Brian Quinn and Eric Caidin, the dedicated programmers of the twice-monthly New Beverly Grindhouse Film festival, broke format for their Tuesday night series last night with pleasing results. Rather than sticking with the loosely demarcated time frame of mid ‘60s to mid ‘80s, from whence most of the programming for the popular Grindhouse Night comes, they chose to highlight a relatively new film which itself harkens back to the spirit of the grimy, grainy, “realistic” films that made up the aesthetic of the films most typically highlighted. What’s most immediately captivating about Plague Town (2008) is the confidence with which first-time feature filmmaker David Gregory, directing from a script he wrote with John Cregan, take the low-budget independent horror film back to a set of pre-postmodern roots much more entangled with the Wes Craven of The Hills Have Eyes than he of Scream.
Plague Town even pays tribute to The Hills Have Eyes in its basic narrative set-up, though its pay-off, it has to be said, is as eerie and ambiguous as Craven’s post-nuclear nuclear family riff was relentless and crude. An American family, broken by divorce and headed by a father and new stepmother who must preside over the wounds of their angry and dysfunctional brood, take a vacation to Ireland in the hopes of reconnecting with their ancestry and bonding as a new unit. As in the Craven film, Gregory and Cregan don’t really find a way for us to get past this group’s general pettiness. They are, for the most part undistinguished in their antagonisms-- oldest sister Jessica (Erica Rhodes) takes out her anger and aggression on the entire family, but especially on her more introspective (and equally bitter) younger sister Molly (Jossalyn DeCrosta, quite good). Her father (David Lombard) and stepmother Annette (Lindsay Goranson) cannot figure out how to get their family to enjoy the trip and their surroundings, and they are equally annoyed by Robin (James Warke), the arrogant Britisher she’s picked up and invited along on the trip. The family, of course, gets lost in the Irish countryside, setting up their inevitable discovery of and dispatch at the hands of a mysterious band of mutated children, who are quite effective (due to some nice make-up creations and one memorably creepy bit of costume design) as the movie’s objects and purveyors of grisly horror.
Brian Quinn discusses Plague Town with director David Gregory.
Where Plague Town has it all over The Hills Have Eyes is in its canny use of its locale—Connecticut countryside masquerading as Irish countryside—to frame its horrors. Craven’s movie had the naturally forbidding desert as its backdrop, but the director and his cinematographer did little to exploit what they had at their fingertips to create a sense of the landscape closing in on their characters. However, Gregory excels in harvesting tension between the welcoming surroundings and the evils perpetuated in them by the bearers of local and very twisted family values. Gregory also displays, especially for a first-time director, a remarkable patience and assurance with the camera, allowing a rather inconspicuous style to take over the larger visual scheme of the movie. Combine that inconspicuous style with Gregory and Cregan’s resistance to over-explain just what is at the root of the madness overtaking this Irish village of the damned, and you’ve got a movie that feels much closer to the some of the Hammer films directed by Freddie Francis or Terence Fisher, or even Piers Haggard’s bewitched and beautiful Blood on Satan’s Claw, than to the typical 21st-century gross-out shocker. Plague Town is often quite creatively gory, but even so some may miss the crude jolts Gregory avoids that most modern horror directors can’t seem to resist including. For all audiences, the movie’s skin-crawling conclusion may indeed be played and staged with a bit too even a hand—it’s here, in the scenes with the utterly frightening Rosemary, the would-be child bride whose masked face and painted-on eyes covers unspeakable mutation (and provides the movie’s chilling poster images), that the movie could have used more of a playfully perverse De Palma-esque touch. As it is, though, Plague Town, while not exactly breaking new ground in the horror genre, works nicely in a relatively subdued tone, and it speaks well of Gregory and Cregan’s future as genre filmmakers that they would leap out of the box with such an assured first feature.
The official trailer for Plague Town.
As for The Sinful Dwarf, what really can or needs to be said? In my experience at least, exploitation shockers like this are almost never as clever or entertaining as their advertisements. How many times have we seen ads for “the most shocking” this, or “the most erotic” that, only to discover that the actual movie, more often than not crafted (if one can use such a highfalutin word) by stylistic nonentities, exists in a world of muffled sound, inert camerawork and zombified cast members, all of which contribute to the general thick coating of torpor that almost always takes over less than a third of the way through. It is a rare beast indeed that approaches the promise of forbidden (or at least socially deviant) fruit with anything remotely akin to truth in advertising. What we have here is one such beast. Let it be said that The Sinful Dwarf, directed by one Vidal Raski from a screenplay by Harlan Asquith and William Mayo, is one of the most genuinely demented movies I’ve ever seen. Raski, who is credited under this name with no other features according to IMDb (though he may have directed at least one other under a different name), displays a remarkably high ratio of bad to appropriate camera placement—in almost every shot the camera is where it shouldn’t be, and the movie has no claim to a recognizable narrative rhythm-- lurching and crawling and stopping and lurching to life again is the only pattern of its pace. However, The Sinful Dwarf arrives at its gruesome tackiness and perversity sincerely—the movie has virtually no sense of (intentional) humor, yet if it were made even 10 years later you’d have to suspect that there was a desperate camp sensibility behind it all. That said, the movie goes about its business with a lopsided trajectory that generates more honest scuzzy atmosphere, laughable absurdity and creeping dread than almost any movie I’ve ever seen.
