Asphalt Angels

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“More carbon-copy than asphalt.”

While the lack of resources is frequently and painfully obvious, I’m inclined to look kindly on this. My tolerance is due to the abiding love for our genre possessed by writer-director Krueger, shown in the influences, both obvious and subtle, on display here. From Faster Pussycat to Female Prisoner 701, he seems like the kind of man whose DVD collection reflects my own. Hell, despite being set in America, a character here even uses the greeting stance beloved of bad girls in pinky violence movies: knees bent, right arm outstretched, palm up. I can’t truly hate a film made by someone who knows what that is.

The heroine is Casey (Renee), leader of an all-girl gang, but who wants to keep her sister Virginia (Gomez), an up-and-coming BMX champion, out of the criminal lifestyle. Two things derail Casey’s life. Firstly, while rescuing li’l sis from the predatory clutches of another gang, she kills one of their members, and leader Dante (Epperson, shamelessly channeling a young Kevin Bacon) vows revenge. Secondly, a jewel heist goes wrong: she takes the fall so the other members can escape, and ends up in prison, where she has to survive the unwanted attentions of a sadistic lesbian guard, as well as the other inmates. Her absence is particularly bad news for Virginia, since her sibling’s absence means there’s nobody to protect her, when Dante and his crew decide she’s a suitable target for their vengeance.

This production is certainly guilty of trying to go in too many directions. Is it a heist film? A women-in-prison movie? A gang flick? Revenge film? Krueger would have been better off concentrating his efforts in one area, especially given the extremely limited raw materials available to him. The prison, for example, appears to consist of a softball park and a field. There are almost no interior scenes at all. Worst of all is Virginia’s BMX career, which includes copious shots of her waving to an entirely non-existent crowd, nowhere near any BMX track. Really, just make her an honor student at high school and it would have been far easier for everyone involved.

It’s also rather tame for a film with grindhouse aspirations, though this is somewhat “explained” by bookend sequences which make it look as if it’s a late-night movie on seventies network TV. That’s an issue, because the bottom line here is, no matter how adoring a fan letter to the genre this is, it remains that: just a fan letter. Krueger’s heart is in the right place, so it’s not like this is some kind of cash-in “mockbuster”. However, the harsh truth is, you’re simply a good deal better off watching the films that inspired this. For no matter how much Renee tries (and, bless her heart, she certainly is trying), she’s never going to be Tura Satana or Meiko Kaji. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, to be sure.

Dir: Christopher Krueger
Star: Justine Renee, John C. Epperson, Hillary Cook, Blanca Estella Gomez

Undead Pool

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“Buffy the Zombie Slayer goes for a dip.”

I strongly prefer the alternative name (as given in the credits below, though in some territories this was also known as Inglorious Zombie Hunters) – it’s one of the finest exploitation titles of all time, both describing exactly what the film is about, while simultaneously reeling in the potential viewer. Certainly beats something which sounds more like an Asylum “mockbuster” version of a certain, snarky Marvel superhero. If the product itself doesn’t quite live up to it’s own name, this mostly a case of, really, how could it?

New transfer student Aki (Handa) has the misfortune to arrive at the school on inoculation day, and ditches class to the stress of her new situation, so doesn’t get her jab. This turns out to be extremely fortunate, as the supposed “vaccine” turns out to be the plot of an evil scientist, and those injected with it – both students and teachers, the latter receiving a particularly strong version – turn into flesh-eating zombies. Despite Aki’s strong aversion to water, she finds some allies in the shape of Sayaka (Hidaka) and her colleagues on the girls’ swimming squad, because it turns out the chlorine in the pool negates the effects of the compound. It’s up to them to defend themselves from the hordes, and also resolve the murky nature of Aki’s previous history, which turns out to be not entirely disconnected from current events. Oh, yeah: there might be some lesbian canoodling as well. Just so you know.

