Sunday, May 24, 2009

Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS (1974) review


Dyanne Thorne (Ilsa), Gregory Knoph (Wolfe), George "Buck" Flower (Binz)

Directed by Don Edmonds

***WARNING! This review contains pics of extreme violence, nudity, torture and sexual situations. If you are easily offended, you may wish to skip this review entirely. Although it is a serious look at one of the most recognizably infamous exploitation movies of the 1970's, the subject matter is a sensitive issue and many of the pics present the film for what it is. With that said, proceed with caution.***

"The film you are about to see is based upon documented fact. The atrocities shown were conducted as "medical experiments" in special concentration camps throughout Hitler's Third Reich. Although these crimes against humanity are historically accurate, the characters depicted are composites of notorious Nazi personalities; and the events portrayed have been condensed into one locality for dramatic purposes. 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." HERMAN TRAEGER Producer.

The cruel Nazi commander, Ilsa, conducts sadistic and torturous experiments on various women. In an effort to prove that females have a threshold of pain far exceeding that of males, the dementedly resolute Ilsa conducts her vile theories through the use of agonizing methods. Possessing a wildly voracious sexual appetite, Ilsa longs for a man who can satisfy her carnal desires. Castrating those who fail to give her pleasure, Ilsa finds an American POW with great control over his libidinous faculties. This man is the only hope for the surviving prisoners and their escape from the hell of the Third Reich and their savagely immoral experiments.

Don Edmonds directed this wildly popular and sadistically entertaining sex and gore opus. A difficult film to describe, it's been called everything from "a powerful cinematic experience", to "the worst soft-core sex & violence film of the decade--and the funniest." Depending on your point of view, either of these could apply. Regardless of how the film is perceived by viewers, it nonetheless isn't an easily forgotten picture. Edmonds helms his movie with a ferocious knack for the deplorable possessing an uncanny ability to fashion his film with as little fat as possible resembling the work of famed exploitation artisan, Jack Hill.

It's not the first Naziploitation movie (that would be LOVE CAMP 7 from 1969), but arguably ILSA is the one that got the brutal ball rolling on the nasty Nazi subgenre that seemed to flourish (fester would be a better word) especially in European countries most prominently in 1977. One of the most infamous of the grindhouse/drive-in experiences, it still packs a wallop today. ILSA, SHE-WOLF OF THE SS features numerous and nauseating scenes of torture and cruelty and near constant sex and nudity that borders on hardcore.

Filmed on left over sets for the Emmy winning comedy show, HOGAN'S HEROES (1965-1971; a show that was about WW2 prisoners performing covert operations that are oblivious to their bumbling Nazi captors), director Edmonds created one of the leanest, meanest and salaciously explosive exploitation movies of all time. The set itself was about to be demolished so to have access to the camp setting was a money saving coupe for the filmmakers. Astoundingly, movies such as GONE WITH THE WIND (1939) and DUEL IN THE SUN (1946) were also shot on the same lot.

Apparently the filmmakers were very aware they were making an incredibly offensive movie and aside from the director, Don Edmonds and star, Dyanne Thorne, everyone else used a nom de plume. Amazingly, even sleaze merchant, David F. Friedman, the producer of so many exploitation movies including films of Herschell Gordon Lewis, used a pseudonym. Here he's listed as Herman Traegar. However, he didn't remove his name because of the content. After facing numerous difficulties with the Montreal financiers, Friedman asked that his name be removed and replaced with an alias. The film was inspired by the above mentioned LOVE CAMP 7 (1969) which was a great success in Canada.

The monetary shortcomings continued when the production was almost shut down when the money needed for the cast and crew just wasn't there. Friedman used some of his own money to keep the picture going. As there was seemingly very little money to be paid to the performers, the actors apparently never got any royalties from the wild success of ILSA, SHE WOLF OF THE SS (1974). Amazingly, the film was shot in nine days(!!) with single takes and some 20 hour working days. The film was released in 17 countries before it ever got its first showing in America. From there it was a huge success and at the time, was the highest grossing film versus its production costs. With so much negative and scathing reviews from reputable American critics, people were lining up in droves to see what this sadistic and trail-blazingly distasteful film was all about.

Based on the real life atrocities of merciless Nazi murderess, Ilse Koch, she was christened the 'Bitch of Butchenwald' and was the wife of a top ranking Nazi official. She was a sick individual who enjoyed the pain and agony of inmates held within Germany's concentration camps. Seemingly a prototype for future Wisconsin cannibal, Ed Gein, Koch enjoyed flaying people alive and making lamps, books and ornaments out of the skin of her victims. Pickling the male member was another favorite of her repulsive activities. Her husband was eventually tried and executed while she was, astonishingly, acquitted of her crimes(!) after going into an epileptic fit and pretending to be insane. She was re-arrested soon after by German authorities and given a life sentence after 240 witnesses testified against her. In 1967 at age 61 she hanged herself in her cell with bed sheets. Some 50,000 inmates were brutally tortured and unjustly murdered by Ilse Koch.

