Synapse // 1964 // 70 Minutes // Unrated
Reviewed by Judge Paul Corupe (Retired) // June 7th, 2005
"Tramps, lousy tramps...every one of them!" -- Olga (Audrey Campbell)
Produced by George Weiss, the exploitation magnate behind Ed Wood's Glen or Glenda? and almost exclusively directed by Joseph P. Mawra (Shanty Tramp), the five films that make up the infamous Olga series were an unprecedented sexploitation phenomenon in the 1960s. Like cheescake bondage photo spreads come to life, White Slaves of Chinatown, Olga's Girls, Olga's House of Shame, Madame Olga's Massage Parlor, and Olga's Dance Hall Girls were quickly cranked out for fickle adult film audiences, establishing the wicked Olga Saglo (and her protrayer, Audrey Campbell) as the first lethal lady of grindhouse cinema. To complement the recent Olga triple-feature DVD from the discriminating sickos at Something Weird, Synapse Films has brought forth a new release of Olga's Girls the second masterpiece of masochism in the sordid Olga saga.
Olga (Audrey Campbell, Sin in the Suburbs) is the ruthless and sadistic head of a prostitution and drug ring administered by "The Syndicate," a Communist-fronted crime family out to destroy the very fabric of American life. None of that really concerns Olga, however, who gets her kicks from keeping her girls in line with a collection of fiendish torture implements including whips, a blowtorch, and nail-lined vise grips in her basement "dungeon." Despite the constant threat of punishment, Olga's girls have a knack for displeasing their boss, and when the queen bitch learns that there is an informer in her ranks, she subjects each of the girls to a painful interrogation until the turncoat cracks. Even then, dissension continues to rise, and a mutinous trio of girls turns the tables on their sadistic madam, forcing her to endure the hardships of her own dungeon before breaking off to form a new upscale organization on their own. Olga isn't one to let such behavior slide, however, and before long she's already plotting her viscous revenge.
An undeniable classic of "roughie" sexploitation, Olga's Girls is a strange little film to behold. Exploitive exposés of the white slave trade were a poverty row film staple since the 1930s, but what sets Olga's Girls apart from its solemn predecessors is a shameless faux-documentary tone. There's only the barest semblance of plot offered here to string the gratuitous go-go dancing, torture sessions, and naked pot parties, detailed by the dulcet tones of a narrator who recounts the over-the-top villainy of Communist-sponsored dope and flesh peddling. The result is a film that seems stuck somewhere between an antiseptic mental hygiene short and a Bettie Page filmstrip, made all the more stupefying by the juxtaposition of the deadly dull story narration with the relentlessly sleazy offerings on screen.
Likewise, the torture is also pretty hard to take seriously, stagy segments that play out like rigidly posed photograph sessions. The girls are subjected to a variety of makeshift torture devices in Olga's dingy basement of pain, campy scenes often underscored by melodramatic Stravinsky passages, which reaches its climax when Olga dismembers one of her OD'd girls and feeds the body parts to a billowing furnace. Some of this barbarism surely would have packed a bit of a wallop for audiences of the day, but it soon because obvious that these scenes are little more than the most extreme items on a veritable checklist of fetishes, including bare feet, a catfight, fishnet stockings, and lesbian encounters that were obviously intended to be the film's main attraction.
Although Mawra spends considerable time covering off on every conceivable kink of his depraved audience, Audrey Campbell's contributions to the film should not be overlooked. As the face of Olga, exotic-looking New York model Campbell is the one who ties these classics together, in turn becoming one of a handful of early exploitation icons. With Olga's Girl's, Campbell continues to build on a character that is an obvious precursor to more infamous vicious film vixens like Dyanne Thorne in Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS, conveying cruelty almost entirely through body language and chilly facial expressions.
As with many of the sexploitation films that hit sleazy 42nd Street movie palaces in the 1960s, Olga's Girls was shot on the cheap with sound dubbed in later, which makes the sheer quality of the production quite a surprise. Cinematography and frame composition aren't exactly the top priority for exploitation sickie sequels, but Olga's Girls features eye-catching black and white photography that maintains a gritty New York look despite frequently inventive use of light and shadow. Mawra places the camera at tilted, voyeuristic angles and delivers shots that are cold and hard, but not entirely without sympathy and (gasp!) occasional eroticism. It's also happily unhampered by self-indulgent quirks that haunt the big name sexploitation directors, such as Doris Wishman's obsession with cut-away shots of lamps, the mindless padding and insert shots of an Andy Milligan flick, or the incessant sadism that often betrays Bob Cresse.
Although bleak in its subject matter, it's hard to recognize Olga's Girls as anything but goofy fun, and it's obvious that neither the cast nor crew is taking the far-fetched story particularly seriously. There's a palpable sense of restraint in the picture that keeps much of the potentially explicit scenes from crossing the line, whether it's whippings that are nudged slightly out-of-frame, self-aware camera movements, or the obvious specks of paint left on a bare breast after a supposedly deadly torture device is removed. At no time is there really a sense of danger in the film, which really is to its credit, as it keeps the proceedings light and breezy enough to enjoy as a fascinating time capsule, a unique exploitation classic, or even just an inconsequential slice of camp filmmaking.
Having watched far more than my share of exploitation films on DVD, I can confidently say that Synapse's restoration of Olga's Girls easily outshines them all with a crystal clear, well-defined image that highlights the striking cinematography. Besides a few scattered pieces of dust and debris, this Criterion-worthy print should be far beyond anyone's expectations. The mono audio track is about as clear as possible, given the limitations of the source recordings. Synapse's presentation of Olga's Girls is capped off with a lengthy theatrical trailer and an audio commentary with star Audrey Campbell and film critic Andre Salas. It's simply amazing that Synapse managed to get Olga herself to record a commentary, as I can't recall any other 1960s exploitation DVD that features a track with a star rather than a director. Unfortunately, it's almost a repeat of the less-than-informative tracks on the Ilsa discs, with Salas trying to prod Campbell toward any kind of half-remembered revelation. There are a few, but there's simply too much filler here, which leads me to believe that a short featurette interview might have been a more appropriate inclusion on this disc.
Easily the most enjoyable Olga film in the series, Olga's Girls will certainly appeal to exploitation aficionados and B-film historians, who will be astounded by the print. Unfortunately, more curious and casual viewers may find Olga's house a little too shameful, bewildering, and gruesome to get her well-sharpened point.
Guilty! Down to the dungeon with you!
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Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 70 Minutes
Release Year: 1964
MPAA Rating: Unrated