The Sinful Dwarf (Vidal Raski, 1973)
THE SINFUL DWARF begins with a long shot of a gangly, pony-tailed girl playing hopscotch when a creepy dwarf (former child star Torben Bille) approaches and attracts her attention with a yapping dog toy (he gives her the dog to hold but maintains hold of the leash). He leads her to a boarding house and up into the attic where he knocks her out with his cane. CUE CREDITS over shots of other mechanical toys. Our protagonists are a whiny, newlywed British couple Mary and Peter (Anne Sparrow and Tony Eades) looking for cheap digs who stumble upon the boarding house of Lila Lash (Clara Keller), a scarred former actress who spends her less-depraved moments entertaining other old biddies in her parlour. They are given a cramped but cheap room on the top floor where they promptly have sex (they even whine during sex) and are spied on through a peephole. Turns out, old Lila’s the mother of the Dwarf who is running a sex slave ring up in the boarding house’s attic (and yet the couple don’t hear any of the screams during the night; then again, they don’t notice the peephole into their apartment in the upstairs corridor) where paying customers can rough up drugged girls.
The middle of the picture is a rather predictable cat and mouse game of the dwarf spying on Mary, Mary investigating strange occurrences while her oblivious husband is at work (“There are your strange noises; it’s Mrs. Lash singing,” he says) – interspersed with the sort of lengthy, graphic-though-softcore, non-consensual sex scenes one expects from a Harry Novak production/acquisition performed by a cast of uninhibited (though not all attractive) Danish performers – until Mary is finally captured by the dwarf and her husband realizes that something strange “is” indeed going on.
The plot is your template “young couple in a strange apartment building”, with wife noticing weird things while hubby is off at work. The wife is either not believed or endangered because she does not want to press awkward situations. In ROSEMARY’S BABY, it was a Satanic cult; in the craptacular TOOLBOX MURDERS remake, it was the immortal, decaying, devil-worshipping owner claiming sacrifices; in THE SINFUL DWARF, it is the aforementioned sex slave ring full of nude actresses who one is not entirely sure whether they are supposed to be playing naïve, adolescent girls, or developmentally-disabled teenagers even before they are drugged up (perhaps it’s the height difference between these supposed “girls” and the dwarf). Still, there is something disturbing about the depraved-looking dwarf luring girls up to his attic with cute toys; but once the clothes are off and the hair is mussed, they look no different from any other mattress-carpeted roomful of 70’s softcore extras. All of the actors seem to be speaking English.
Bille (whose resemblance to Jack Black is remarked upon in the press release) is perhaps more disturbing because he is not dubbed and seems to be having the time of his life here (a “T. Bille” is also credited with set decoration). Sparrow is nice to look at and is convincing enough when being tormented and groped by the dwarf. Kellar does a show-stopping cabaret number early on in the film (she does another one later accompanied by the whipping of one of the sex slaves). Although the main couple are a little wet, the depraved mother/dwarf team give their all here in roles where they are actually expected to ham it up. Fans of light-hearted Eurotika might balk at the non-consensual sex scenes (more disturbing than anything Joe D’Amato handed out in his BLACK EMANUELLE offshoots and the like) but SWV/Box Office International fans should be pleased and the European setting (dreary as it is) makes a nice change from the usual Southern California settings.
Although Severin’s DVD and press release tout the film as having been restored from “a 35mm print discovered hidden in a janitor’s closet at the Danish Film Institute” the print begins with Harry Novak’s Box Office International logo which looks as immaculately colourful as the feature itself (the logo’s rainbow of colours look comparatively dull in the theatrical trailer with the final “Box Office International, Inc” looking like dried blood compared to the cherry red on the film’s opening while the regal yellow of “A Harry Novak Presentation” on the film has a greenish tinge on the trailer). The picture is grainy as hell but that’s the original cinematography and thankfully no extreme measures have been taken to smooth out the picture. Compared to the SWV version (sourced from more worn elements provided by Harry Novak), the colours are more saturated (some eye-popping against the dingy surroundings) and time image sharper and largely free of blemishes but for the usual reel change marks and some dirt and hair that was likely in the camera gate during shooting. The 4:3 frame appears uncropped for the most part (SWV’s previous tape/DVDR transfer was also fullframe) and is very likely the original aspect ratio. The master was apparently telecined (or at least down-converted from HD) in NTSC as the Another World Entertainment Scandinavian 2 disc set has the shared transfer of the softcore version in NTSC as well while the hardcore version is in PAL (Severin’s hardcore version – unavailable for review – is supposed to use the softcore version as the basis for most of the composite since the hardcore version has burned in Danish subtitles). Thus, the progressive single-layer transfer is excellent with no noticeable faults.