The zombie aspects in particular are well-executed: energetically messy, with plenty of blood and a sense of self-deprecation that helps to counter-balance negates the obviously low-budget approach, most apparent in the rubbery nature of the severed limbs, flying through the air. It’s as if the film is saying, “Yeah, we know we’re cheap, come along for the ride anyway.” It helps that the zombies retain some of their pre-infection character, rather than being just mindless flesh-eaters. For example, there is the maths professor who continues to mumble about a problem involving apples, while wielding an inexplicably razor-sharp yard-stick around. Mind you, this is a school which leaves chainsaws lying around, and than there’s also Aki’s spiked swim-fins [which looks and acts like the iron fan beloved of martial arts flicks]

There is, as you’d expect, copious fan service – though the title does at least explain the swimsuits, which are likely less gratuitous here than in, say, D.O.A. This is probably the least interesting aspect, and I was reminded of Fred Olen Ray’s comment that nudity is the cheapest special effect. The finale, where Aki reveals one particularly startling special talent, likely doesn’t stand up to scrutiny either: quite how she acquired the skill is never adequately explained. While there was still enough here to keep me entertained, this mild recommendation should come with a caveat that I’m significantly more tolerant of low-budget goofiness than most people.

Dir: Kōji Kawano
Star: Sasa Handa, Yuria Hidaka, Hiromitsu Kiba, Mizuka Arai, More
a.k.a. Attack Girls’ Swim Team vs. the Undead

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

Killer Bitch

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“Dogged by issues, I’d say.”

You could call this a foul-mouthed, borderline misogynist, zero budget piece of trash, with no coherent plot, where it seems every other word is a F-bomb or C-missile, and most of the lines are not so much spoken, as yelled. I wouldn’t argue with such an assessment, and understand perfectly why it is rated 1.4 on IMDb. And, yet… It has a relentless and manic energy which makes Crank look like a Merchant-Ivory costume drama. Put another way: unlike the overlong Rogue One, I did not fall asleep here, and it will likely stick in my mind longer than the three other, far more polished productions, which I watched the same day. Probably because, unlike this, they did not have a topless little person being tossed off a roof.

The tone is set early, in an opening scene which has British porn star Ben Dover having sex with an artificially-inflated woman, who then stabs him repeatedly. This may be some kind of tribute to Basic Instinct. Or maybe not. The actual plot involves Yvette (Rowland), owner of a model agency, who suddenly finds herself forced to take part in a bizarre game, where she has to kill five specified people. If she doesn’t, her workmates, friends and family will be murdered instead, something the tattooed, foul-mouthed thug (Marriner) working for those running the game, is more than happy to do. “Fortunately” for the film, Yvette’s model agency specializes in soft-porn, which leads to multiple scenes of photoshoots being interrupted by said thug, who kills the photographer, has sex with the model and then kills her. Subtle, it ain’t. Meanwhile, Yvette gets help from a couple of former game players (Reid and – no relation – Reid), on her journey transforming from a mouse into the title creature.

The cast are largely non-professionals, being a parade of C-list celebs, MMA fighters, former gangsters, football hooligans, glamour models etc. and the performances are about what you’d expect from that. On the plus side, almost everyone is playing little more than themselves – sometimes even explicitly themselves – so I guess can only be considered convincing enough in those roles. No-one is going to claim Rowland was overlooked for the Oscars, but she channels Eileen Daly effectively enough, and at least she stayed. In contrast, Reid #1 (Alex) walked off the film in mid-production, leading to his being replaced by Reid #2 (Robin); it probably says quite a lot about the slapdash way this is thrown together, that it doesn’t make much difference.

There is so much here that is quite clearly intended to shock and offend, but it’s an intent which robs the film of actual transgressive quality. That said, I must confess I did laugh on occasion, such as at the fight in the ice-cream van, and there were times when the relentlessly sweary dialogue took on an almost hypnotic quality, through repetition. Against this, it’s often painfully inept, with continuity gaffes so blatant even I noticed them, like the sex scene where Reid (I forget which one) has his trousers up or down, depending on the shot. But, dammit, it’s not a film I’m going to forget in a hurry, and even if that’s not necessarily a good thing here, it’s still preferable to something bland and rapidly lost in the mists of memory.

