The Best Dwarf Movies That Aren’t Willow

Please listen to the Randy Newman song, “Short People,” before you read this article. It will make me seem far less insensitive.

Come with me...and you'll be...in a world of slave-dwarf manipulation...

Come with me…and you’ll be…in a world of slave-dwarf manipulation…

10. A nostalgic favorite, loved by many: Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971). People may bicker amongst themselves at social gatherings and brouhahas regarding which Dahl adaptation is better, but the intelligent ones among us already know it’s the psychedelic, charmingly dated Gene Wilder one. The Oompa Loompas (played by a large grouping of thespian little people) were a huge part of the film and were what made it so memorable. If there was no Wilder or awesome Grandpa Joe, you’d still be seeing orange faces with green pompadours singing in your sleep.

Adorable.

Adorable.

9. The Terror of Tiny Town (1938) is a typical 30’s cowboy musical melodrama. The twist is that the entire cast is comprised of (mostly German) dwarfs. What might have been a forgettable genre romp becomes a kooky, fun, possibly offensive, western adventure that’s difficult to forget. Whether it’s Shetland ponies thundering through the sagebrush or pint-sized bar fights, it’s hard not to appreciate this diminutive curio. It may have been made as an exploitative novelty, but I actually really like the movie.

Throw me a freakin' bone here!

Throw me a freakin’ bone here!

8. Mike Myers made a pretty solid sequel—despite Heather Graham—with Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me (1999). Austin Powers and Dr. Evil are still funny, but it is the added character of Mini-Me (playe by Verne Troyer) that might be the most memorable part. Every scene between Dr. Evil and Mini-Me is sick and hilarious.

I think Dorothy takes the transition from black&white Kansas to this rather gracefully.

I think Dorothy takes the transition from black&white Kansas to this rather gracefully.

7. The Wizard of Oz (1939) is a Hollywood classic and a great musical fantasy, but all the technicolor in the world could not eclipse the Munchkins’ big scene when Dorothy first arrives in Oz, and then the terror of the flying monkeys piercing through the night sky only to savagely disembowel the Scarecrow. I don’t think this film gets enough credit for how surreal it is. Many of these little actors were in Tiny Town as well.

I know. I know. Only six dwarfs. Deal with it. They're all matadors.

I know. I know. Only six dwarfs. Deal with it. They’re all matadors.

6. This next movie only solidifies the stereotype that all Spaniards are matadors. Blancanieves (2012) is a Spanish retelling of Snow White as a 1920s silent movie. . . also, all the characters are matadors. The dwarfs (who are matadors too) don’t show up until about halfway into this bizarre film, but they add much heart and soul to the tragic yarn.

Welcome to Fantasy Island!

Welcome to Fantasy Island!

5. If you love the 80’s, chances are you like Oingo Boingo. This cock-eyed band produced a wild, acid-trip of a film to simulate the experience of their concerts. The Forbidden Zone (1982) is one crazy, hyperactive, super-surreal, mushroom-binge musical comedy about the Hercules family getting lost in the sixth dimension. And it’s way more weird and demented than it sounds.  Little man Hervé Villechaize (Fantasy Island) plays the horny King Fausto, ruler of the eponymous realm.

Badassery is afoot.

Badassery be afoot.

4. Werner Herzog might be one of the more interesting directors working today. Most famous for Grizzly ManFitzcarraldo, and Aguirre: The Wrath of God, this German weirdo also made movies where the entire cast was acting under hypnosis as well as a non-narrative collage of images attempting to conjure desert mirages. No wonder one of his earliest films was a black & white allegory about psychos escaping from an asylum only to imprison the warden, set fire to potted plants, tease blind people, and crucify monkeys. As the title might hint, Even Dwarfs Started Small (1970) is an entirely little person cast. And it’s nuts.

It's the "Citizen Kane" of movies.

It’s the “Citizen Kane” of movies.

3. How many Filipino 007-knockoff midgetsploitation flicks are out there? Counting For Y’ur Height Only (1980) there’s at least one. Weng Weng stars as a dwarf James Bond in this extremely low-budget action spoof that is a must-see for cult and schlock fans alike. Jet-packs, kung-fu, umbrella parachutes, copious amounts of shooting people, x-ray t-shades, and jammin’ discotheque rendezvous are here in spades. It’s grainy, awkward, and nonstop fun.

Make it a Browning/Earles double feature.