The well endowed and statuesque beauty of Dyanne Thorne captures the repellent nature of Ilsa and lends her a domineering attractiveness all at the same time. Tutored under Lee Strasberg, Thorne took an incredible career gamble by undertaking the role of the savage, sexual machine of the movie version of the Ilse(a) persona. Blacklisted for her partaking in this obscene, yet profitable picture, Thorne lost the friendship of many colleagues embarrassed by her participation in this exploitation wonder. Later stating that she took this role because she was never offered more respectable, intellectual roles, Thorne nonetheless showcases a frenzied, authoritative and evil woman, who, at times, is weakened by her vices. Considered high camp by some, everything about the production is notably over the top. ILSA's fluctuating extremes evoke mixed emotions at times leaving the viewer dumbfounded at what is transpiring onscreen.

The film is a conundrum in that the tone is too grim to be taken as utter camp, yet it's brazen scenes of explicit sex, violence and especially Thorne's own unrestrained performance ground the picture in its miasma of histrionics. Despite expectedly scathing critical notices, the film was nonetheless a huge financial success guaranteeing a followup. The first sequel switched the action to the Middle East and ignored the ending of the first film in which Ilsa is unceremoniously shot in the face by one of her own men while she's tied down to a bed. The sequel, while gruesome in its own right, toned down the grim atmosphere gunning for a slightly lighter approach containing a bit of comedy and added action resulting in a sexually charged and gory spy/action exploitation picture.

One more (official) sequel followed in 1977 entitled ILSA, THE TIGRESS OF SIBERIA. Here, the series went from the ice covered steppes of Siberia, to a more modern locale somewhere in Canada where Ilsa runs a prostitute ring. Jess Franco did his own "Ilsa" movie with ILSA, THE WICKED WARDEN (1977), a retitling of WANDA, THE WICKED WARDEN which starred Dyanne Thorne in a similar role. The title was changed to capitalize on the success of the ILSA movies. To add further confusion, the film also goes by the titles, GRETA, THE MAD BUTCHER and ILSA, ABSOLUTE POWER. Supposedly, there was talk of another entry in the ILSA series to be titled ILSA MEETS BRUCE LEE IN THE BERMUDA TRIANGLE!

Joe Blasco handled the unsettling makeup effects for the first two Ilsa films. Blasco has his own Makeup Artist and Cosmetics training school in Hollywood. George "Buck" Flower, Boomer from the WILDERNESS FAMILY movies, plays a Nazi scientist(!) He returned as a syphilis infected retarded peasant(!!) for the first sequel. Flower, a popular character actor with genre fans (akin to Dick Miller) had an illustrious career in exploitation cinema.

What ILSA is most famous for is no doubt its near constant string of sex and acts of brutal violence. ILSA, SHE WOLF OF THE SS (1974) could very well be the ultimate exploitation movie as it musters every despicable, revolting and obscene act of repellence the cheerlessly ambitious filmmakers can cram into its 90 minute running time. What isn't included is saved for the followup. The filmmakers, very much aware of the cinematic filth they were creating, cram so many repugnant moments in ILSA, that one gets the impression the scriptwriter was coming up with even more nasty bits on a daily basis to add to the increasing mound of burnt, brutalized and mutilated corpses.

Among just some of the nasty novelties are electro shock treatment to the breasts and vaginal regions as well as an electrified dildo thrust into the female extremities. A naked woman is placed atop a block of ice with a noose tied around her neck. While the Nazis eat their dinner, the ice begins to melt away slowly asphyxiating the poor woman. More groin torture and open wounds covered in Typhus infected maggots as well as prisoners infected with venereal diseases continue the cavalcade of cruelty. Victims are submerged in boiling water, decompression chambers and even more electroshock scenes transpire. All the torture scenes involve women (or men) that are completely naked.

There's even a golden shower scene when one of the Third Reich's head honchos pays a visit to Ilsa's carnival of death and becomes aroused by all the grotesqueries and mass slaughter. Later after an unusual dinner, he wishes for Ilsa to kneel down and piss on his face (this thankfully occurs off screen) which she begrudgingly does. The look on Thorne's face is exaggerated, yet according to her commentary, she was suitably disgusted having to do this sequence and her expression was real. There's also orgies, gang rapes and lesbian antics among the numerous sexual encounters which occur with almost as much rapidity as the gory torture and death sequences.

Edmond's film is also preoccupied with a strong, uncomfortable relationship with its presentation of sex and death. One lengthy sequence hammers this home with a vengeance. In it, Ilsa and her two half nude servants brutally whip a male and female prisoner who had been caught fornicating. Both victims are stripped naked, tied down and laid across makeshift tables where they are viciously beaten till they are dead. Whilst this is going on, Ilsa walks back and forth becoming sexually aroused at the carnage in front of her.

