For those of us who are avid readers, there are, as with anything else, books you count as favorites. There are also books that affected you more than others from when you first got into reading. Aside from Donald Glut’s Classic Movie Monsters, The entire series of monster books from Crestwood House (which I may or may not have written about previously on these hallowed pages), and Making A Monster by Al Taylor and Sue Roy (are you noticing a trend here?), one of the most enchanting I ever came across was Encyclopedia Of Legendary Creatures by Tom McGowen and, perhaps more importantly, illustrated by Victor Ambrus. The text is as advertised, and it certainly introduced me to beasts I may never have heard of otherwise. It was the artwork, however, that kept me coming back for more. Go ahead and look Ambrus up on the interwebs. You’ll see the attraction. In fact, I loved these books so much that I bought them later in life, and still own them to this day (with the exception of the Crestwood books, which command a fairly high price these days from what I’ve seen). But with the plethora of monsters described in McGowen’s tome, from the Abominable Snowman to the Vodyanoi, there was sadly no listing for the Duende, the titular creatures of (the former Mr. Goldie Hawn) Gus Trikonis’ Dance Of The Dwarfs (aka Jungle Heat aka Night Of The Dwarves).
Deep in the jungles of South America, a prisoner is pursued by horse-mounted police. As the convict slips into the brush, the horses refuse to go any further, chucking their riders. The convict’s face is swiftly removed from his skull by a reptilian claw. End prologue. Soon thereafter, straitlaced anthropologist Evelyn Howard (Deborah Raffin) meets not-so-cute with grizzled pilot (and owner of the Trans-Exec Helicopter Service) Harry Bediker (Peter Fonda), whom she has retained to fly her to a field station in the aforementioned jungle. During the flight, our pair has to crash land after a bullet fired from the ground hits the hydraulic fluid line. Once they make off into the jungle on foot, their situation does not improve.
The most interesting concept to be found in this film is in the juxtaposition of the Aristocrat/Intellectual and the Savage. We’ve seen this innumerable times in the past. You have Felix Unger and Oscar Madison in The Odd Couple and David Addison and Maddie Hayes in Moonlighting, to name just two. Also of note is the fact that the Aristocrat/Intellectual is typically female/feminine, while the Savage is typically male/masculine. So, Felix does all the chores around the apartment, cooks, listens to opera, et cetera, and Maddie used to hang out in high society circles and was a glamorous celebrity model. Conversely, Oscar, a sports writer, can barely find clean clothes in his room, and neither he nor Addison would likely scoff at the idea of starting their morning by cracking open a beer. We get the same contrast in Dance Of The Dwarfs. When Evelyn meets Harry, he is shacked up inside his helicopter (the Peerless Rita) with a hooker. Every chance he gets, Bediker is inebriated or in the process of becoming inebriated. His aircraft is rusty and hardly looks like it could lift off, let alone sustain flight. Harry wears a ratty Hawaiian shirt, while Evelyn is always dressed in clean clothes. She listens to opera on her walkman, while Harry is into rock. Despite Harry’s desire to become “friendly” with her, Evelyn only refers to him as “Mr. Bediker” (one of the things I remember so strongly from watching this film in my youth, since it’s repeated so often). Evelyn shoots up Harry’s liquor bottles because she claims to be saving him from himself (implying that she knows best for him, since he’s clearly beneath her socially and morally). Regardless of how clichéd these traits may be in terms of perceived gender roles, the fact remains that they are easily recognizable to audiences, which is why they are used so often. Second, they easily generate conflict to keep the audience interested in times of saggy pacing. Third, they usually adhere to the adage that opposites attract, even in terms of friendship (hence, why actual consummation is unnecessary; the drive is actually in the buildup, not the payoff, which is more likely than not something of a letdown [especially with regards to serialized characters] because the tension in the relationship is now gone, or at the absolute least normalized).
Even more the Savage than Harry is Esteban (John Amos), a local “witch doctor” who, according to Harry, is also adept at curing the Clap. Esteban skulks around ominously, his face painted white, a snake dangling about his neck. But it is he who connects Evelyn with the Duende, because he lives in their proverbial backyard. Harry may be a semi-reluctant expatriate (due to “back taxes and ex-wives”), but he still dwells relatively close to civilization. He still needs contact with people (or maybe just hookers) now and again. He uses modern technology to earn a meager living. Esteban may trade with Harry for some goods, but it would take a lot of work for him to fit in civilized society (and even then, it may not work out). This, of course, leads us to the Duende themselves. They are the ultimate Savages because they are completely and utterly inhuman. They could never pass for human in appearance, and they are animals in their behavior, though they do live in a supposed tribal structure (perhaps just a pack). They are an untamed and untamable force of nature, a personification of the “Darkest Africa” and the like so regularly written about in pulp fiction. They are irrational and primal. They are the unknown (to quasi-steal a description from the film). Consequently, they would be deadly no matter their environment, which is why the jungle suits them best.
Dance Of The Dwarfs is one of those movies which I want to love simply because it has one of the best titles anyone could likely dream up (well I love it, and, incidentally, it is also the title of the Geoffrey Household novel upon which this movie is based, and he was, by all accounts, no stranger to the pulpier side of writing). But I just can’t. The vast majority of the run time is eaten up with Evelyn and Howard’s journey into the jungle, and it’s not particularly exciting. Trikonis pulls out some low budget tricks to shoot some of the action pieces (like rocking the helicopter to simulate flight and using sound effects alone for gunfire, though in fairness, there are some juicy gore bits involving the monsters), but for how staid the rest of the production is, these pieces mainly serve to be anticlimactic. The film does pick up in the last thirty minutes or so, and the creatures are as cool as they could be, all things considered (though they vary wildly in appearance between the full body suits and the puppets used for closeups). I just wish there was more going on in the rest of the film to better balance it out. It’s a mildly enjoyable film, but outside of the title and the imprinting of “Mr. Bediker” on my brain, I suspect most people will take little else away from this one.
MVT: Since the monsters are shown so sparingly and are so inconsistent when they do pop up, I have to give the trophy to the rapport between Raffin and Fonda. The two do as good a job as they can with the material, and they both have a natural charisma that works well onscreen. It takes some of the sting out of the disappointment the film ultimately generates.
Make Or Break: The Make is at the start of the third act. Evelyn makes a discovery, and the film finally starts to pick up some momentum. It loses some of this same steam fairly rapidly, but it does provide enough of a prod to remind you why you were watching in the first place.