Girl of Fire, by Norma Hinkens

Literary rating: starstarstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2actionhalf

You might be forgiven for expecting something Hunger Games-like, given Katniss was referred to frequently as the “girl on fire,” only one letter different from the title here. That really isn’t the case at all: though both are, broadly speaking, science-fiction, instead of an urban dystopia, this is sprawling space opera. The heroine, 17-year-old Trattora, lives on Cwelt, a fringe planet largely overlooked and bypassed by the rest of the galaxy. She’s a chieftain’s daughter there, but was adopted, and is clearly different from the rest of her people; she yearns to find the truth about her ancestry.

Her chance comes in the form of a trade-ship, captained by the untrustworthy Sarth. For it’s discovered that Cwelt is a source for dargonite, a mineral now in high demand for its use in cloaking technology. Before this can be announced, the planet comes under threat from the raiding Maulers, and Trattora strikes an uneasy bargain with the visiting captain, to sell dargonite in order to buy ships which can defend Cwelt. However, after an apparent double-cross, Trattora steals Sarth’s ship from under her nose, and strikes out on her own, to take care of business – and also locate her biological parents.

The latter thread doesn’t occupy much of this, the first volume in a trilogy called ‘The Expulsion Project’. That title is explained at the beginning: proceedings open with her parents on Mhakerta, sending Trattora into space, in a last-ditch effort to escape the clutches of an all-powerful AI who has taken over their planet. The only thing Trattora has left as a link with her parents is a bracelet – when she finds a similar item belonging to Velkan, an indentured serf in Serth’s crew, she realizes there are apparently others like her. But this book is more concerned with her attempting to sell the valuable minerals, and adapting to life in a universe very different from the one to which she is used.

The cover is rather misleading, since as soon as Trattora gets off the surface of Cwelt, she more or less abandons the “barbarian chic” aesthetic, as far as I can tell. Probably wise: carrying a spear around would likely attract undue attention in any space-faring civilization. Indeed, she largely avoids violence, hence the low kick-butt quotient. She still qualifies here, due to what would probably be described on her resume as “a pro-active approach to problem-solving, demonstrated ability at adapting to new situations, and proven leadership skills.” She’s certainly brave, prepared to risk everything to save her adopted home planet, loyal to her friends, and resourceful – all-round, she has the qualities of a good heroine.

I’m less convinced with the writing when it comes to the universe building, beginning with planet names which feel like the author made them up by pulling tiles from a Scrabble bag. You don’t get much sense of a structured universe, despite the apparently overwhelming presence of “The Syndicate”, a group whose power is vaguely ineffectual, except when necessary to the plot. This is where the “space opera” label becomes something of a double-edged sword. While I appreciated the brisk pace, Trattora and her pals whizzing from one incident to the next, the idea of a teenage girl hijacking a spaceship on her first trip off-world, from its far more world-wise captain, with most of the crew supporting her, was only one of a number of moments which stretched my credulity. It was just far too easy.

This probably falls into the category of a fun read rather than a good one, and is thoroughly disposable fluff. While there’s nothing wrong with that per se, this likely panders a little too much in the direction of the young adult audience, to be entirely acceptable for anyone who has grown out of that group.

Author: Norma Hinkens
Publisher: Dunecadia Publishing, available through Amazon in both printed and e-book versions.

Two Wrongs

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“…don’t make the ending right.”

twowrongsThe first half of this is actually well-written, asking some difficult moral questions that left me intrigued, and wondering how they would be resolved. The answer, unfortunately, is by an escalating series of plot twists, culminating in one of the more ridiculous climaxes I’ve ever seen. I could go on to say, “even in a Lifetime TVM”, but that would be unkind, since I’ve seen both good and bad examples from there over the past year. Though as an aside, I note Netflix being increasingly quiet about the ties of films to Lifetime, which is interesting; but given the severe inaccuracy of their synopsis (No, the heroine does not get “sucked into a dangerous underworld”), that’s more likely a Netflix issue.

Sarah (Zinser) is a single mom, devoted to her daughter, who also works as a nurse. It’s clear from the get-go that someone is stalking her, and eventually the daughter is abducted on her way home from school. Sarah is called by the kidnapper, but his demands are not anything like you’d expected. For it turns out, one of Sarah’s patients is trying to escape his own past, where he was accused of kidnapping a young girl himself, who allegedly died while in the trunk of his car. Acquitted on a technicality, he moved away, but the father of his victim – whose mother also suffered a complete psychological breakdown as a result – has tracked the perp down, and is now intent on using Sarah as a vehicle for his revenge.  How far will she go, in order to save her own daughter?

Like I said: it’s a difficult moral question, not least in the early going, when the film maintains a nice sense of ambiguity as to whether or not the target of her second-hand wrath is guilty. If so, then the entire situation becomes a cascading series of wrongness, potentially culminating in the death of at least one other innocent. While a fascinatingly dark scenario, it’s not exactly Lifetime fodder, and things start to go off the rails when Sarah’s mother [from whom she clearly gets her style of “helicopter parenting”] shows up, extracting a confession that removes any ambiguity. He’s guilty as charged, m’lud – and probably guilty of a lot of other things, too. Hanging’s too good for him. From then on, the script staggers from one ill-conceived mis-step to the next, through everyone going on a road-trip and an amazingly coincidental meeting at a gas-station, to an ending that literally drips everywhere. There is, apparently, no loose end which can’t be tied up by someone drowning randomly and floating off downstream, resolving all those tricky moral dilemmas. Though Zinser is solid enough as a mom prepared to do anything to get her daughter back, she could have been Meryl Streep here, and still wouldn’t be capable of papering over the glaring flaws in the later portion of the script.