Make it a Browning/Earles double feature.

2. Tie! I really couldn’t decide and Harry Earles (Wizard of Oz) is featured prominently in both films. Freaks (1932) is Tod Browning’s controversial opus that stars actual circus sideshow performers. It’s a horror melodrama surrounding the plot of a rich dwarf (Earles) who is conned out of his money by a wicked trapeze artist who seduces him. It’s a breezy build-up to a genuinely disturbing revenge-filled third act. Earles stars again alongside Lon Chaney, Sr. in another Browning masterpiece, The Unholy Three (1925). It’s a crime melodrama about three circus renegades who embark on a life of crime. Chaney pretends to be an old woman and Earles pretends to be a baby. Throw in an mad ape rampage in the finale and you got yourself a deranged bit of pulp.

Bonus info: I'm actually only lukewarm about "Willow."

Bonus info: I’m actually only lukewarm about “Willow.”

1. Finally, the best dwarf movie that is not Willow is Terry Gilliam’s Time Bandits (1981). A young British boy is shanghaied by six time-traveling dwarfs on the run from the Supreme Being (Sir Ralph Richardson). They have a map of all the holes in the universe and use it to rob the greatest characters in history. . . until Satan (David Warner) screws up their plans. Despite Sean Connery, John Cleese, Shelley Duvall, Michael Palin, Ian Holm, and other guest stars, it is the Time Bandits themselves that make the film. Some were formerly Ewoks and Oompa Loompas, but now they get to show their faces and engage in a real twisted fantasy adventure. Kenny Baker (a.k.a. R2-D2) is even one of the main characters. It’s awesome, funny, very imaginative, and is my number one pick.

Honorable Mentions:

El Topo (1970). Alejandro Jodorowsky’s (Santa Sangre) most famous work has its share of dwarfs, amputees, and hyper-violent spiritual symbolism, but the dwarf woman he marries in the film doesn’t play large enough a role.

The Station Agent (2003). Peter Dinklage (Death at a Funeral) stars in this quiet drama, but there’s no monsters or dragons in this movie so it does not make the list.

Life’s Too Short (2011). Warwick Davis (Willow) stars in this amazing and hilarious series from Ricky Gervais. Alas, it’s not a movie so cannot make the list, but it is worth seeing.

Originally posted on net.sideBar on August 21, 2013.

Hurry! Hurry! Hurry! See the Freaks!

Schlitze laughs.

Schlitze laughs.

It’s one of those films that movie nuts grow up hearing about. Banned for years. Directed by the guy who did the Bela Lugosi Dracula (1931). Oh, and starring mostly sideshow talents of the day. Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932) was a sort of holy grail for many years. Based on Tod Robbins short story, “Spurs,” Browning’s film would prove to be a controversial classic of the grotesque and remains unique and controversial to this day. What sort of deranged mind could be behind such a disturbing landmark film?

kinopoisk.ru

Tod Browning with some of his extraordinary cast.

Tod Browning (one of my personal favorites) actually had a rather close relationship with the circus growing up and in the early 1900s the great American sideshow was a huge attraction. People would flock to the circus to see wild exotic beasts, incredible feats, and see the unusual and deformed bits of humanity that were sadly usually kept behind locked doors at the time. This was Browning’s turf and, after having directed several weird movies in the silent era with men like Lon Chaney, Sr. (including West of Zanzibar, The Unholy Three, and The Unknown) and proving he could be a master of supernatural horror culminating with Dracula, he was the perfect gentleman to adapt Robbins’ dark tale of carnival carnality and revenge.

Exiting her trailer, Cleopatra, the vain acrobat, gets a startle from Johnny Eck, the half-boy.

Exiting her trailer, Cleopatra, the vain acrobat, gets a startle from Johnny Eck, the half-boy.

Freaks employed such circus sideshow talents as Prince Randian the Living Torso (otherwise billed as the Human Caterpillar); Schlitze, the pinhead; conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton (who would also star in Chained for Life); Olga Roderick the Bearded Lady; Koo Koo the Bird-Girl; Peter Robinson, the Human Skeleton; Josephine Joseph the Half Woman-Half Man; Johnny Eck the Half Boy; and a host of dwarfs, Pinheads, and assorted legless or armless people.

Just a regular day at the circus.

Just a regular day at the circus.

