Judge Paul Corupe review three of the most challenging exploitation films you'll ever see.
"The film you are about to see is based on documented fact. The atrocities shown were conducted as 'medical experiments' in special concentration camps throughout Hitler's Third Reich. Because of its shocking subject matter, this film is restricted to adult audiences only. We dedicate this film with the hope that these heinous crimes will never occur again."—Preamble, Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS
In the mid-1970s, the limits of bad taste were cheerfully stretched by the notorious Ilsa films, over-the-top romps of stomach-churning evil that shocked and amazed grindhouse and drive-in audiences. Crowds greedily lined up to watch a larger-than-life Dyanne Thorne whip and torture her way into exploitation film lore as Ilsa, the dominatrix bitch you love to loathe.
Anchor Bay's new Ilsa Collection packages together their three previously available DVDs—Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS, Ilsa, Harem Keeper of the Oil Sheiks, and Ilsa, the Wicked Warden—in an attractive slipcase. Featuring over four hours of sex and sadism, this is a package guaranteed to simultaneously please and offend anyone bold enough to check it out.
Facts of the Case
In Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS, a Nazi medical camp provides the backdrop for brutality as Ilsa (Dyanne Thorne, Real Men) and her minions, including the sinister Dr. Binz (Buck Flower, Back to the Future II), perform bizarre experiments. A truckload of fresh prisoners, both male and female, are subjected to insidious torture as Ilsa tries to prove that women have a higher threshold for pain and suffering than men. At night, Ilsa indulges in a liaison with one of the new inmates, an American named Wolfe (Gregory Knoph) with abnormal sexual powers. While Ilsa prepares to show off her cruel scientific breakthroughs to the General (Richard Kennedy, The Witch Who Came from the Sea), the other inmates plan a revolt to get their revenge on the She-Wolf.
Continuity isn't a concern between Ilsa sequels, so no questions are asked when the "most dreaded Nazi of them all" shows up in the Middle East as Ilsa, Harem Keeper of the Oil Sheiks. The lustful El Sharif (Victor Alexander) depends on Ilsa to run his white slavery ring, which kidnaps young American girls and sells them to the highest bidder. Between auctions, Ilsa trains the girls to please their new masters, rich oil barons looking for new additions to their harems. When secret agent Commander Adam (Michael Thayer, Planet of Dinosaurs) shows up to investigate, Ilsa risks the security of El Sharif's operation as her sexual desires once again outweigh her duties.
In her third incarnation as Ilsa, the Wicked Warden, Ilsa is the keeper of a South American prison infirmary dedicated to cleansing its female inmates of "nymphomania, lesbianism, and prostitution." After a prisoner of Ilsa's institution named Rosa mysteriously disappears, her younger sister Abbie (Tania Busselier, House of Perversity) has herself committed to find out what really happened. Meanwhile, Ilsa, never satisfied with mere torture, has an attractive sideline going, secretly filming her girls in sexual situations and selling the footage to well-heeled private collectors.
There is absolutely no respectable reason why the Ilsa series should have been successful, but it was. Even in the most vehement cult movie circles, there is little argument that the nonstop nudity, gore, and torture found in Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS is surpassed by few films. Although the eventual Ilsa sequels mercifully dropped the distasteful Third Reich angle, they continued to explore the fine line between appalling and amusing with Dyanne Thorne still standing tall and proud at the helm. The Ilsa films may be sleazy exploitation trash, but at least they're well-made sleazy exploitation trash, which doesn't take itself the least bit seriously.
When Lee Frost and David F. Friedman's pioneering 1969 Nazi softcore epic Love Camp 7 turned out to be a big hit in Canada, the film's Montreal distributor Cinepix quickly drafted a script for a similar movie called Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS and contacted Friedman to see if he was interested in producing it. Friedman decided to accept the job, rented concentration camp sets left over from Hogan's Heroes, and hired Don Edmonds to direct. These were all sensible decisions that ensured at least some financial recompense for the picture, but the move that really put Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS over the top was the brilliant casting. The role of Ilsa went to former Vegas showgirl Dyanne Thorne, a blonde statuesque beauty who could convincingly play both stern and steamy. Towering over the men and chewing up the scenery with a poorly articulated accent, Thorne really put her all into the character, and the success of the series is owed almost entirely to her performance.