Dir: Tristan Dubois
Star: Gillian Zinser, Ryan Blakely, Aidan Devine

Never Let Go

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“Takenette.”

Based on the title and synopsis, I was expecting something like a Lifetime TV Movie. A mother frantically searching for her abducted child in a foreign location, before they can be sold off to some rich Arab, would seem right up their alley. [Though of course, this kind of thing has long been a popular subject for exploitation, to the point where the Hays Code of the thirties had explicitly to ban movies about “white slavery”] It’s a good deal grittier and harder hitting than that, though could have done with much better explanation of why this momma bear is so ferocious – among a number of other aspects.

The heroine is Lisa Brennan (Dixon), who is enjoying a vacation in Morocco with her child, the product of her affair with an up-and-coming politician, Clark Anderson (Whitney). A moment’s inattention sees the child snatched, and Brennan begins her hunt. She has to do it almost entirely on her own, and indeed, in the face of significant interference; because, after her involvement in the death of one of the kidnappers, Lisa is the target of a woman-hunt by the local authorities. Fortunately, what she does have are a very particular set of skills. Skills she has acquired over a very long career. Skills that make her a nightmare for people like the kidnappers. Skills that that poster tag-line references in a shameless way, which I can only applaud. Well played, marketers. Well played….

These would have probably come as less of a surprise had there been some content establishing Lisa’s credentials as a bad-ass. It’s only well after she has gone full Liam Neeson, that it’s even suggested the heroine is an FBI agent, rather than some random Mom on a beach. You just have to take her hand-t0-hand skills on trust. We also discover that the inhabitants of Marrakech leave their doors conveniently open, greet home invaders with little more than moderate confusion, and can be convinced to assist foreign fugitives on the run from the police, with little more than forcefully-spoken English and enthusiastic hand gestures. Meanwhile, the local armed cops will let said fugitive beat them all up, without so much as firing a single shot.

Fortunately, Ford is a much better director than a script-writer, keeping the pace brisk as he gallops towards a “surprise” ending that will come as a surprise to absolutely nobody (an additional black mark on Ford the author). Dixon is also very good in her role, projecting the right degree of focus and intensity, and the pounding, percussive driven score as she’s rushing around the narrow streets and across the rooftops, enhances proceedings significantly, in a way that echoes Run Lola Run. The problems are more whenever the film slows down from that frenetic and breathless pace. For it’s during these quieter moments, where the flaws in the story become most apparent, and you’ll probably find yourself going, “Hang on…”, to a degree that considerably weakens the overall impact.

Dir: Howard J. Ford
Star: Angela Dixon, Nigel Whitmey. Heather Peace, Velibor Topic

Girl in Woods

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“Why we don’t camp, #273.”

It’s always interesting when reviews of a film are deeply polarized, and that’s the case here. The first page of Google results run the gamut from “I simply despised the film as a whole” to “The images are frightening within, and the only thing better than the scares are the performances.” While I lean toward the latter, I can see how this could have failed to make a connection with some viewers, and if that happens, then there isn’t much else to prevent the former opinion. It’s the kind of film where there isn’t likey to be a middle ground in reactions.

Following an awful childhood trauma, Grace (Reeves) has grown up into a troubled soul, but has finally found some peace, through her boyfriend (not without his own issues) and pharmaceutical help. However, that’s all shattered on a weekend trip to a cabin in the forest; on the way there, an accident (or was it?) occurs, leaving Grace stranded, alone, in the woods and very poorly equipped to survive. For what follows is a gradual and relentless shattering of her sanity, as the stress builds up and the drugs run out, and she tries to get out of her predicament. Grace’s personality splits into three distinct versions of herself – then there’s the darkly aboriginal creature who appears to be stalking her.

Meanwhile, we get flashbacks to Grace’s life with her mother (Carpenter) and father (Perkins), shedding some light on the cause of her mental fragility. It’s not much of a stretch to see Grace’s lost physical state as a metaphor for her psychological one: the title (and yes, that is it – I didn’t miss out a “the”) suggests the same. Since her character is on screen in virtually every scene, it’s a movie which really stands or falls on whether you buy in to Reeves’s performance – or, more accurately, performanceS, since many of these have her interacting only with her other selves. After some shaky moments early on, I found the approach kinda crept up on me, and some of the three-way scenes are near-impeccable, both technically and dramatically.

When your story largely involves watching someone lose their mind, keeping it interesting for the viewer is not an easy task to pull off. Benson succeeds, even if you’ll be reluctant to commit too far, because it’s clear that what Grace remembers, and what actually happened, may be radically different things. There’s a sudden effort at the end to tie everything together into urban legend, which I’m not sure is particularly helpful. It seems to come out of nowhere and feels like pandering toward a sequel. Trim those few minutes off, because you’ll know the “true” ending when you see it, and it would be a tighter overall product. Yet, there’s still enough of merit here to make it worthwhile, if admittedly this could be seen as merely confirming our strong preference against woodland wandering.

