The Sinful Dwarf (1973) – DVD Review

Purportedly restored from a rare 35mm print “discovered in a janitor’s closet at the Danish Film Institute”, Severin’s DVD release of THE SINFUL DWARF proves that the well of Euro sleaze is indeed bottomless. The titular dwarf (a phrase I had planned on using, just not today) runs a boarding house with his mother, a former diva. It’s enough of a cover to allow young Olof (a terrifically disturbing performance from Torben Bille) to keep a stable of heroin-addled girls hidden in a secret room where he tortures them into submission and then pimps them out to local men, who presumably know how to keep a secret.
The “Catholic High School Girls in Trouble” skit from The Kentucky Fried Movie contains what I’ve always thought of as a fond tribute to this masterpiece of depravity, a film that could be aptly described as the type “they don’t make anymore”. Bille was apparently the host of a children’s show in Denmark, and given the surprisingly explicit nature of the sex on display here, it’s doubtful that he retained this as a fall-back career. As the filmmakers and actors have either passed away or successfully distanced themselves from the project, the DVD’s only extra is a humorous short produced by Severin that focuses on a couple petitioning Severin not to release the film because of the negative effect it had on their lives after seeing it in a theater. The image itself is full-frame and in better shape than it probably deserves to be.
THE SINFUL DWARF ( Dvaergen, 1973). Directed by Vidal Raski. Written by William Mayo, story by Harlan Asquith. Cast: Torben Bille, Anne Sparrow, Tony Eades, Clara Keller, Werner Hedman, Gerda Madsen.

Pieces (1982) – Film & DVD Review

This oddball artifact from the ’80s is so bizarre it almost demands to be seen, whether it is any good or not: it’s a Spanish production that combines elements of American slasher films and the Italian giallo genre while offering more than enough sleazy graphic violence to qualify as one of the world’s all-time outrageous works of Euro-trash cinema. As a mystery-thriller, the scenario is ridiculous to the point of being amateurish, but the sick premise (a psycho-killer creating a replacement corpse in the image of his mother, assembled from the severed body parts of young female victims like the pieces of a puzzle) offers its own kind of demented fascination: you know you shouldn’t be watching this crap, but you just can’t look away. Fortunately, the gore is so far over-the-top (and in many cases so unconvincing) that PIECES achieves a sort of campy critical mass that makes it entertaining almost in spite of itself.
Set in Boston, the story begins with a young boy being chastised by his mother for assembling a puzzle picturing a naked woman; he responds by chainsawing mom into pieces, then gets away with murder by blaming an unknown assailant. Decades later, for reasons never quite explained,* a masked psycho-killer begins carving up young women on a college campus, using the pieces to recreate the image of his mother. The police arrest a suspect but the murders continue; assigning an undercover female officer also proves useless. But a young male student, initially a suspect, helps identify the killer just in time to prevent his next murder…
One unfortunately weak element of giallo cinema is the lackadaisical approach to the police procedural elements; PIECES takes this to new levels of idiocy previously unseen outside of an outright comedy; in fact, things get so bad you may find yourself suspecting that you really are watching a deliberate comedy. Here are just some of the “highlights”:

  • Although students are being slaughtered on campus with alarming regularity, the police want to keep things quiet, in order to avoid panic. The result is that no one knows there is a killer on the loose, so women keep walking alone after dark, making themselves easy targets.
  • After the chainsaw-wielding gardener (Paul Smith) is apprehended almost literally red-handed, Detective Bracken (Christopher George) laments that he has no leads. as if having a suspect in custody counts for nothing. This is before the killer strikes again, at a time when Bracken has no reason to think he has arrested the wrong man.
  • For no reason more than some vague kind of gut instinct, Detective Bracken exonerates another potential suspect, a male student named Kendall (Ian Sera), and invites him to help out with the investigation. (The script offers no good rational for this. Presumably, two years after DRESSED TO KILL, it was considered a good idea to have geeky young nerd heroes who solve the crime faster than the police.)
  • It is a good thing Kendall is available to help because the Boston police department is so short of manpower that only three officers have been assigned to the case, including a female desk jockey given her first undercover assignment named Mary Riggs (Lynda Day George). Considering the low priority assigned to this case, one wonders what other, even more heinous crimes are getting all the attention in Boston.
  • Although Riggs’ assignment is putting her life at risk (she is being used as bait to lure the killer), Detective Bracken immediately blows her cover by revealing her identity to Kendall – who by all rights should be a suspect.
  • Even if Bracken had not blown Riggs’ cover, it is doubtful she could have fooled anyone; she is ostensibly hired as a tennis coach, but the one match we see proves she is too amateurish on the court to teach anything to anybody.
  • While walking the campus at night, Riggs (who apparently received little training at the police academy) is surprised by a kung-fu assailant who passes out after disarming her. He turns out not to be the killer or even an accomplice but a martial arts instructor who had some “bad chop suey.”
  • After seeing the bloody corpse of one victim, Riggs – supposedly professional policewoman – reacts like any typical hysterical female character, shouting “Bastard!” at the top of her lungs three times. (The over-acting seems part and parcel of PIECES’ giallo heritage – those Europeans sure love melodrama.)
  • When the killer’s identify is finally revealed, Bracken takes Kendall along to help make the arrest. By this point the amateur’s involvement in the case is so great that you almost expect Bracken to give him a gun and deputize him on the spot.
  • Eventually, Bracken’s incompetence becomes so prounced that it almost works as a red herring: he seems to be deliberately sabotaging the investigation, possibly setting up Kendall to take the fall, so you start to suspect Bracken is the killer.