Dir: Liam Galvin
Star: Yvette Rowland, Jason Marriner, Alex Reid, Robin Reid

The Assignment

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“(Gender) Identity crisis”

I’m a big fan of any film with an outrageous premise, and this one certainly delivers. Mob hitman Frank Kitchen (Rodriguez) carries out his latest job with no qualms, killing a debtor. What he doesn’t realize is, the victim’s sister is a talented but EXTREMELY twisted surgeon, Dr. Rachel Jane (Weaver). She vows to take revenge on Frank by removing what she feels matters most to him: his masculinity. Kitchen is knocked out, kidnapped, and wakes up in a seedy hotel room, to find herself in possession of a couple of things she didn’t have before, and missing something she used to have. But gender reassignment does not make the (wo)man, and an extremely pissed-off Frank vows revenge of her own, both on Jane and Honest John Hartunian (LaPaglia), the former employer who betrayed Kitchen.

Said director Hill, “Is it lurid? Yes. Is it lowbrow? Well, maybe. Is it offensive? No. I’m just trying to honor the B movies that we grew up with.” Maybe he needed to take that actual step and actually be offensive. For I guarantee you, something like Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS clearly did not give a damn about anyone who took offense at the concept, and was all the better for it. The only time this succeeds in provoking similar feelings of “What is this and why am I watching it?”, is when we get to see Rodriguez come out of the shower as male Frank, sporting a prosthetic penis.

The issue here is not the concept: if you have an issue with it, the solution is simple enough. Don’t watch. It’s fiction. It’s not intended to be an accurate portrayal of gender reassignment surgery, any more than Face Off was a documentary about facial reconstruction. I’m more amused by the reactions of people who can’t distinguish reality from cinema, asking questions like “Why is gender reassignment being depicted as a cruel punishment?” The answer is blindingly obvious: because it results in someone trapped in a body that’s the wrong sex for them. I would have thought the trans community might empathize with that. Apparently not.

No, the problem is… It’s not actually a very good film. It’s told mostly in flashback, Dr. Jane telling her story in a straitjacket to a psychiatrist, Dr. Ralph Galen (Shalhoub), and this helps leads to a muddled and confusing structure, when a straightforward linear narrative would likely have served the story better. The action scenes are also almost perfunctory: I’d have expected a lot better from the man who gave us an all-time classic in The Warriors. Mind you, that was a long time ago [though the script which formed the basis for this, also dates back to the seventies], and he hasn’t done anything of note since – pauses to check Wikipedia – uh… Last Man Standing, maybe? That was 1996. I saw it in a Dublin cinema, and fell asleep. Though that might have been the Guinness.

It may also have been a misstep (cisstep?) to have Rodriguez play both halves of Kitchen. She’s fine on the female side, delivering her usual tough attitude, entirely befitting the project’s original title, Tomboy. But she’s less than convincing as an “actual” man, looking more like Captain Jack Sparrow after a metrosexual makeover. I did like Weaver, delivering a mix of coolness and taut insanity that is interesting and unsettling to watch. However, the negatives outweigh the positives, and we’re left with a film that’s difficult to defend, purely on an artistic level. It is, however, the first time I’ve ever been uncertain whether a film should be included here, due to uncertainty over the “heroine” part of “action heroine”…

Dir: Walter Hill
Star: Michelle Rodriguez, Sigourney Weaver, Tony Shalhoub, Anthony LaPaglia

Deeper: The Retribution of Beth

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“Don’t do porn.”

Investigative journalist Mark (Anderson) is not too happy about his latest investigative assignment: going on a ride-along with Steve (Francis), the sleazy owner of porn company “XBus”. He picks up girls on the street and supposedly, talks them into getting naked for his website, Girls Gone Wild-style. But Steve’s latest predatory mission doesn’t go as planned, after picking up the very lovely Beth (Sam) and her friend Sam (Gatien). For Beth pulls a gun, hijacks the limo, and drives the two men into the forests on the outskirts of town, clearly with savage vengeance on her mind for an incident in her – and Steve’s – past. Not quite the story Mark anticipated getting.