Dir: Jeremy Benson
Star: Juliet Reeves, Charisma Carpenter, Lee Perkins, Jeremy London

The Rebel

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“No, we still don’t get to win this time.”

In 1920’s Vietnam, the French are in control, but there’s a burgeoning insurgency. Vo Thanh Thuy (Ngo), the daughter of the rebellion’s leader, is arrested during an assassination attempt on a high-ranking colonial officer, but is broken out of captivity by Le Van Cuong (J. Nguyen). He’s an agent in the secret police, but has grown weary of the conflict and the toll it is taking on his fellow countrymen. Vo needs to return to her father and tell him about the mole in his organization, but the pair are pursued on their way back by Sy (D. Nguyen), Le’s sadistic superior.

It’s a relatively simple storyline, albeit with one significant twist that I won’t spoil – though must confess, didn’t come as much of a shock. However, it benefits from a fresh setting, a slick look that combines well-executed period atmosphere and solid production values, and reasonable performances. On a few occasions, I was reminded of Tsui Hark’s Once Upon a Time in China series, which has a similar feel, not least in a portrayal of the colonialists that would never be described as remotely sympathetic. Still, this was intended for local consumption, and did very well when it came out in 2007, setting a Vietnamese box-office record for a locally-produced movie.

The main selling point in the West would be the fights, which are particularly hard-hitting. It appears Vietnamese martial-arts owes more than a little to Muay Thai, incorporating a lot of the same elbow and knee strikes. The version depicted here is also flamboyant on occasion, with J. Nguyen in particular flying through the air to deliver spinning kicks to his opponent’s head. For our purposes though, the focus is on Ngo, who was already famous in her home country at the time as a singer and actress, Indeed, she already had martial-arts experience, thanks to Rouge, her 2004 MTV series which “follows a Southeast Asian all-girl rock band who are also high-tech special operatives working for a global crime-fighting organization.” As they do. [Have a promo clip.]

Ngo certainly delivers, producing an impressive set of moves that are virtually the equal of her male co-stars, with balletic grace that reminded me a bit of a young Michelle Yeoh, culminating in the move captured on the right, and seen in the trailer, which is a wonderful cross between MMA and lucha libre. I don’t know why she hasn’t subsequently become a star, though did have a supporting role in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny last year, so is still active. Her character is certainly the emotional heart of this film, and is more important than I expected.

If there’s a flaw, it’s mostly Sy, who is not much more than your standard frothing psychopath, and the efforts to give him back-story fall completely flat. He appears impervious to edged weapons, for some reason which is never explained and is entirely wasted as a plot-point. Indeed, most of the story is fairly obvious, and I’ll confess to rolling my eyes occasionally, at the blossoming relationship between Vo and Le. The positives, however, outweigh the problems, and this is a straightforward and two-fisted tale, generally well told.

Dir: Charlie Nguyen
Star: Johnny Tri Nguyen, Veronica Ngo, Dustin Nguyen, Stephane Gauger

The Eagle Huntress

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“Where eagles dare.”

No matter how bad-ass you are, you’ll never attain “13-year-old Mongolian girl, standing astride a mountain, holding the trained golden eagle she raised from a chick, after climbing down a cliff to get it” levels of bad-ass. That’s what we have here, folks, in this documentary about Aisholpan. She’s a Mongolian teenager who wants to become an eagle huntress, a profession traditionally reserved for the male lineage. Her father Rys learned the skills necessary (and, presumably, inherited the really large, very well-padded glove) from his father, and so on.

In the absence of a suitably-aged son, and given Aisholpan’s interest, Rys is happy to show her the ropes. Literally. As in the ones used to prevent her falling off the steep cliff-face she has to descend to pluck her eaglet from its home. For, as we learn, there’s only a brief period between the chicks being able to survive away from their mother, and them leaving the nest, during which they can be taken. We also discover, there’s apparently no word in Mongolian for “child endangerment.” There’s then the training process, as the bird grows up, for instance to get it to come when called. Though “politely asked” would be wiser than “called”. You don’t order around something like the full-sized and scary creature shown on the right.

The first dramatic moment is Aisholpan’s participation in the annual golden eagle festival, which takes place in a nearby (by Mongolian standards – it’s only a day’s ride away) town. She’s not only the youngest participant, she’s the first woman ever to take part. Some of the veterans and elders are interviewed, and are not exactly happy about it. Though their opposition doesn’t appear to go any further than mild levels of harumphing; it’s not as if there’s any active attempt to stop her participation. This could be because the film does seem to over-state Aisholpan’s uniqueness for the sake of cinematic drama. History actually provides much evidence for her female predecessors.

However, there’s still an enormous amount here to appreciate and enjoy, not least a plethora of panoramas, sweeping across the staggeringly beautiful Mongolian plains. You also get a new respect for eagles, creatures whose size is not apparent in the air, and only when you see one perched on the heroine’s arm, it’s razor-sharp beak inches from her eye. Then there’s Aisholpan herself, who clearly gives not one damn for any constraints “tradition” might want to place on her, and goes about her eagle-training business with an infectious smile. Oh, and she’s studying to be a doctor when she grows up. If she went on her rounds with an eagle on her arm, so much the better, I’d say.