This gruesome scene is intercut with another brutal sequence wherein a female prisoner is gang raped while an inebriated lesbian doctor watches nearby somewhat fellating the end of a beer bottle as the last swallow of the thick, creamy beverage slides down her throat. This some five minute chunk of film is one of the most difficult to watch in the entire picture and that's saying a lot considering the sheer volume of debauchery and depravity featured throughout this prime slice of 70's sleaze.

The MPAA has always had problems with movies that feature violent death mixed with nudity in the same scene. Here, it's in abundance. With the rather irritating and recently coined term "Torture Porn", so named for a subgenre dealing with extreme violence involving graphic depictions of torture and murder, ILSA could easily be the forerunner for that style of movie. The disclaimer at the outset of the film (quoted at the top of the page) attempts to validate what you are about to see by proclaiming to be a serious look into the atrocities the Nazis committed on thousands of innocent people as well as dedicating (?) the film to all those who did in fact lose their lives. If ILSA were actually a serious movie about the Holocaust, the opening statement might hold some water. However, ILSA and its sequels are really nothing more than lean, mean exploitation movies with a massive slant towards the salacious and the morbidly sensational.

Another of the most curious, yet degrading aspects of the film is that the script is preoccupied with the violation, or total destruction of the male and female extremities. Men have both their balls and main vein shorn away, or detail to characters about losing their manhood at some point. However, the women get the worst of it. The camera lingers on their naked frames and the gore drenched results of their cruel destinies. If you have a conscience, it's really difficult to watch this film at times without becoming just the slight bit disgusted. Joe Blasco did an amazing job on the make up effects and his work is a testament of his ability to deliver such grim showcases of extreme torture and death on such a limited budget said to be just $150,000.

No doubt the HOGAN'S HEROES sets helped a lot and possibly there were left over uniforms from the series as well. The makers also saved on music. Fans of Shaw Brothers kung fu movies will recognize numerous library tracks heard in many a favorite fight flick. There are a few scenes here and there that do bring about a slight grimace of unintended laughter. One is hearing the opening credits music cue from TWO CHAMPIONS OF SHAOLIN (1980) while Ilsa strokes a large dildo used for torture purposes. If you're not familiar with that film, you probably won't find any humor in it. But Thorne's occasional overacting whether in the sex scenes, or especially her massive frown face upon pissing all over the 'Mein General' is priceless.

But even with all its gore drenched splendor, ILSA manages to include some minor bits of cleverness and poetic justice within its meager script. Throughout the film, Ilsa brings a man into her bedroom and seemingly none of them are able to satisfy her rabid sexual cravings. Those that do not are castrated and often have their members sliced off to be kept as some sort of bizarre keepsake. However, once Ilsa shares her bed with Wolfe, a POW who is American, but was born in Germany, she goes wild with ecstasy and disbelief that a man could possess such prowess. Ilsa, the power mad sovereign, soon becomes putty in the hands of Wolfe which ultimately foreshadows her demise by films end.

Also, Ilsa was far too ambitious in her determination to prove that women could be every bit as formidable in battle as any man. After the General visits the camp and sees her private experiments and what she is attempting to accomplish (not to mention the impending attack by the Americans), orders are soon given to raze the concentration camp and everyone within are to be killed burying the truth of the hellish camp forever. Ilsa's death, regardless of the horrible things she has done, is right humiliating and mercilessly cold. Tied down spread-eagle and gagged by Wolfe promising sexual pleasure of the highest order, she's left helpless as the prisoners break out and exact revenge on their Nazi oppressors. However, a German regiment arrives and lays waste to the inmates save for Wolfe and Rosette who watch the violence from the hills. One of the Generals men enters the room and sees the half naked Ilsa tied to her bed with a mutilated carcass of one of her victims laying across her. The man points his Luger pistol at her face as she screams and blows her head all over the bed. A shocking ending to a totally shocking movie.

The finale where the prisoners escape and turn the tables on their captors is very well done and features some exciting moments of action made all the more remarkable by the fact that the film was shot in nine days and little time for more than one take per shot. After the main oppressors are executed, the German forces suddenly arrive and they proceed to eliminate the prisoners who likewise fight back valiantly before succumbing to machine gun fire. This explosive action denouement was shot in a day. The makers had no choice really as the crew had to be off the lot by the next day.

ILSA, SHE WOLF OF THE SS (1974) was one of the most profitable independent movies ever and was surely a product of its time period. There'll never be another decade of cinema quite like what came out of the 1970's; a time rife with ferocious and ambitious filmmakers with groundbreaking and taboo trashing ideas. With that said, there'll never be another movie quite like ILSA, either. It may have destroyed Dyanne Thorne's career in obtaining respectable roles, but it nonetheless will remain a much vilified, yet popular picture in the pantheon of exploitation cinema. Whether you love it, or hate it, the cinematic version of 'The Bitch of Butchenwald' will never be just a footnote in movie history. It will forever be talked about in fan and critical circles in both breaths of reverence and scorn. It's that damn (in)famous.

This review is representative of the Anchor Bay region 1 DVD.

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