I read one review which complained about the moral ambiguity here, but I felt this was actually the movie’s strong suit. Not that there’s necessary much ambiguity for me: it’s entirely possible to have no issues with pornography, while simultaneously frowning upon drugging girls in order to rape them. Seems fair enough to me. It is true that in this case, we don’t discover the truth about Beth’s mission until relatively late on, which goes against the grain in this kind of film. We usually start off with the crime, which creates sympathy for the vengeful heroine, and puts the audience in her corner. Here, Beth is a rather more ambivalent creature, particularly as her mission goes outside its parameters i.e. Steve, to encompass innocent bystanders like Mark.

Less successful is the injection of a randomly passing hunter into the film, and it might have been interesting if Mark had turned out to have some kind of dark secret in his past as well. He’s just a bit too squeaky-clean e.g. devoted to his pregnant wife. That particular phone-call had me rolling my eyes at the excessive obviousness. I had, literally, to rewind the scene where Steve has his hands zip-tied behind him, and is somehow able to get them around his legs, and in front of him. Seriously: just put your hands behind your back, and you’ll see exactly how impossible that is. It was also rather too convenient how Beth never bother with her captives’ legs, even after their efforts to run away.

Overall though, this is well put together. It’s well-crafted to work within its limited resources, requiring little more than two locations – the car and the woods – and the four occupants of the limo. There’s a particularly interesting dynamic on the female side, contrasting the aggressive Beth, and the apparently much more passive Sam. Although, that does change over the course of the film and the view at the far end is radically different from that at the beginning. It benefits from some good performances too. Francis, for example, manages to make Steve a relatively sympathetic character, rather than being 100% douchebag. But it’s Harmon who is the glue that holds this film together, even as she becomes increasingly unhinged, and a serious danger to anyone who crosses her path.

Dir: Jeffrey Anderson
Star: Jessica Harmon, Matthew Kevin Anderson, Andrew Francis, Elise Gatien

Heroines of F.U.R.Y.

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“The world’s first microbudget superheroine wrestling soft-porn film.”

Given the cover, you might reasonably have expected one of the above, but if you saw the rest coming, you’re a better judge of cinematic dreck than I am. It’s hard to work out exactly who would form an overlap between the various potential audience sections here. And even someone not averse to any of the categories (I’d probably qualify) might well be turned off by the poor production values and overall shoddy quality of this.

The film is set in “Metro City”, which was my first surprise, because a lazy reading of the synopsis had me believing this was “Mexico City”. My bad. Turns out Omega is putting together a squad of super-powered heroines, having discovered that someone, somewhere appears to be abducting their colleagues. Nothing good can come of this, naturally. The main focus is Cosmic Girl (Lane), who has only gained her costume and secret identity relatively recently, so is still coming to terms with her situation. But she’s just one of a slew of caped crusaders, including – I’ll pause to take a deep breath, and copy-paste from my notes here – Lady Victory, Sunder, Spyder, Starlet, Dusk and Lilith.

Which wouldn’t necessarily be bad, if it had delivered something along the lines of the wonderful, Electra Woman and Dyna Girl. But the actual tone becomes creepily apparent here almost immediately. In the first scene featuring Lady Victory, we’re treated to close-ups of her feet, cleavage, butt, crotch and cleavage again, before we get to see her face. Sadly, this turns out to be an accurate indication of the movie’s priorities, with the eye of the camera adopting a highly fetishistic approach to its subjects. That’s when the film isn’t toppling over entirely, such as the 10-minute sequence of Cosmic Girl masturbating on her bed, in full costume, which ends up coming – a word used advisedly – about the width of her gusset elastic from being hardcore porn.

Then there are the scenes in a wrestling ring. For it turns out, part of the point of the abductions is to put together a forced “fight club” for these “metahumans”, which is streamed online. The losers also have their powers stolen. Which is an idea with some potential. Or, rather, it might have, if anyone involved could actually fight, or give a credible illusion of fighting: this isn’t exactly Lucha Underground, shall we say. It turns out to be little more than a thinly-disguised excuse for some sub/dom play.