Finally, we get to bask in the gloriously stunned silence of the elders, after Aisholpan has demonstrated her skills (and, admittedly, those of her avian familiar) at the tournament. They then point out that, well, anybody – even a girl – can do well enough in the comfortable setting of a field. She could never withstand the harsh conditions faced by real hunters, in the mountains. Guess where Aisholpan’s next stop is? Yep. She takes her bird and heads off into those mountains, through snowdrifts which reach up to the flank of her horse, to hunt foxes for their fur. In terms of teenage empowerment, it sure beats getting a tattoo and hanging out at the mall.

Dir: Otto Bell
Star: Aisholpan Nurgaiv, Rys Nurgaiv, Daisy Ridley (narrator)

The Last Girl, by Joe Hart

Literary rating: starstarstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2action2action2

There are elements here which reminded me of Children of Men, though this is set further down the road, when civilization has decayed a good deal further. The issue here is slightly different: specifically, a lack of female children, which has triggered a rapid collapse into anarchy for the United States. 25 years later, the National Obstetric Alliance (NOA) seek far and wide for young girls, who are brought to their compound in the Pacific Northwest, to be held until the age of 21 when… Well, their fate gets a bit murky. Approaching that point is Zoey, who has known almost no other life. But after she’s subjected to a harrowing bout of psychological torture in a sensory-deprivation chamber called “the box”, her whole attitude changes, and she’s prepared to go to any lengths to escape, and take the other women with her.

It’s clear the exact moment and paragraph at which Zoey changes: “A searing desire for vengeance sweeps through her, turning her blood molten hot within her veins and with it the will to exact revenge on those responsible, to destroy what should be obliterated. To reap justice.” Before that, she has been somewhat cowed. A little rebellious, but in small ways, such as reading forbidden literature (The Count of Monte Cristo, perhaps a little too obvious a choice!). Afterward? She becomes a single-minded zealot, intent on the destruction of NOA and those who run it – and all the more interesting for it. But that’s a mission which will open up not only NOA’s darkest secrets, it will also expose how far Zoey is prepared to go in her mission.

As well as Children, there are definitely echoes of A Handmaid’s Tale, with one gender largely reduced to breeding chattel in a theocratic dictatorship [the concept of women as property, is hinted at briefly here with the “Fae Trade”, and appears to be explored further in later volumes]. I’m always down for a good dystopia, and despite the pieces being somewhat familiar, Hart has put them together in an interesting and effective manner, particularly in the second half when Zoey discovers the outside world, and realizes not everyone is like the NOA. My qualms are mostly with the plotting of the first half: if these young women really were the last hope of mankind, wouldn’t they be treated rather better? As in, propped up on couches and fed grapes, rather than kept in conditions resembling a Japanese women-in-prison film.

Still, I can understand why Hart opted for another approach. It would have made for a more ambivalent story-line, rather than NOA and its operatives being the obvious villains of the piece they need to be, and might have robbed Zoey of her moral drive to action. The interesting question – albeit one left unaddressed here – would be whether her lying and putting others in danger, never mind the actual killing, are justified; does the noble end justify her means? Though you could perhaps argue, jeopardizing the future of humanity for your own freedom, is selfish in the extreme. Zoey’s transition certainly makes for one of the more dramatic arcs I’ve read, although her easy adeptness with weapons is somewhat implausible.

Despite these weaknesses, which may seem quite significant, it must be said they didn’t stop me from enjoying the tale as it was told, and there’s still a decent amount to commend this. It’s a nicely self-contained story, yet leaves the door open enough to leave me genuinely interested in reading more. The romantic angles are kept secondary, and there’s a plausibility about the way in which society has fallen apart, that makes this border on disturbing. When the world ends, it may not be with a bang, so much as the sound of us tearing each other apart.

Author: Joe Hart
Publisher: Thomas & Mercer, available through Amazon in both printed and e-book versions.

47 Meters Down

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“Nobody expects the sharkish inquisition!”

Stealing from both Open Water and The Shallows, this takes two sisters on a scuba-diving trip in Mexico. There’s Lisa (Moore) and Kate (Holt): the latter is all gung-ho about the chance to dive with sharks, while the former is considerably less enthusiastic, about life in general, being on the wrong side of a break-up. And, whaddya know, her concerns prove to be entirely valid, as the chain of the observation cage snaps, sending them plunging 150 feet down into the water. Air is limited, the sharks are circling, and they’ve fallen out of radio range with the boat above. How are they going to survive?

I’ve read thoroughly scathing reviews of this from scuba divers, criticizing a number of technical aspects – for instance, their air would be woefully insufficient. As someone who has never even snorkeled, I can only acknowledge these and move on, since they didn’t impact my opinion much. Though I have to say, I did notice how novice diver Lisa becomes remarkably proficient over the course of the film, even swapping out her tank on the fly, something I imagine isn’t a novice task. It is necessary to accept that the entire thing is inevitably going to be highly contrived: the sharks appear only when required, and don’t attack when that’s needed, too. These are creatures, strictly necessary to the plot, and it’s a mechanism which is largely par for the genre course. Who needs motivation? They’re freakin’ sharks!!!