The plot revolves around the sociopathic but beautiful trapeze acrobat, Cleopatra, who takes advantage of the rich lovestruck dwarf, Hans (Harry Earles, The Unholy Three). But Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova, The Man Who Laughs) is actually romantically entangled with Hercules the strong man (Henry Victor). Cleopatra seduces the gullible Hans and marries him only to plot to poison him to death and take his fortune. All the while she and Hercules mock the “freaks” and laugh at Hans. Oh, how they shame him. And then it happens. Cleopatra and Hercules become acquainted with the code of the freaks and revenge is served up cold and horrific.

One piece of the tragic love quadrangle.

Three pieces of the tragic love quadrangle.

Although a horror movie about so-called freaks, what will surprise most viewers is the humanity and compassion Browning displays. Where Count Dracula is wholly evil and inhuman, the Freaks are simply people with fascinating lives (albeit, a bit more complex in some situations) who only seek to live in harmony . . . but will violently defend the honor of one of their own disgraced brothers. Perhaps the code of the freaks strikes a slightly more mythical chord, but at the core of this gnarled beast of a film beats a heart with real feelings. Two “normal” circus folk, Venus and Phroso court each other and are friends with the sideshow folk. The conjoined Hilton sisters share comical moments with their future husbands. The Bearded Woman has a baby. Madame Tetrallini holds the Pinheads close to her bosom like a mother. Real affection exists in this cock-eyed world of circus shadows and abominations. They are a tightly knit family. They celebrate a wedding feast together and attempt to inaugurate the odious Cleopatra into their world—much to her chagrin and disdain.

Gooble! Gobble! We accept her! One of us!

Gooble! Gobble! We accept her! One of us!

Perhaps most endearing of all is the heartbreak of the dwarf, Frieda (Daisy Earles), as she watches the man she loves, Hans, forsake her for the bigger woman and get maligned for it by the whole circus. Even though Hans ignores Daisy and pursues only the diabolical Cleopatra, Frieda still loves him and weeps for him when he is ridiculed. Earles had worked with Browning before for The Unholy Three and he and his sister both give fine performances here.

Harry Earles as Hans.

Harry Earles as Hans.

Hans' sistser

Daisy Earles as Frieda.


Freaks is a challenging film. It challenges the audience to see these people as human beings, and skilled ones at that (most of the cast gets a chance to perform bits of their acts throughout the film, such as when the limbless Prince Randian rolls and lights his cigarette with only his mouth). It challenges people to not underestimate those folk whom may strike one as incapable or inconsequential. It challenges us to accept the acts of violent revenge as poetic justice. It challenges our preconceptions about the world and those in it. It is tragic, comedic, emotionally compelling, and in its final moments it is a full-fledged horror movie complete with lightning, creaky carnival convoys advancing in the night, and deformed aberrations clamoring through the mud for soft places to sink their knives into. It is the stuff horror legends are made of and it is what has made this cult classic a lasting part of our cinema history.

They're coming to get you, Cleopatra.

They’re coming to get you, Cleopatra.

Like its predecessors—Dracula and Browning’s earlier silent horror flicks—Freaks is a deeply atmospheric journey through shadowy realms of the grotesque and strange. For all its controversy and shock appeal, Freaks is a fine film with fascinating characters and a pleasing story that builds in emotion and suspense. Freaks is an oddity that gets better upon each viewing. It was almost an antidote to Dracula. What could be more of a reversal of Lugosi’s singular embodiment of undead evil cleverly disguised as a debonair and charismatic noble? Come to see Freaks for the promise of deformity and tales of the peculiar, stay for the heart, humanity, the satisfying horror climax, and genuinely surreal coda.

The Sisters.

The Hilton Sisters.

Top 10 Reasons to See “Freaks”

1. It’s a classic horror film from the great golden age of movies.

2. It’s better than Dracula.

3. It casts real sideshow performers as both human characters with ordinary (and unusual) problems and as misunderstood objects of horror at the same time.

4. It was banned in several countries for decades…making it kind of awesome.

5. A real life brother and sister play romantic interests (not necessarily cool, just sorta weird).

6. See if you can recognize one of the members of the Lollipop Guild.

7. It is a movie that is really hard to forget once you’ve seen it.

8. Halloween is fast approaching and you’ve already seen that Saw garbage.

9. It adeptly combines elements of classic horror with humor and some good old-fashioned creaky melodrama.

10. Because I demand it of you.

Prince Randian.

Prince Randian.

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” October 20, 2010