As if this were not enough, wait until you see the sublimely non-sensical ending, in which the assembled corpse’s hand grabs the young hero’s crotch as if emasculating him. There is also plenty of ridiculous dialogue, often delivered in hysterically bad dubbing. Christopher George (who provides his own voice in the English version) does his gruff macho thing well enough, and Purdum manages to be professional, but the supporting cast is hardly worthy of a high school stage play (check out the police officers’ reaction to findinda head in a closet – funny stuff). Even the usuallly reliable Paul Smith does little better than squinting in a way that screams, “You’re supposed to suspect me, but I’m too suspicious to really be the killer.”
Added all up, PIECES is one unintentionally hilarious movie, but it does deliver the horror; every time you think it’s going to drown in a sea of laughter, another murder takes place: heads roll, limbers are severed, and in at least one case we get a lovely lingering shot of a chainsaw carving its way through a woman’s torso. Most of the action is too silly to be taken seriously (even squeamish viewers – if they appreciate camp – can probably stomach some of the stomach-churning scenes, but every once in a while the violence hits its mark: the flash of chainsaw slicing of an arm in an elevator is shocking, and the briefly glimpsed aftermath of one victim, cut off at the waist and left in a bloody toilet stall, is effectively sickening. Gore-hounds, rejoice!
There are even a few moments whose effectiveness is not based entirely on gore (e.g., a slow-motion attack on a water-bed, while bloody, is also weirdly surreal). Also, the script follows its demented premise with a certain twisted logic, aided by editing that draws the parallel between assembling the nude puzzle and assembling the composite corpse. The film almost seems to be making some kind of statement about male sexist attitudes (e.g., depersonalizing women into nothing but an assemblage of body parts), but ultimately it is exploiting the concept rather than examining it.
Fortunately, PIECES is one of those films in which the myriad flaws become part of the entertainment value: the ludicrous plot and melodramatic acting take the edge off the misogynistic Euro-sleaze violence, and the film can be a reel hoot when viewed by an appreciate group of camp-film enthusiasts (knocking back a few rounds during the film can only increase the boisterous joy of the viewing experience). In short, PIECES is nowhere near being good, but it sure is fun.


Grindhouse has released PIECES as a two-disc deluxe edition DVD. As with their recent deluxe edition of THE BEYOND, this one comes in a clear plastic clam-shell case, so that the back of the wrap-around cover is visible through the clear plastic when the case is open, revealing a frame grab of one of the film’s most notoriously gory moments. There is a nice insert that folds out to reveal a copy of the American poster art (“You don’t have to go to Texas for a chainsaw massacre”); it also features the original Spanish poster art, a list of chapter stops illustrated with an image of the assembled corpse, and two pages of notes from Chas. Balun. Balun’s hyperbolic raving, which approximates the enthusiasm of a revivalist preacher, captures the tone of the film; however, although he acknowledges its flaws, he soft-pedals the essential fact that PIECES is fun because it is so bad.
The DVD menus cleverly use computer graphics of a slashing chainsaw for the transitions, along with such colorful imagery as a severed hand spurting blood, while short loops of the film’s bloody action play in the background.
DISC ONE offers a solid transfer of the uncut film, a trailer, some interesting audio options, optional English subtitles, and a couple Easter eggs.
There are three different soundtracks available.

  1. You can view the film in English with library music (supplied by “CAM”) that echoes motifs from the Italian rock group Goblin’s score for DAWN OF THE DEAD (yet another link between PIECES and the Italian giallo tradition, as Goblin was best known for scoring Dario Argento films like DEEP RED).
  2. You can watch the film with its original mono Spanish soundtrack, which features original music by Librado Pastor. This acoustic score has a certain haunting quality suggestive of the “horror of personality” genre; it’s not bad but it somewhat takes the edge off the sleazy Euro-trash feel, which is part of the film’s appeal. (The English subtitled translations of the Spanish dialogue offer several distinctions from the English dub. For example, the Spanish version tells us that the murderous little boy’s father “died in Europe” in World War II; the English dub says that dad is “away in Europe, with the air force.”)
  3. The most unusual audio option is a 5.1 surround sound mix recording live at the Vine Theatre in Hollywood on August 24, 2002, which allows you to experience the thrill of seeing the film with a crowd full of ecstatic horror hounds. As funny as this sounds, the idea soon wears thin, as the mumbling and rustling obscures the movie’s real soundtrack, which sounds tiny – like what you used to hear out of a cheap speaker at a drive-in. On the plus side, the enthusiastic audience responses go a long way toward redeeming some of the more ridiculous moments – especially the incongruous intrusion of the martial arts instructor, whose brief walk-on prompts rounds of applause from viewers impressed with the idiocy of the scene.