Still, for what it is, this does the job, the director pushing the appropriate buttons with a degree of competence. After a somewhat shaky opening reel, where you wonder how much of the film is going to be emotion-driven, it settles down to what matters. This means a straightforward Problem → Solution → Execution cycle, with the sisters having to come up with strategies for the issues as they arise. Having two leads does help avoid the awkward structure we saw in The Shallows, with the heroine speaking to a conveniently wounded seagull, largely in order to avoid 80 minutes without dialogue. Fortunately for this film, Lisa and Kate are conveniently wearing masks with radios, so they can emote to each other, instead of being limited to enthusiastic hand-signals.

The ending is certainly reminiscent of another movie you’ll find on this site. I’ll avoid explicit spoilers, but it got our seal of approval, and if you’ve seen the film in question, you’ll certainly look askance at the wholesale hijacking carried out here. It’s this general lack of many ideas entirely its own, which prevents this from being as successful as it might be. The performances and direction are good enough for the job, and it laudably avoids any romantic interest worth mentioning at all. This film instead has a single goal, much like sharks are machines with one purpose: killing… Killing and eating. Their two purposes are killing and eating. And making little sharks. Their three purposes are killing, eating, and making little sharks. And an almost fanatical devotion to the Pope. Er, among their purposes are such elements as…

I’ll come in again.

Dir: Johannes Roberts
Star: Mandy Moore, Claire Holt
a.k.a. In the Deep

Angel With the Iron Fists

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“From Hong Kong With Love.”

Swinging wildly between the surprisingly smart and the brain-numbingly stupid, this 1967 Hong Kong film is, in the end, not much more than a bad James Bond knock-off, despite its female lead. The heroine, Luo Na (Ho), is unsubtly named Agent 009, and goes to Hong Kong, posing as the mistress of an imprisoned gangster, who supposedly knows where he hid his ill-gotten gains. This brings her to the attention of the Dark Angels, whose leader is played by Tina Chin-Fei. This is a surprisingly gynocentric organization, owning both a vast, sprawling, underground lair and fetching two-piece uniforms. Keen to find out what Lona knows, they recruit her – which was 009’s cunning plan all along.

As well as straight out lifting some Bond musical cues, the makers go with the same kind of gadgets, Luo Na being given an entire arsenal of lethal purses, perfume and jewels before entering the Dark Angels’ lair. She also has some nifty sunglasses which allow her to tell when someone has been in her room, and Ho plays her as smartly competent, not relying on her sex appeal to get the job done. Or, at least, not relying entirely on her sex appeal, for she has to lure in high-level minion, Tieh Hu (Ching), which doesn’t sit well with his girlfriend, nightclub singer Dolly (Fan). If you can detect the faint whiff of Eau de Imminent Catfight, you’re not wrong.

The problem is mostly the villains, who appear to have strayed in from Austin Powers. For instance, there’s one scene where Luo Na is on a reconnaissance mission. Surprised by three guards, she engages in fisticuffs with them for while, and only then pulls a gun on them. They simply slouch off, shame-faced, and she continues reconnaissancing. Perhaps they were too embarrassed at being beaten by a woman to, oh, RAISE THE GODDAMN ALARM? And if ever I become an Evil Overlord, I will be sure not to discuss specific details, down to the flight numbers, of my top-secret plan to flood the world with a new, powerful drug, in front of the most recent recruit, immediately following her initiation.

But there’s one thing I have to say: in terms of dealing with any treachery, the Dark Angels get the full 10/10 for style. Here’s what happens after the leader discovers one of her “branch managers” skimmed $100,000 off the takings. I laughed like a drain, at this hip sixties update to the staple of classical kung-fu film, the flying guillotine. Just a shame this kind of goofy invention is rarely found outside the lair of Evil, Inc., such as the leader’s Rosa Klebb-inspired footwear. It doesn’t help that Ho’s action talents are clearly limited – the lengthy “swimsuit show” of no purpose was particularly aggravating. The movie did prove successful enough to merit a sequel the following year, Angel Strikes Again. I’ll be tracking that down because, for all its flaws, if it contains one moment like the flying guillotine one here, it’ll be worth the investment.

Dir: Lo Wei
Star: Lily Ho, Tang Ching, Tina Chin Fei, Fanny Fan

The Ilsa, She-Wolf of the S.S. series

The late seventies was something of a golden era for exploitation, but few films have sustained their notoriety as well as the Ilsa series. Even more than forty years after the release of the first film starring Dyanne Thorne, there’s still something repellent and uncomfortable about the whole concept. Which is, of course, part of its transgressive appeal. Safe to say that the four films, made between 1975 and 1977 represent perhaps the most politically incorrect franchise ever to receive a theatrical release. Join with us, why don’t you, as we explore the mad, sick and twisted world of Ilsa, beginning with what still remains today, one of the most notorious grindhouse films ever made.


Ilsa, She-Wolf of the S.S.
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I used to have an Ilsa, She-wolf of the SS T-shirt, but only ever dared wear it once in public – the looks of hate it provoked were simply too much to bear, though I don’t exactly kowtow to moral pressure or political correctness easily. And when I bought the DVD in the Hollywood Virgin Megastore, a complete stranger standing next to me commented to the effect that this wasn’t the sort of thing we needed to see getting re-released. Such is the power of Ilsa.