The first Ilsa film is a cut above the sequels, and plays like a sick update of Island of Lost Souls. It commences with an old-fashioned bit of exploitation film ballyhoo, a title card in which pseudonymous producer "Herman Traeger" promises that the graphic scenes of torture and sex are not meant to titillate, but to educate about Nazi atrocities. This "education" begins almost immediately with a vicious castration, and the sickening torture proceeds straight downhill from there, with the film trying to top its own sadism in each successive scene. It's all pulled off with tongues planted firmly in Nazi cheeks, of course, and by the time the General appears to inspect Ilsa's work, things have reached larger-than-life proportions. While scratchy German drinking songs play in the background, the General boisterously laughs as he swings his brandy goblet and tries to convince Ilsa to urinate on him for his own sexual gratification.
Even with a sardonic sensibility, Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS makes for an unsettling viewing experience, and like the films that followed, it can be disturbing. There's something compulsive about watching it, though, if only to see how the film is going to one-up itself next. The overall effect is like walking through a carnival sideshow—a display of human oddities that makes you squeamish and fascinated at the same time. Fuelled by its outrageous title, it wasn't long before Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS became a sensation.
Seeing their creation take off, Cinepix once again turned to Don Edmonds to direct a sequel. Made without Friedman's participation, Ilsa, Harem Keeper of the Oil Sheiks is a little lighter on flagellation, but perhaps even more cartoon-like than the first film. No longer trapped in the dingy, wooden concentration camp, Ilsa, Harem Keeper of the Oil Sheiks uses its lush Arabian palace setting to full advantage, with vibrant colors, bright sunny exteriors, and more interesting production design. Hardcore fans dismissed Ilsa, Harem Keeper of the Oil Sheiks given that the torture and bloody effects simply aren't as intense, but this actually helps the picture. By not being quite as focused on pushing extremes, the sequel settles into a relaxed pace that is more concentrated on story than the first film, which basically just set up situations for more sex and gore. Commander Adam, the American hero of this film, is a low-rent spy with enough gadgets to give this installment an affinity with the campier James Bond films Roger Moore was making at the time. With a more distinct plot, Ilsa, Harem Keeper of the Oil Sheiks is simply a more endurable film, and the only really excessively unpleasant scene, involving a diaphragm crafted out of plastic explosives, is much more disgusting in concept than execution.
A long-standing urban legend had it that Spalding Gray played El Sharif, acting under the nom de plume "Victor Alexander." While there is a resemblance, in the commentary track Don Edmonds confirmed that this rumor is false. Still, there are some famous faces to be found, at least for exploitation fans. Keep your eyes peeled for Russ Meyer supervixens Uschi Digart (Cherry, Harry and Raquel) and Haji (Faster Pussycat, Kill! Kill!) in El Sharif's harem.
In truth, the final film in the Ilsa Collection isn't a legitimate Ilsa sequel. Ilsa, the Wicked Warden was actually made by Spanish director Jess Franco (Vampyros Lesbos), a Eurosleaze favorite with over 150 productions under his belt. It was released under the titles Greta, The Mad Butcher and Wanda, The Wicked Warden long before it was even tied to the Ilsa series. Dyanne Thorne is here of course, but few other elements connect this sequel back to the original.
The earlier films have a few parallels with early 1970s women-in-prison films like Jack Hill's The Big Bird Cage, but none so much as Ilsa, the Wicked Warden. Franco had already made several of these sordid pictures when he took on this film, so it isn't really surprising that he steered the series back to familiar waters. With the requisite gratuitous shower scenes, nude wrestling, and butch authority figures, Ilsa, the Wicked Warden eschews the twisted wit that helped its predecessors and focuses only on the sadomasochistic power relationships between women. One scene, in which Ilsa sticks pins in the breasts of her prison snitch lover, is about as humorless and unappealing as you can get, but characteristic of Franco. Still, Ilsa, the Wicked Warden is not really a terrible film, just an extremely typical one that seems to exist outside the Ilsa universe.
There's no denying that the popularity of the Ilsa films is carried on the back of Dyanne Thorne's deliciously vile performances, but Don Edmonds also deserves some credit for really making the first two films come alive. He is a surprisingly competent director who is able to turn a miniscule budget into a surprisingly professional-looking film. Edmond's camera maintains a steady objectivity to the naked flesh and dripping blood with an engaging style that almost dares you to keep watching. In comparison, Franco's film seems cheap and crass, with stolen, lingering shots of naked female anatomy that makes his Ilsa, the Wicked Warden easily the worst of the three films in the set.