Extras consist of THE SEVERIN CONTROVERSY, a humorous though at times taxing puff-piece about the outrage around Severin’s release of the film (some of which was viewable some time ago on YouTube). The aforementioned Box Office International theatrical trailer is under the alternate title ABDUCTED BRIDE and looks very Grindhouse in terms of content and picture quality. Rounding out the extras are a 30 second and a 60 second radio spot under the SINFUL DWARF title. Unless Severin are planning a separate release pairing the hardcore and softcore versions together, then Severin’s release of the soft-core cut is an essential purchase for fans who do not own the AWE two-disc set and have found other previous editions lacking (including SWV’s transfer). First time viewers are liable to either be pleasantly surprised or wonder what all the fuss is about. Torben Bille is truly disturbing as the titular dwarf but he’s just a twist on the usual formula seen in a glut of American Harry Novak titles like A SCREAM IN THE STREETS and BEHIND LOCKED DOORS.
With THE SINFUL DWARF, Severin have not only provided fans with an excellent transfer of a film that seemed destined to remain a grey market title (SWV had the rights when they distributed it but this was never going to be an Image/SWV DVD though Severin could have taken a lesson from them with some like-minded shorts and trailers) they are also continuing to break away from the niche distributor label (some of their upcoming titles include two Patrice Laconte titles). Don’t get me wrong, I hope to see more Francos and Borowczyks (along with Dallamano’s VENUS IN FURS which seems inevitable given the name Severin); but with their releases of this film and wacky gialli such as IN THE FOLDS OF THE FLESH and the more austere THE PSYCHIC and the upcoming EXPOSE, Severin is continuing to surprise a wider audience with its unpredictable catalog — could some Umberto Lenzi/Carroll Baker gialli be in the pipeline? Or some neglected Rivette or even Robbe-Grillet?
THE SINFUL DWARF XXX
The XXX version of THE SINFUL DWARF has been issued by Severin under their Private Screening Collection sub-label (distributed by CAV after some other label Ryko carried got in a snit about a Severin release with XXX content) but, like Blue Underground’s unsigned XXX releases, Severin’s aesthetic look is all over the Private Screening menus and cover. Unlike the AWE 2 disc set that featured a Danish (not Dutch, I do read feedback) hard-subbed print (the only existing print of the XXX version), Severin’s techs have composited the hardcore footage (which feature no dialogue, hence no burned in subs) into the HD transfer of the softcore version. The XXX footage is in rougher quality and contrasty; looking very much like previous transfers of the softcore version. The difference between the two versions amounts to just over four minutes and consists entirely of coupling between the extras in the attic dungeon (the lengthy and explicit-looking coupling between the main couple is the same as in the softcore version). The hardcore footage is not inserted; the same actors perform in both versions and the editing of the softcore version is such that it is not apparent that anything has been cut (the explicitness of the soft sex scenes is comparable to those seen in other Harry Novak releases). While the HD transfer has been down-converted to NTSC at the correct framerate (the AWE disc of the soft version is also NTSC), Severin have also taken care to slow down the hardcore footage to the correct framerate so there is no ghosting during these sequences. There are no extras on the Private Screening disc, just the play feature and scene selection but it is unmistakably a Severin disc. It is difficult to recommend the XXX version of THE SINFUL DWARF as an essential purchase as the presence of XXX footage does not make THE SINFUL DWARF any sleazier than the more familiar version (the on-set footage are not mismatched like the inserts in EMANUELLE AROUND THE WORLD and do not destroy the integrity of the film like the inserts in 99 WOMEN). While SINFUL DWARF fans might want both (and probably have both thanks to the AWE 2 disc), I’m sure most viewers could do with either version – if not for the distribution hassles, Severin would have been better off doing either a two disc or a single disc with branching to make both available. Viewers who held off on getting THE SINFUL DWARF until now are probably better off with the XXX version (or whichever version is more easy to acquire through ones’ usual online DVD sources).