There is an option that allows you to watch the Spanish version of the opening prologue, with the original title (Mil Gritos Tiene La Noche) and credits, which are interspersed throughout the sequence instead of stockpiled into one group just before the action shifts to modern day. After the prologue, the DVD shifts seamlessly to showing the rest of the Spanish-language version of the film.
There are two Easter eggs on the disc:

  1. With “Play Movie” highlighted on the main menu, click the Up button and a chainsaw icon will appear. Clicking it takes you to a video, shot before a screening at the New Beverly Cinema in Los Angeles, of Eli Roth telling the audience not to talk back to the film because (he believes) they cannot possibly top the brilliance of the absurdity on screen. After Roth finishes citing some of running down some of his favorite illogical moments from PIECES and noting how it influenced his work, actor Clu Gulager (FEAST) shows up for a moment to express his admiration for the film’s unflinching gore.
  2. On the menu for the Vine Theatre Experience, clicking the dot of the letter “i” in “Vine” reveals a chainsaw icon that starts a trailer loaded with graphic gore from the film. This is totally different from the official trailer, from the 1983 theatrical release, available elsewhere on the disc. That trailer consists mostly of ominous narration warning about all the horrible things that cannot be shown, illustrated with only a few seconds of footage from the film.

DISC TWO contains the bonus features (video interviews, photos galleries, cast and crew bios), plus a dozen or so trailers for other Grindhouse Releasing DVDs (e.g. CAT IN THE BRAIN, CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST, CANNIBAL FEROX).
The two video interviews are with director Juan Piquer and with actor Paul Smith. Both are wide-ranging, covering  their entire careers, but with a fair amount of time spent on PIECES.

  • The Piquer interview (shot with the director sitting in a theatre with a skeleton a couple rows behind him) drags a bit as her recalls his early years, growing up, watching movies, and dreaming of becoming a filmmaker. Interest picks up when discussion turns to PIECES: Piquer recalls that he thought the premise was so crazy, it would be a challenge to make it even moderately believable.
  • The Paul Smith interview is the highlight of the bonus features. Smith is a lively and lovable talker, whose bright eyes and cheerful demeanor belie his threatening on-screen presence. He talks at length about his career, from  MIDNIGHT EXPRESS to POPEYE to DUNE (and more), filling the conversation with plenty of amusing behind-the-scenes anecdotes.

The four galleries consist of Production Stills (behind the scenes), Pieces Publicity (theatrical posters from around the world), Video Releases (home video artwork), and Juan Piquer’s slide show. The later is actually a video interview, with Piquer commenting on some of the artwork for the film. The production stills contain some images of the graphic mayhem, including disturbing shots of a dead pig trussed up athletic shorts (matching those worn by the female victim on screen) for a shot of the chainsaw slicing into flesh.
The Cast & Crew entries are more interesting than most seen on DVDs. Besides biographies and filmographies, several of the titles contain links to access trailers or, in some cases, further interview snippets from Piquer and Smith, talking about specific films. This is one case where you will want to go through each entry carefully, so as not to overlook any of the goodies.
PIECES hardly seems like the kind of film worthy of a “deluxe edition,” but the Grindhouse double-disc DVD is surprisingly entertaining, even for someone not particularly enamored of splatter films. It presents the movie in all its gory glory, along with some good bonus features, particularly the Paul Smith interview, which is worth watching whether or not you are a fan of the actor’s work.
PIECES (a.k.a. Mil Gritos Tiene La Noche[“The Night Has a Thousand Screams”], 1982). Directed by Juan Piquer Simon. Written by Dick Randall and “John Shadow” (Joe D’Amato). Cast: Christopher George, Lynda Day George, Frank Bana, Edmund Purdom, Ian Sera, Paul Smith, Jack Taylor, Gerard Tichy, May Heatherly, Hilda Fuchs, Isabel Luque.

  • The closest we get to an explanation is a scene of the first victim riding her skateboard into a collision with a mirror – which apparently reminds the killer of the mirror his mother smashed while scolding him.