Grindhouse Film Festival programmer Brian Quinn poses in front of the one-sheet for Abducted Bride, one of the many titles under which The Sinful Dwarf was repackaged and reissued to a presumably unsuspecting public. This very typical exploitation tactic was a favorite of producer-distributor Harry Novak, repackager extraordinaire, who was certainly not the only low-budget producer to traffic in this kind of deception. (The print we saw of The Sinful Dwarf had the original title clumsily chopped out and the nondescript font "ABDUCTED BRIDE", on a suitably lurid purple backing card, hastily spliced in to take its place.)
The vaguely Euro-Scandinavian otherworldliness of The Sinful Dwarf contributes mightily to the overwhelming sense of unease the viewer slips into almost immediately, but really, that’s only part of the story. The movie takes place almost entirely inside the world’s greasiest, most forbidding, musty and putrid-looking boarding house, where Peter and Mary (Tony Eades and Anne Sparrow-pseudonyms, I hope, for the sake of these actors) take up residence in order to save four pounds a week rent over what one presumes is a more expensive, less obviously hellish residence. The landlady, a rancid ex-cabaret singer named Lila Lash (Clare Keller) runs the place in a drunken stupor—she and a creepy friend (whose dental work we are given much too close a look at) make a daily date out of knocking down bottle after bottle of Beefeater while Lila performs old sub-Dietrich song-and-dance routines for her besotted pal. All this is plenty creepy enough. But it seems Lila has a son, Olaf, the titular slobbering, mouth-breathing perv who lures unsuspecting and nubile hotties to the attic, where he chains them up, hooks them on heroin and sells them as benumbed sex slaves to puffy, acne-scarred neighborhood johns. And when Lila and Olaf get a glimpse of Mary, who pours herself into tight-fitting sweaters (braless, of course) when she isn’t otherwise in full-frontal nude repose, they realize they simply must add her to their collection. A goodly portion of the film’s 92-minute running time is given over to following Olaf as he hobbles up and down the staircase, huffing and puffing and wheezing and cackling, taking advantage of the requisite, conveniently placed peep hole (so he and we can watch Peter and Mary having a near hard-core bang), grotesque choppers bared as if ready to chew down a tree, eyebrows arched insanely, as if they were two furry ski slopes meeting on the bridge of his nose, face twisted into a perpetually drooling leer.
Olaf, who is as obsessed with creepy little wind-up dolls as he is with the dirty pillows on those drugged-out unfortunates in the attic (“Vannnt too zee me ozzer toyisss?” he croaks in a skin-crawling butchery of dubbed English), is played with incredible conviction and absolutely no discernable talent by Torben Bille (he is billed only as Torben in the advertising and in the film’s credits). Torben was at one time a popular children’s TV host—one has to believe/hope his appearance in this shocker ended that career tributary rather swiftly—as well as the go-to actor whenever Swedish filmmakers needed a little person, in kind of the same way that Michael Dunn (best known for his recurring role as Dr. Miguelito Loveless on TV’s The Wild, Wild West) could be spotted everywhere on TV and the movies in the ‘60s and early ‘70s here in America. The difference being, of course, that Dunn was a good actor and Torben—well, Torben is not. (Someone once described Torben as Jack Black after having been put through a trash compactor, and that cackling portrait of him on the Sinful Dwarf poster is, incredibly, no exaggeration.) Never in my memory has the slimy conception of a character jibed so seamlessly with the unpleasant personage of the actor portraying him, which in turn works so claustrophobically in concert with the verite awfulness of that boarding house, the walls which seem to be closing in not only on Mary, as she waits there all day with increasing impatience while Peter goes out looking for work, but on us, the poor, trapped audience, for whom there is no escape from its ghastly oppressiveness. This foul fleapit makes Barton Fink’s Hotel Earle look like the Haunted Mansion.
(Play the Severin Films Sinful Dwarf featurette by clicking to Amazon.com here.)