Hence, I write with trepidation: even in the sordid yet enchanting world of exploitation cinema, She-Wolf is notorious. Three decades after being made, it remains unreleased – and possibly unreleasable – in the United Kingdom, and in our house, the DVD sat on the shelf for two years, since I feared Chris would instantly leave me if we watched it. And she is no shrinking violet, but a woman who (to my ultimate delight) regards an uncut DVD of The Story of Ricky as a fine birthday present. Luckily, Chris is right beside me as I type this, and I get to produce this article as a married, rather than divorced man.

I should point out, before the inevitable accusations come in, that the mark awarded to the film is scored on a radically different scale from “normal” movies. I don’t recommend this movie unless you possess a very black sense of humour, are immune to being offended by fictional material, have carefully stowed all children and maiden aunts, and switched off all moral qualms.

Even so, the question must still be asked, is a Nazi camp a suitable setting for any piece of entertainment? No, probably not. But tell that to the producers of Hogan’s Heroes, a comedy set in a similar location. [Indeed, She-Wolf was filmed on Hogan’s sets, and the private life of star Bob Crane, was no less sordid than most exploitation films – as shown in Paul Schrader’s Auto Focus, which would make a fine double-bill with She-Wolf]. Or perhaps Schindler’s List, which in my opinion is more guilty of exploiting the Holocaust (interestingly, She-Wolf never mentions the J-word – it’s just a natural reaction these days to equate Nazi camps with Jews).

If I may digress for a moment, I find List a truly cynical work: Steven Spielberg performs his usual adept emotional manipulation, but what purpose is served? Like all docudramas, it alters the facts, and no Aryan Nation adherent will sit through a three-hour plus, black and white film for “educational” reasons. It seems more like a cynical, and successful, attempt to win Spielberg an Academy Award. Ask yourself an awkward question: would it have won seven Oscars if it had been about gypsies?

Like Schindler, the cinematic Ilsa was based on a real character. Ilsa Koch was the “Bitch of Buchenwald,” whose practices perhaps surpassed those in the movie, including the stripping and curing of human skin – particularly from tattoed inmates – for her collection of lampshades, gloves, etc. Unlike her fictional counterpart, she survived the war, being sentenced to live in prison, but sadly, didn’t live to see a twisted depiction of her life, committing suicide in 1967.

At least She-Wolf is upfront about its exploitational nature, despite an opening title which reads, in part, “We dedicate this film with the hope that these heinous crimes will never occur again.” This is such an implausible claim, you can’t even begin to take it seriously, especially when the next scene shows Ilsa (Dyanne Thorne) writhing atop one of the camp’s inmates. We don’t initially ‘know’ it’s her (though I doubt anyone is fooled!), until she returns, dressed as the commandant of Medical Camp 9.

It’s not long before her true persona is revealed, as she castrates her lover, fulfilling in a twisted way her promise that he wouldn’t return to the camp. The arrival at camp of a new batch of inmates allows the depiction of a whole new range of potential tortures, even if there is a surprising amount of plot going on too:

  • Ilsa’s attempts to prove women are better than men at handling pain…
  • Her growing infatuation with American prisoner Wolfe (Gregory Knoph)…
  • The prisoners’ plans to revolt…
  • The imminent arrival of a General on a tour of inspection…
  • The equally imminent arrival of Allied forces.

Though, being honest, these are secondary to the depiction of a huge range of sadistic and/or fetishistic practices. Floggings, electric dildos, decompression, surgery, golden showers, bondage – it’s all here, as well as good old-fashioned sexuality, making this truly a film with something for everyone. This is part of what makes for such uncomfortable viewing, it mixes the repellent and the fascinating unlike any other movie ever made – the closest I can think of would be Pasolini’s Salo, but that is Art, and consequently extremely tedious. That’s something you can certainly not say about Ilsa, where every few minutes brings some new unpleasantness to contemplate.

The “fascinating” would be Dyanne Thorne, whose portrayal is spot on, and without which the film would be no more than a parade of atrocities. She was already in her 40’s when it was made, and it’s rare, even nowadays, for a female character of that age to be shown with such unfettered sexuality. Admittedly, Thorne’s German accent is awful (she can’t even pronounce “Reich” correctly), but it’s a captivating and iconic performance of charisma and amorality.

It’s difficult to criticize the rest of the participants, since an awful lot of them seem to have suspiciously short filmographies, and I suspect pseudonyms were being used e.g. writer “Jonah Royston”, lead actor “Gregory Knoph” and, of course, producer “Herman Traeger” was in reality Dave Friedman, who worked with Herschell Gordon Lewis on the likes of Blood Feast and 2000 Maniacs. The only notable name, save an uncredited Uschi Digard, is Maria Marx, playing Anna, the prisoner whom even Ilsa cannot break – ironically Marx’s parents left Germany as refugees from Hitler. She was married to Melvin Van Peebles and is Mario’s mother.

