (I believe this is Jane Cutter, as she’s the least Danish-looking of the three characters whom Cutter could have played) playing hopscotch just off the sidewalk. The girl interrupts her game to help the little man gather up his stuff, and she goes off with him to his house when he offers her the toy dog. It’s an incredibly icky scene, even though it consists of nothing more than what I have just described; what makes it so is the dissonance between the girl’s behavior and the age of the actress who plays her. Jane Cutter (or whoever) appears to be in her early 20’s, while her character is plainly supposed to be much, much younger— thirteen or fourteen at the outside, and probably more like ten or eleven. Even without the obvious implications of a strange man luring a child home with him, a movie with a title like The Sinful Dwarf can have but one reason for casting a legal adult in the role of a pre-teen, and that reason is going to be loitering in the back of your mind playing pocket-pool all throughout the opening scene. Then the next thing we see is the dwarf disemboweling a teddy bear with a steak knife so as to remove a small package that we don’t get to see clearly from its stuffing. Those of us who remember Wait Until Dark won’t need a clear look to guess what’s inside it, though.
Enter newlyweds Peter and Mary Davis (Tony Eades and Anne Sparrow). Peter is an aspiring television writer, while Mary is an aspiring housewife. This means that the two of them are the next best thing to flat broke, and so their hunt for accommodations in which to begin their life together is sharply cost-constrained. So far, the cheapest room they’ve found for rent costs £10 a week, which is about twice what Peter considers realistic until he can find a steady scripting gig. There’s still one place they haven’t tried, though, a forbiddingly skeezy-looking boarding house in a run-down section of the city. Mary hates it on sight, but they’ve got to live somewhere. Peter talks to Lila Lashe (Clara Keller), the mistress of the house, and at first she tells him that there are no vacancies. But when Mary walks into view, Miss Lashe changes her tune, and says that there is one room they could have for a weekly fee of £6. Then she summons her son, Olaf, to show it to the prospective tenants. Yes, we’ve seen Olaf somewhere before…
Naturally, it’ll be a while yet before the Davises grasp what’s really going on at the Lashe house. They know it’s dirty, ill-maintained, and infested with mice. They know there’s an awful lot of coming and going down the hallway that leads ultimately to Olaf’s attic, at all hours of the day and night. And they occasionally hear Lila entertaining her hard-drinking friend, Winnie (Gerda Madsen, who had a bit part in the nunspoitation segment of Witchcraft Through the Ages when she was but a girl), with boozy, rusty nightclub routines while Olaf accompanies her on a piano that has seen better days. Eventually, they even figure out that the house used to be the cabaret where Lila sang and danced in her youth, until a serious fire (which may have something to do with the prominent scar on the woman’s face) forced the previous owners to shut it down. What Peter and Mary don’t know— and what most assuredly will hurt them before all is said and done— is that the attic contains a secret, locked room where three nude teenaged girls (the one we saw earlier, plus Lisbeth Olsen, from Bordello and In the Sign of the Gemini, and Jeanette Marsden, of The Love Box and Confessions of a Sex Maniac) are imprisoned under conditions so squalid that the rest of the house looks positively charming in comparison. Lila and Olaf sell their captives’ sexual services to those men whom Mary keeps hearing as they tromp through the house, keeping the girls docile with a combination of regular beatings and injections of smack bought from a crooked toy vendor appropriately known as Santa Claus (Werner Hedman, from The Fellowship of the Frog and The Terrible People). Heroin costs money, of course, and one girl’s addiction is nearing the point where it ceases to be profitable for her captors to maintain her. I think we know now why Lila changed her mind about renting the spare room once she got a look at Mary, don’t you?
Man, where has this movie been all my life? The Sinful Dwarf is one of the most diabolically scummy sex-horror films I’ve seen— even its descents into camp have a nasty kick to them, tending to intensify the sullying mood rather than breaking it. On the one hand, Torben Bille’s performance is exactly what you’d expect from a former children’s television host (supposedly Bille’s previous showbiz gig, although I have yet to find mention of which show specifically) attempting to portray villainy, but something about the look in his eyes as he puts on his Bad Clown act conveys the impression that you might really find some incredibly sick shit if you snuck into his room and rummaged around between the mattress and the box spring. It certainly doesn’t make for good feelings when Bille actually drools on Anne Sparrow during the scene when Olaf finally gets his hands on Mary. Clara Keller is just as creepy in her own way, and Lila’s Twilight Zone song-and-dance numbers are among the most disturbing parts of the movie. You wind up dwelling on the massive incongruence between the fancifully idealized self-image that those scenes imply and the life of unabashed evil that she actually leads— and you wonder uneasily whether Winnie realizes what’s going on upstairs while Lila dresses up like Carmen Miranda and squawks her way through a song for her amusement. The Sinful Dwarf deflates a little in the second act, as if writer William Mayo and director Vidal Raski were contractually obligated to deliver a fixed number of attic-cage sex scenes, and couldn’t quite think of a non-clunky way to fit them all in, but this is still the sort of film that could spoil you for “normal” entertainment if you saw it at an impressionable stage in your life.