Nightmare City (1980) – DVD Review

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When NIGHTMARE CITY was released in the U.S. in 1983, it was shorn of 4 minutes of footage and retitled CITY OF THE WALKING DEAD (not to be confused with Fulci’s CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD). Blue Underground has seen fit to re-issue the out-of-print Anchor Bay widescreen DVD release of Umberto Lenzi’s low-budget zombie movie, transferred from a pristine print (though all the dubbing problems possessed by the original remain intact as well).
Lenzi’s claim to fame derives from his being the pioneer of the exotic cannibal movie, a genre launched by his MAN FROM DEEP RIVER, as well as his being the man to do the most notorious film in that genre, CANNIBAL FEROX (aka MAKE THEM DIE SLOWLY). NIGHTMARE CITY was clearly an attempt to cash in on Romero’s DAWN OF THE DEAD (1979( and possibly Fulci’s ZOMBIE (1980) as well. Lenzi claims he hated the original script, fought with the female producer of the film (Diego Alchimede), and objected to having to cast Stiglitz (TINTORERA) as his leading man (he wanted DJANGO’s Franco Nero).
The truth of the matter is that while NIGHTMARE CITY isn’t very good, neither is it dull, and there is a certain nostalgia factor for those who caught the film in the early ‘80s. To distinguish himself from Romero, Lenzi depicts his zombies as quick-moving and quick-witted (far in advance of 28 DAYS LATER or the DAWN remake), employing weapons rather than bare hands and teeth, and like vampires they drink blood rather than consume flesh. (The film does explore the idea that the zombies might be vampires, but they have no fangs, no supernatural powers, nor are they afraid of religious iconography).
The movie begins with reporter Dean Miller (Stiglitz) going to the airport to interview Professor Hagenbeck, when a plane mysterious lands without having radioed the tower. Suddenly, the local police are confronted by hordes of disembarking zombies attempting to cut every throat they see. This could have been an impressive set piece, but Lenzi utterly failed to make it credible in the slightest, as the machine guns are obviously firing blanks: no squibs explode; no property is damaged by bullets; and considering later gore, the blood spilled is rather minimal.
Lenzi proves inept at creating atmosphere, suspense, or shock throughout the film, but he does keep things moving, and the zombie attacks throughout are certainly plentiful. The DVD contains a short 13 minute interview with Lenzi in Italian with English subtitles. Here Lenzi claims he wanted to use the film to explore the idea of contamination (the zombies were apparently created by radiation from a military weapon, and some of them have been slathered with unconvincing brown goop to indicate infection). The Italian title of the film was Incubo Sulla Citta Contaminata. Unfortunately, Lenzi makes a boneheaded and offensive comment about the zombies being like AIDS patients, spreading contagion throughout society.
But then thinking is certainly not this film’s strong point. Miller’s wife, Dr. Anna Miller (Trotter) makes some Luddite comments about how we would all be better off without nuclear energy and Coca-Cola, but the blame really belongs to mankind itself. General Murchison (EATEN ALIVE’s Mel Ferrer) orders Dean’s breaking news report cut off mid-report, assuming apparently that  news blackout can best prevent widespread panic as the zombie contagion spreads throughout the city (followed by an electrical blackout as zombies attack the local power plants).
According to Lenzi, the script originally ended with a helicopter rescue, ala DAWN OF THE DEAD. He rightly pegged this as unsatisfying, and then managed to make an even worse ending ripped off of DEAD OF NIGHT and the original INVADERS FROM MARS, in which a nightmare becomes reality.
Worth noting is Stelvio Cipriani’s low-budget synthesizer score, filled with those familiar bass beats and electronic sounds, but not up to the level of his work for DEATH STALKS IN HIGH HEELS or Bava’s BAY OF BLOOD. Dubbing fans can listen for  iconic voice artist Al Clivers (ZOMBIE) doing not one but three dub jobs: a character at the airport, a voice over the hospital speakers, and a radio announcer.
Makeup fans may get a few giggles from chocolate-oatmeal-faced zombies, slit throats that fail to bleed, an arm torn off that fails to bleed, a radical on-camera breast reduction, and close-ups of zombies being shot through the head – filmed against blue backdrops that don’t match the locations of the long shots. While definitely disreputable stuff, one doesn’t easily forget the assault on the lycra-wearing dance-exercise program, a doctor hurling a scalpel at a zombie during a hospital assault, nor the final assent up a rollercoaster while blasting on-coming zombies. Recommended only for spaghetti film-lovers who like a special emphasis on the red sauce.
NIGHTMARE CITY (Incubo Sulla Citta Contaminata, 1980; Blue Underground DVD release on 4/08; re-issue of 2002 Anchor Bay DVD). Directed by Umberto Lenzi. Written by Antonio Cesare Corti, Luis Maria Delgado, and Piero Regnoli. Cast: Hugo Stiglitz; Laura Trotter; Mel Ferrer; Francisco Rabal; Maria Rosaria Omaggio.