Technically, it’s several steps better than you might think; there’s nothing complex or innovative, admittedly, but simply being coherent and in-focus puts it several levels above many video nasties, most of which are lamentably inept. Joe Blasco’s make-up effects hit the mark with disturbing frequency, though perhaps the most memorable moments are those which go beyond simple gore. For example, the dinner party entertainment, consisting of a naked woman suspended by piano wire, with her only support a steadily melting block of ice. This kind of stuff is simply wrong, yet I’ve little doubt worse things went on. [But for the most stomach-churning WW2 atrocity film, see Men Behind the Sun, covering the Japanese occupation of China and their human experiments]

While Ilsa wasn’t the first “video Nazi” (Love Camp 7 in 1967 predates it), it is certainly the most infamous, and is perhaps exploitation cinema in its most elemental form, going places where ordinary films would never dare to tread. Others among the most notorious films of the 1970’s have now been accepted into society (Texas Chainsaw Massacre, for example, now gets shown on British network TV), Ilsa still remains a pariah. If you have any interest in “polite society”, merely having the film on your shelf is an act of some courage – though any acknowledgement of its power and qualities, as here, does perhaps count as reckless. :-)

Ilsa is the antithesis of the word “heroine”, yet is undeniably a strong, independent female character (albeit one which proves that such traits are not necessarily a good thing), and on that ground alone, deserves recognition. There’s something almost rabidly feminist about her assertions of the superiority of women, and she is certainly a candidate for the most warped, despicable, relentlessly evil female character in cinema history. At the very least, the films remind us of the fragility of history: had things been only a little different, we could be living in a society where Ilsa was the heroine…

Dir: Don Edmonds
Star
: Dyanne Thorne, Gregory Knoph, Tony Mumolo, Maria Marx

[I acknowledge the invaluable contribution of The Ilsa Chronicles, by Darren Venticinque and Tristan Thompson, published by Midnight Media, without which this article would be very plain in appearance!]

Ilsa, Harem Keeper of the Oil Sheiks
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haremThe success – or notoriety – of She-Wolf inevitably led to a sequel. riding roughshod over trivial issues like Ilsa having been killed at the end. Nor does anyone pay the slightest heed to thirty years having passed since the end of World War II, without her having apparently aged a day. That’s exploitation, folks! For this takes place in the modern era, with the Middle East replacing Germany, as the title suggests. Ilsa is now the right-hand woman of El Sharif (Alexander, a pseudonym for Jerry Delony), whose duties mostly involve keeping him supplied with a steady supply of more or less pliable Western woman for his sexual needs. Some discretion becomes necessary, due to the arrival of American businessman and thinly-disguised Dr. Kissinger lookalike, Dr. Kaiser (Roehm, a pseudonym for Richard Kennedy) and his “aide” Adam Scott (Thayer, a pseudonym – as in the original, you’ll be detecting a theme here – for Max Thayer), who is actually a CIA agent. Bedding Ilsa, he turns her against El Sharif, and when she is punished for her disloyalty, she switches sides entirely, supporting the nephew and assisting in a palace coup aimed at overthrowing her former employer.

If not quite in as spectacularly poor taste as the original, it certainly isn’t going to be mistaken for a Disney movie, with exploding IUDs, forced plastic surgery, burning alive, any amount of more mundane tortures and soft(ish)-core sex, plus copious amounts of gratuitous nudity from just about every female in the cast. Those include the return of Russ Meyer favourite Uschi Digard, who gets a larger role than in the first film, and also Haji from Faster Pussycat, who plays an undercover asset for Scott, whose mission is discovered by Ilsa. Having a tape-recorder that looks about the size of a briefcase was probably, in hindsight, a bad move… Outside of Ilsa, however, the two most memorable are Ilsa’s sidekicks, Satin and Velvet (Tanya Boyd and Marilyn Joy – the latter would play Cleopatra Schwarz in The Kentucky Fried Movie the following year), who appear inspired by Bambi and Thumper in Diamonds are Forever. They kick ass, not least while topless and oiled, ripping off the testicles of one delinquent soldier with their bare hands, so he can be added to Ilsa’s stable of eunuchs. That’s an incentive policy I hope my workplace doesn’t adopt.

It’s significantly slicker than She-Wolf, with considerably better production values, but that isn’t unequivocally a good thing for the grindhouse genre, since it’s the rough edges which tend to make for the most memorable entries. You get the sense here the makers were more self-consciously going for the shock and outrage, rather than them stemming organically from the setting, and their deliberate nature makes them less effective. I was also disappointed in how Ilsa suddenly switched into acting like a love-struck schoolgirl at the drop of one good bedding at the hands (or whatever) of Adam: that isn’t the villainess for which I signed up. Still, it is kinda nice to reach the end and not feel that you need a shower, with the camp elements here helping to lighten the tone, and providing a welcome reminder than none of this should be taken in the slightest bit seriously.

Dir: Don Edmonds
Star: Dyanne Thorne, Michael Thayer, Victor Alexander, Wolfgang Roehm

Ilsa, the Wicked Warden
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wardenDirector Jess Franco has something of a cult following, which I never understood. Sure, there are worse directors out there, but there aren’t many duller ones. I had the misfortune to watch two of his films this week: the other was his Count Dracula, and managed to be coma-inducingly tedious, despite haviing Christopher Lee and Klaus Kinski, two actors I would watch recite the telephone directory. This “bootleg Ilsa” entry is perhaps even worse. It wasn’t originally intended as part of the series – a big giveaway is that Dyanne Thorne’s character isn’t even blonde – but at some point ended up re-titled and redubbed to turn the originally-named “Greta” into “Ilsa”. To avoid any additional confusion, the latter is how I’ll refer to her.