In its own freakish way The Sinful Dwarf achieves a kind of perfection of its kind—its genuine, lived-in repulsiveness could never be consciously produced or reproduced, and it is compulsively watchable even as we acknowledge it as being utterly bereft of anything resembling the craft and art of film, qualities which produce the pleasures we usually go to the movies to experience. The Sinful Dwarf almost feels like it was produced in an alternate universe, and in a way, I suppose, it was—it’s a Bizarro-world phenomenon where the worse and more grotesque it gets, the more fully it achieves its singular positioning among genuine grindhouse classics, a place where guilelessness and lack of filmmaking acumen, genuine perversion, and balls-out sausage-factory cinema in the name of cooked books and bottom-line profit-making coalesce into a one-of-a-kind production. Seeing The Sinful Dwarf in a beat-up print apparently beamed directly to the New Beverly from Times Square circa 1973 was perhaps as mainline a grindhouse movie experience as is possible to achieve in this age of digital restoration and reverent repackaging of even the sleaziest, most unworthy titles. Just like Brian said I would, as soon as I got home last night I took a shower, and afterward I felt much better. That didn’t stop Torben from invading my dreams, however. He mustn't come visit me tonight. After I finish writing this, it’s off to the showers again. Out, damned dwarf!
Torben et al in the trailer for The Sinful Dwarf.
I should mention here too what Brian and Eric have in store for the rest of the month in the Grindhouse Film Festival. They have added a midnight double feature this coming Saturday, June 13, in memory of the late Marilyn Chambers which will feature Chambers’s first two hard-core Mitchell Brothers films, Resurrection of Eve and Behind the Green Door, and, schedule permitting, there should be some special guests and colleagues appearing to pay tribute to the actress. June has inadvertently become a tribute month across the board. On June 23 the gentlemen have assembled a terrific triple-feature in remembrance of exploitation director extraordinaire Ray Dennis Steckler, who died this past January. In addition to the rare opportunity to see Steckler’s eye-popping monster musical The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-up Zombies (1964) and The Thrill Killers on the big screen, Eric recently uncovered some missing reels that have allowed for the third feature to be unexpectedly added: Steckler’s weirdo kiddie movie, the rarest of the rare, The Lemon Grove Kids Meet the Monsters (1965). Brian promises some extra treats for that program as well. And finally, what was to be a celebration of the work of actor-director Don Edmonds, with the director himself in attendance, has turned into what Brian describes will be more like an Irish wake due to Edmonds’ May 30 death. Edmonds directed the infamous Nazisploitation classics Ilsa: She-Wolf of the S.S. (1975) and Ilsa: Harem Keeper of the Oil Shieks (1976). Both of those will screen along with Edmonds’ 1977 thriller Bare Knuckles, an a choice clip reel of Edmonds’ appearances on such shows as Green Acres, Petticoat Junction, The Munsters and many others will also be featured. This Don Edmonds memorial will screen two nights, Friday and Saturday, July 10 and 11.
The trailer for The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-up Zombies, in Terrorama AND Eastmancolor!
The trailer for The Thrill Killers a.k.a. The Maniacs are Loose!, in hallucinogenic Hypnovision!
Finally, I'd like to point out that attending the Grindhouse Film Festival on Tuesdays at the New Beverly not only pays off in terms of grime accumulated on the eyes and in the soul, which may or may not be so easily showered away, but also, if you’re lucky, in lovely prizes as well. Last night Brian and Eric gave away some signed Herschell Gordon Lewis posters, some bootlegged copies of God Told Me To (provided by Larry Cohen himself—it’s a long story), and other bits of trashy memorabilia. But when Eric called out my ticket stub number I really lucked out. Brian awarded me two tickets to next Friday night’s Los Angeles Film Festival screening of the newest Coffin Joe shocker, starring writer-director Jose Mojica Marins as the bloodthirsty gravedigger in what is apparently the conclusion of this popular Brazilian movie series. The movie, entitled Embodiment of Evil (Encarnacao do demonio), looks to be suitably grotesque and in keeping with the tone of the previous Coffin Joe chapters, and I’m really excited (if a little apprehensive, after seeing the trailer below) about getting a chance to see this one theatrically, as it’s likely to go the way of straight-to-DVD in America, if at all. My sincere thanks to Brian and Eric for facilitating the corruption of my cinematic soul to the degree that you both have so far this year. I’m glad to be able to make the Grindhouse Film Festival a bit more of a regular destination, and having these two as hosts makes for a very entertaining way to keep the sordid spirit of these pictures alive, not only for the opportunity to trace their influences in more reputable modern motion pictures, but also to rediscover the what these movies are like to see as communal experiences rather than as isolated home-theater diversions. I was grateful for the roughed-up print, as well as the laughter and good-natured groaning and squirming evident all around me in the New Beverly during The Sinful Dwarf. It reminded me, in ways the movie itself did not/could not/refused to, of my shared humanity. Seeing it alone, with no one to turn to or laugh with or share in the shock, might just have been too much for my fragile little mind.
The second trailer for Embodiment of Evil-- beware, it gets pretty grisly, especially for a preview.