Any devotee of grindhouse fare understands that seediness is one of the most potent weapons that a this kind of film can have. It’s their secret power, every bit as important as the exploitable content they contain. The grainy photography, run-down locations and the coldblooded, “don’t give a damn” attitude that the filmmakers show in their choice of subject matter give these films an edge of danger that is hypnotic, forcing the audience to move to the edge of their seat as they ponder whether or not the filmmakers will really “go there.”
The Sinful Dwarf is a film that is suffused with that kind of hypnotic seediness. The protagonists are struggling writer Peter (Tony Eades) and his nubile wife Mary (Anne Sparrow). They go to the big city so he can pursue his career and they end up taking a room in a building owned by scarred, alcoholic ex-nightclub singer Lila (Clara Keller) and her leering little-person son (Torben Bille). The naive couple doesn’t know that their hosts run a small prostitution den in their attic, staffed with kidnapped women they keep strung out on drugs. When Peter gets distracted by a potential job offer, Mary finds herself snooping around her odd temporary home. Little does she know that her hosts have awful, perverted plans in store for her.
Someone not wise to the ways of grindhouse fare might look at The Sinful Dwarf and wonder what the big deal is: the plot doesn’t make a lick of sense, the characters constantly do dopey things to facilitate the weird storyline, the filmmaking and most of the performances are raw to the point of basic and there have been decades of films since this one that are more sexy and violent.
However, The Sinful Dwarf sidesteps its way around conventional criticism thanks to the industrial-strength seediness that permeates its every frame. The story is not driven by narrative logic but instead the pursuit of depravity. It almost feels like John Waters and Tennessee Williams teamed up to write the grimmest skin flick they could imagine: the grotesque villains are the most interesting characters and there are not one but two musical numbers by scar-faced Lila that rival Bette Davis’s song-and-dance excursions in Whatever Happened To Baby Jane?
The direction, credited to one, possibly pseudonymous “Vidal Raski,” is entry-level in its technical execution but it’s the work of a twisted soul who knows exactly what he wants. The film revels in the squalor of its dirty, crumbling locations and wallows in perversion and cruelty whenever it can: for example, the frequent sex scenes in the attic slave-brothel look like nature show footage of predators gleefully pouncing on their helpless prey. Raski and company really outdo themselves in the final act, when Mary’s snooping finally gets her into real trouble: these scenes are Sadean in the glee they show as they display her fear, anguish and physical torment.
Most importantly, The Sinful Dwarf has the kind of twisted villains-as-antiheroes that you only see in the finest grindhouse fare. Bille is revered in bizarro-film circles for his performance here as the childlike yet utterly perverted title character: he growls his lines with a dark sense of humor and the closeups of his bug-eyed, sweaty, sneering face are one of the purest expressions of sadism ever seen on the screen. Keller doesn’t get as much notice but she gives a performance worthy of Mink Stole here, howling her way through her songs with twisted glee and giving a boozy, mean-eyed performance that makes her character a fascinating grotesque.
In short, The Sinful Dwarf achieves the highest plateau of anti-compliment that a grindhouse film can achieve: you’ll feel like you’re covered in scum by the time it’s over. Thus, it’s a necessary experience for any budding grindhouse buff… just be prepared for Bille’s snarling, gnarled face to haunt your post-screening nightmares.