But the most important thing is that the series ultimately delivers what it promises, and then some. If you're looking for exaggerated sexual power politics, gratuitous scenes of torture, an endless supply of undressed bust models, and buckets of spurting blood, look no further. Ilsa is everything you want in a series of offensive sexploitation films, and each DVD presented here will have you laughing and cringing at the same time, just in different proportions.
Anchor Bay has gone above and beyond in transferring these films to DVD. Each disc in the set looks stunning, and is completely free of any defects. Colors are also excellent, with deep blacks and no edge enhancement. Quite simply, these transfers are a pleasure to watch. The sound quality is also quite good, considering all that these discs offer are obviously limited mono tracks.
Each disc features an original trailer, short text biographies, and a commentary moderated by British comedian Martin Lewis, with participants varying between films. While Lewis does keep the ball rolling by provoking the commentators into interesting anecdotes, his increasingly lame jokes, coupled with his obvious ignorance of not only the Ilsa films but the entire history of exploitation films, becomes really annoying. Once in a while he manages to sneak in a halfway intelligent question, but too much of the track is taken up Lewis's lame shtick—listing off "crazy" titles of other films the participants were involved in, then sarcastically saying "oh, this scene must have influenced Titanic" or some other Hollywood blockbuster. At one point, he even stoops to reading the "funny" keywords for Edmond's older films pulled off the IMDb.
The commentary on the first film, with director Don Edmonds, Dyanne Thorne (whose real-life personality couldn't be farther from Ilsa), and exploitation magnate David F. Friedman is by far the most entertaining. Anyone who has listened to Friedman's commentaries with Mike Vraney on the Something Weird discs knows that he is one of the most fascinating interview subjects, with a wealth of information to share. With three other participants, he doesn't get as much time as I would have liked, but he still manages to work in a few good anecdotes. Edmonds and Thorne balance out the track, which manages to deliver a pretty good history and social analysis of the film despite Lewis's interjections. The loss of Friedman and the fact that many observations are repeated in the Ilsa, Harem Keeper of the Oil Sheiks commentary makes it less interesting, but by the time we get to Ilsa, the Wicked Warden, we're really in the dregs. With just Lewis, Thorne, and Thorne's co-star and husband, Howard Maurer, no one is there to correct Lewis's ignorance. He relies on IMDb listings even more than usual, and makes many incorrect statements that go unchallenged. Maurer and Throne get a few stories in, but this track is a disappointment.
As a side note, I was also happy to hear a little discussion in the commentaries about the legendary unmade Ilsa film, Ilsa Meets Bruce Lee in the Bermuda Triangle, for which ad slicks, featuring the tagline "The Match of the Century!" were even made up.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The title card says "this film is restricted for adult audiences only," and it is serious. As I've already mentioned, these are nasty pictures, with a sense of humor that won't be appreciated by all viewers. It can't be stated often enough that these films should only be appreciated by open-minded adults.
The most obvious flaw in Anchor Bay's Ilsa box set is that it is missing the fourth film, Ilsa, Tigress of Siberia. Despite claims that this Canadian film is the dullest in the series, it is more of an "official" Ilsa film than Franco's installment, as it was made by Cinepix, the Canadian production company that originally commissioned the series. The final Ilsa is a campier affair that takes Ilsa to both Russia and Canada, and tries to balance the best of the first two films with mixed results. Obviously, Anchor Bay was unable to secure the rights for this film, which is a shame, since it unquestionably belongs in this release.
The Ilsa Collection represents a landmark in cult filmmaking that can still be a disconcerting viewing experience after 30 years. Exploitation fans with strong stomachs absolutely need this on their DVD shelves, and Anchor Bay's wonderful presentation of these films, finally collected together, makes this deal even sweeter. If you've been considering picking up these films, there is no better time than now—as long as you are aware of what you're getting into.
Even with Martin Lewis's disrespectful jokes, the Ilsa films are still more fun and have less flagellation than a Mel Gibson Biblical epic. Not guilty of all charges.
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