I’m not going to pretend to be more disturbed about this than I really am, or, actually, that I’m disturbed by this at all. I’ve become convinced that what happens in movies isn’t real, to begin with, and also that depicting a thing is not the same thing as advocating that thing. There are limits, certainly, but despite its infamy The Sinful Dwarf does not reach, let alone exceed, those limits (despite what Severin Films, the company that released the 1973 film on DVD, would like you to believe, as expressed on a DVD extra called “The Severin Controversy”. In this, a couple of pothead movie fans of dubious sincerity are interviewed and explain why they think The Sinful Dwarf should not be released on DVD. This extra also repeats rumors about Torben Bille, who plays Olaf, as fact, and misidentifies actress Anne Sparrow). It’s rather less disturbing than comparatively mainstream films like the original The Last House on the Left, but it does have a crazy dwarf in it, which for whatever reason has a tendency to cause people to regard the sleaze quotient as significantly upped.
But regardless. My experience with The Sinful Dwarf (I finished watching it this morning, you’ll be relieved to hear) was only highlighted by the fact that I realized I watched a lot of exploitation films this weekend, to the near exclusion of any other kind of film. Again, I don’t think much of this, nor am I the kind of person who would try to explain the existence of a film like The Sinful Dwarf by saying “Well, Vietnam.” What does strike me about my recent viewing habits is the variety of both types of film and of my personal motives for watching them, as well as how closely those films met expectations, or were even interested in meeting them. Take A Boy and His Dog, for instance, L. Q. Jones’s adaptation of Harlan Ellison’s classic science fiction novella. The fact that A Boy and His Dog is often referred to as an “exploitation film” makes me think that it’s just possible that the definition of “exploitation film” is an "R-rated genre film that was made back when they used to make films called 'exploitation films'.” Because A Boy and His Dog is simply an excellent piece of science fiction that has a little nudity and a little violence. Jones doesn’t slather his film with either. See also William Lustig’s Maniac Cop – this one is made by the same guy who made Maniac, a true exploitation film, and yet it plays like a straight suspense/horror film. A film about a possibly supernatural, undead New York cop hacking up fellow cops and innocent citizens, it’s actually remarkably unbloody. Films like Maniac Cop supposedly exist to sate the public’s desire for viscera, but this one doesn’t really do that – it didn’t do it for me, okay? – and further doesn’t actually want to. It’s an exploitation film only based on genre and budget. There aren’t even any boobs in it!
At the same time that civil rights and Vietnam were forcing independent filmmakers to make violent movies, Hollywood studios developed their own brand of exploitation film known as the “disaster movie.” And currently I find this to be the most interesting, if far from the best, type. I was watching Robert Wise’s The Hindenburg, you see, and as I read the credits I took note of the list of famous names – somewhat shorter than those in other disaster movies, but long enough – and found myself thinking things like “Hm, René Auberjonois…I wonder how he dies in this.” Because that’s the exploitation thrill of the disaster movie: watching movie stars and famous character actors get crushed or burned alive or drowned. If anything, disaster movies are maybe a bit less respectable than…well, not than The Sinful Dwarf, but Maniac Cop, at least, because disaster movies, with their A list stars (George C. Scott and Anne Bancroft in this case) and big budgets (and, in Robert Wise, even sometimes Oscar-winning directors) they try to pretend that you’re watching for more high-minded reasons. It doesn’t even have to be very high-minded; wanting to watching stuff blow up is less uncomfortably low-brow than wanting to watch Robert Wagner burn to death.
And then when a disaster movie fails to provide what the genre surreptitiously promises, the viewer’s shameful desires are exposed. Because you know how René Auberjonois dies in The Hindenburg? He doesn’t! Nor does Burgess Meredith or Charles Durning or Anne Bancroft. Plus, those famous actors who are shown across are done so artfully – once the zeppelin ignites, Wise switches the film, inexplicably, to black and white (because 1937 was in black and white maybe?), and I guess because The Hindenburg is a highly fictionalized account of a true disaster, all the lowdown thrills are leeched away because now we have to feel bad. Yet for a serious-minded disaster film, The Hindenburg is curiously, or maybe not so curiously, inert – you can practically see George C. Scott cashing his check – and while Robert Wise’s The Hindenburg beats Mark Robson’s Earthquake in the Disaster Movie Directed by Someone Who Once Stabbed Val Lewton in the Back and Helped Drive Him Into an Early Grave Sweepstakes*, it’s also occasionally laughable (when it’s not being inert, I mean), such as at the end when still photos of all the characters are shown, and a narrator provides their names and then says either “Dead” or “Survived” – the list ends with a photo of a dog and the audience-relaxing announcement “Survived.”
So I was annoyed that Burgess Meredith didn’t get crushed by a burning girder, and I fell asleep during The Sinful Dwarf. But it may not just be the desensitizing effect of cinematic sex and violence at play – The Sinful Dwarf’s unsurprising incompetence didn’t enliven me any, either. Even my favorite bad movie thing, idiotic dialogue, left me largely unmoved (the film includes one of my favorite types of bad dialogue, which is a two person exchange where the response to a question doesn’t quite match the question, as in: “Do you know how to use a gun?” “You’re damn right I can!”). I suspect that “exploitation film” being a meaningless phrase, certainly now and to a degree even when the phrase became popular, is just as big an influence. Exploitation audiences simply didn’t kid themselves – this, I suppose, is the difference. And wanting what such films offer is no different, in the end, from wanting what a comedy offers. Also, when it gets late, you get sleepy.