It’s certainly not far from the other entries in tone or content. Ilsa (Thorne) runs a lunatic asylum, Las Palomas Clinic, in the South American jungle, that specializes in young women with sexual issues such as nymphomania or lesbianism (in other words, the photogenic ones!). When one escapes, making it to the house of Dr. Arcos (Franco) before being recaptured and vanishing, the good doctor raises concerns. He’s approached by her sister, Abby Phillips (Bussellier), and agrees to have  her committed to the asylum under an assumed name, so she can find out what’s going on. Turns out the place is also being used as a black site for political dissidents, with Ilsa also running a side-line of pornographic films starring the inmates. Discovering this will require Abby to get through not just Ilsa, but also Juana (Romay), the top dog at the facility, who abuses her position ever bit as much.

This is mind numbingly dull, with a capital D, despite an almost constant parade of female nudity – the clinic appears to suffer from a shocking lack of underwear. While the other entries in the series are fairly equal-opportunity in their viciousness, with both sexes falling foul of Ilsa’s sadism, this frequently descends into fully-fledged misogyny – even if the perpetrators are often women too. If you make it all the way through, you’ll likely need a shower, though it’s more probably your interest will have made an exit before that becomes necessary. It doesn’t even have the grace to focus on Ilsa, with Abby being the central character for much of it. About the only section likely to stick in your mind is the very end – again, if you haven’t found anything better to do – where Franco suddenly decides he’s making the world’s first cannibal women-in-prison film.

Not helped by a dub that appears to be English as a second language, containing made-up words such as “provocate,” this solidifies Franco’s position as among the least talented directors in cinema history. Despite having already helmed over 80 movies by this point in his career, there’s no indication he had learned anything from the experience, delivering a feature-film which all but entirely squanders its main asset, Thorne’s charisma. Nice though it would be to claim the political angle was subtle satire regarding life in post-Franco Spain, that would seem a real stretch. If I never have to sit through two of his movies in the same week again, it will be too soon.

Dir: Jess Franco
Star: Tania Busselier, Dyanne Thorne, Lina Romay, Jess Franco
a.k.a. Greta: Haus Ohne Männer; Greta, the Mad Butcher; Ilsa: Absolute Power; Wanda, the Wicked Warden

Ilsa, the Tigress of Siberia
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tigressIf the second film showcased Ilsa’s apparently miraculous immortality, the fourth and final is even more implausible, taking place both in 1953 Soviet Russia, and 1977 Montreal, with Thorne looking more or less identical in both, save for a change in hairstyle. It begins in a gulag, where Ilsa has found a new use for her sadistic talents overseeing a Siberian prison, the Soviets presumably being willing to overlook that whole pesky “Nazi war criminal” thing. There, she has clearly not mellowed, spearing an escaped prisoner, and ensuring he’s dead by having his head smashed with an enormous mallet. Oh, and the name “Tigress” isn’t just a sobriquet, given she keeps one of them in a pit. The new arrivals include political dissident Andrei Chikurin, (Morin), whom she vows to break, and the son of a Politburo member, imprisoned for drunken hooliganism. When the regime in Moscow changes after Stalin’s death, Ilsa swiftly packs up shop: as with her Nazi camp, the aim is to dispose of all the prisoners and leave no witnesses, but Chikurin survives.

24 years later, he’s part of a hockey team playing games in Canada, and goes to a whorehouse with some team-mates, completely unaware that it’s run by Ilsa, who now has a new line in mind-control technology, which she uses both on her hookers and rival gangsters, to cement her position. She’s startled to see him and, concerned he’s out for revenge, kidnaps Chikurin. However, that backfires, as it brings her back to the attention of the Soviets – not least the Politburo members who still holds a grudge against her for the death of her son, and who sets the local office of the KGB on her tail. Which makes this an extremely rare case of a North American movie from the time where the KGB are not the bad guys. It’s also worth noting that even the mind-control aspects are not that far-fetched, since the CIA’s infamous Project MKUltra had a Montreal outpost from 1957 to 1964 at McGill University, information revealed a couple of years prior to Tigress‘s 1977 release.

The first half does ramp up the violence at the cost of the sex, mostly because Ilsa is close to being the only woman in the gulag. But the second half flips that around, as we get into the prostitution ring, and to be honest, given the amount of time devoted to them, the film would be more accurately titled Ilsa, Madam of Montreal. And that’s a bit of a shame, because it’s probably the stuff in the frozen wastes of Siberia that are more interesting than a prosaic and forgettable crime story, which is what the second half collapses into. Even Ilsa seems to be a kinder, gentler model; I can only blame Canada for this disappointing softness. There is some ironic appropriateness to the ending, which sees Ilsa stuck in the middle of a frozen lake, burning her money to try and stay warm. Though compared to the fate which befell many of those who cross their path, this is certainly weak sauce as well. It’s a shame they did not apparently proceed with an entire film based in Siberia, as what results instead is little more than half a true Ilsa film.

Dir: Jean LaFleur
Star: Dyanne Thorne, Michel Morin, Tony Angelo, Terry Coady