A friend once told me that “everyone needs at least one ‘Women in Prison’ (WIP) movie in their collection.” Did I also mention this friend is very wise?! For me the revolution (which i think starts right before the zombie apocalypze) begins when I am absolutely forced to choose ‘Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS.’
(Ok, ok, maybe it’s maybe half WIP film and half Nazisploitation genre, a niche that started with ‘Love Camp 7’
but it’s close enough and I really don’t want to spend anymore blog space on Nazis! It is a prison camp, with prisoners that conquer the warden, and they do escape, so close enough! Plus, there is plenty of blog space later for a proper 'examination' of more Women in Prison films…mmmmmm…..so many!)
Of course, after the ‘somber’ opening title card (it couldn’t be disingenuous? could it?!) We immediately go to a sex scene (well, this is a prisoner of war camp after all, so what were you expecting?)
“Once a prisoner has slept with me, he’ll never sleep with another woman again!” - Wow, how many times I have heard that?! Coitus leads to castration in this camp. Of course, this graphic scene leads into what this genre is all about: A sick mix of torture, soft-porn, violence and a lot of naked women. This was apparently a quite successful financial mix in the decade of the 70’s. For 1974 this was a truly sick film. Of course now, it is considered a truly sick cult film! (quite a significant distinction!) There is not much of a story except the torture (ahem, medical experiments) in various ways of the naked female prisoners. Ilsa employs devices such as a Nazi approved torture dildo, exploding diaphragms, boiling a prisoner alive (these are “important experiments for the fatherland.”), whippings (with topless guards of course!)and various surgical techniques. Of course, being on the cutting edge of medicine, Ilsa likes to use maggots to ‘cleanse the wounds.’
One of the most inspired set pieces involves a naked girl standing on a block of ice and a noose, slowly played out in the midst of a sumptuous dinner attended by the fuhrer’s finest. Of course after dinner, our visiting General has Ilsa pee on him. Reason #57 why you should see this movie. (but again, these are Nazi’s and it is a serious prisoner of war camp movie. I am sure scenes like this will guarantee that 'atrocities', as mentioned in the beginning of the movie, will never occur again!)
Another aspect that this film exploits endlessly, are the compelling colors of the Nazi regime in every scene (either with large banners or well designed uniforms!)
but also with the photos of Hitler, Himmler, etc. in the background of every scene. (or maybe they had to keep reminding us that these are Nazi’s! Really bad people! Which is a good thing because I would hate to be in a theater and halfway through, someone sitting in front of me would whisper to her friend and say: “which ones are the Nazi’s?” I really need to know who the bad guys are! ---(this actually happened during a movie to my good friend Shelley.) The only message that anyone should be taking away from this film is simple: Nazi's are bad, naked women are good! Even better if they are topless wielding a cat o' nine tails!
Ilsa’s downfall begins and ends with the one prisoner she decides not to castrate. Since he is the only one that can ’satisfy’ her, she keeps him around. Bad move, as Ilsa should have kept with the castration policy. He uses this time to organize the rest of the prisoners for an uprising and escape. After an underwhelming gun battle with about 5 nazi guards, (although I do have to mention one scene: a female prisoner sneaks up on a Nazi guard and slits his throat. He falls to the ground and the camera lingers on his ‘pulsing’ jugular with a really realistic bleeding out--listening to the commentary on the Anchor Bay DVD, this effect was done by Joe Blasco who did some great make-up effect work for this movie and went on to open some very successful makeup studios around the country. He also did the make-up for ‘The Carol Burnett Show’ & ‘The Lawrence Welk show!”) The SS arrive in two vehicles (that probably blew half the production budget) and proceed to destroy and burn the camp down...yes, sadly, the EXACT set where ‘Hogan’s Heroes’ had been filmed.
“Funny, I don’t remember this episode of Hogan’s Hero’s?”
In less than a decade David F. Friedman (with Herschell Gordon Lewis in the 60’s) produced ‘Blood Feast’, which by his admission was purposely camp, and the brutal ‘Ilsa’ series. Watching them back to back it’s shocking to see how the ‘tone’ of the gore presented had changed. This movie was shot in 9 days. Obviously, just like ‘Blood Feast’, this film was just made to make a quick buck. Also like that film, the question is why have they endured when so many were shocked, appalled, sickened, and after being dismissed by critics because of the content?
Without the presence of Dyanne Thorne, this film series never would have spanned three (two official) more films in this series. It would have been forgotten and included with all the rest of the forgettable Nazisploitation films. The legacy of this film, for me (whether you appreciate it or loathe it) is Ms.Thorne’s powerful portrayal of Ilsa. I can’t picture another actress that fit a role so perfectly. She influenced, I think, alot of WIP films that might have never been made without this film. I mean, can you imagine NOT being able to see these movies?!
It really created the 'new' template of what to expect from a WIP movie: sadistic warden, cruel guards, various abuses, whippings, lots of naked women (preferably lesbian)/catfights (even better, if the catfight is in the shower)
Basically they created everything you look for and require in this sort of genre film and this is the reason they are such a guilty pleasure. Beyond that, Danning's character was the archetype of what a strong, ruthless prison warden could and should be. In fact, here Sybil Danning pulls it off perfectly!
I would be remiss not to mention one of the actors in this film, George 'Buck' Flowers. He has shown up in a lot of my favorites over the years: most John Carpenter films, a lot of Something Weird Movies- just a very likable character actor that (as always) never gets enough credit for the 'texture' that they bring to a production.
Once you have seen this character actor you will probably be able to recall him being in some movie you have seen. Also, keep your eyes open for a brief appearance by Ushi Digart!
When you have recovered from the onslaught of the Uber-Frau-Aufseher aus der Hölle, be sure to check out the Ilsa movies that followed:
'Ilsa, Harem Keeper of the Oil Sheiks'-all you need to know about this film is that includes more castrations, exploding penis-machines and lesbian wrestling!
The third (but unofficial Ilsa) movie is 'Ilsa, the Wicked Warden.' This is not an 'Ilsa' movie. Directed by Jess Franco, it was one of four WIP movies he made, and it was only given an Ilsa title because of the the popularity of the Ilsa series. It was also called 'Greta the Mad Butcher' or 'Ilsa, Absolute Power'. Regardless, it does feature Dyanne Thorne plus everything you come to expect: nudity, violence, lesbians, acid injections, and snuff movies. Curiously this movie was released and packaged together by Anchor Bay with the first two including commentary and similar artwork.
The final Ilsa chapter is 'Ilsa, Tigress of Siberia'. AKA 'The Tigress' This time she is in charge of a Siberian Gulag but flees to Montreal to run a brothel. Unfortunately there is not an official US release of this film. You can find a VHS copy every now and then but this is usually the 'cut' version which does not include the awesome arm wrestling/chainsaw scene…. wait….
There actually was advertised in 'Variety' another Ilsa movie in pre-production 'Ilsa meets Bruce Lee in the Bermuda Triangle'---oh man, what could have been!
This is a good time to answer the above question of why films like this have endured. I don't know but I am glad that I saw it when I did and that I had friends that were looking for the same strange, weird movies as I was. I don't think anyone sets out to make a 'cult' movie. For whatever reason, be it timing, circumstance, serendipity, whatever, a movie like this stands above the dreck that preceded and followed it because it captures something that repels yet attracts and speaks to 'something' that is 'different'. Just slightly askew enough that it falls into a 'weirdness aka cool zone'. In other words, just what I have been looking for! It would definitely be on a list of 'name dropping films'. The simple answer? Awesome!
If you are a fan of exploitation and grindhouse type films. This movie cannot be more highly recommended.