Look, I’m sure there’s a market for this kind of thing, and I’m certainly not one to judge it. But this is masquerading under the illusion of being a real film – it’s on sale at Walmart ‘n’ stuff – and that creates certain expectations, which the movie is woefully ill-equipped to meet. Admittedly, if you had the foresight to Google “Brookland Brothers”, the studio behind it, you would find yourself looking at a page of thoroughly NSFW links. However, the rest of us will probably be looking nervously over our shoulders for fear of a family member showing up, and wishing for an industrial-sized bottle of hand-sanitizer.

Dir: Tyler Benjamin
Star: Halsey Rae, Ashley Lane, Krisa Kouture, Christina Verdon

Lipstick

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“Model behaviour”

There are times when a film doesn’t deliver anything close to what the sleeve promises. This would be one of those times. However, in this case, while disappointed, I can’t claim it was an entire waste of my time. Or, at least, it wasn’t a waste of very much of my time, coming in at a brisk 70 minutes. Yokoyama plays Arina, a fashion model who has a burgeoning online profile. However, this is not without its dangers, in some questionably creepy admirers. When one of them shows up at a fashion shoot, she and her sister, Keiko, are rescued by a conveniently passing cop, Gotoda – much to their relief. As a token of gratitude, Arina gives him a tube of lipstick, but it soon turns out that the policeman is a far bigger threat than any fan.

It takes quite some time to get to anything even remotely resembling what’s shown on the cover. And by remotely, I mean: no machete, and the costume worn by the heroine is nowhere near as luridly exploitational, when she finally gets to have a roof-top confrontation with Gotoda. Nor does she have the word “BITCH” written in lipstick on her thigh, though her predator’s use of lipstick is hardly any less unpleasant. Until then, it’s more of a study in psychological torture: after she’s attacked and raped, Arina finds her own sister unwilling to believe it. And even after she has got past that, the film’s most chilling scene has the model agency’s (female) lawyer explaining to her in cold, logical terms, exactly why pursuing any kind of case against Gotoda is going to cause more problems than it would solve.

It’s this, along with the realization that this is not going to be a one-off incident, because the cop has longer-term plans, which finally pushes Arina to take matters into her own hands. I’d certainly prefer to have seen this aspect expanded upon at greater length, instead of the five minutes it seems to get here. It certainly doesn’t seem adequate payback for the hell through which she has gone over the previous hour. There’s a particular resonance if you’re aware of Yokoyama’s “regular job” as an adult video star, as one imagines most Japanese viewers would be. The shift to playing a “fashion model” here is slight, but significant: she more or less gets to be herself, just with (slightly) more clothes. And I’m fairly sure she has also dealt with her share of creepy fans at some point.

It’s certainly a cheap topic and approach, and the script doesn’t bring much that’s innovative or memorable. But given the obvious limitations of budget and scope, this is effective enough – providing you are definitely NOT expecting mayhem on any significant scale. Yokoyama’s performance is good enough for the job, and it manages to strike a decent balance between drama and exploitation.

Dir: Ainosuke Shibata
Star: Miyuki Yokoyama, Hiroaki Kawatsure, Mitsuki Koga

I Spit on Your Grave 3: Vengeance is Mine

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“Point made.”

Like much horror, the rape-revenge genre is one which overlaps with, rather than being wholly encompassed by, the action-heroine field. Some entries qualify: the awesome glory which is Ms. 45 being the most obvious example. But others appear to focus more on the rape than the revenge, and are far less interesting as a result. Such was the case for the first two entries in this series – and, indeed, the 1978 grindhouse classic which it rebooted. Here, however, in an interesting twist we bypass the assault entirely. This starts instead with the victim in the earlier movies (Butler) having adopted a new identity, that of Angela, and attending both one-on-one therapy as well as group sessions.

It’s at the latter she meets Marla (Landon), who shares Angela’s dislike for the whole touchy-feely aspect of recovery, and prefers a more… “hands-on” approach to working things out. When they discover that another member of the group is still being molested by her stepfather, it’s time to put their theory into practice. While apparently a success, at least initially, it turns out Marla has her own issues that still need to be dealt with. Additionally, the aftermath of their street justice is bringing the attention of the cops, in particular SVU Detective McDylan (Hogan). It’s kinda hard to explain why you’re in a bad part of town, fighting with a man in a back-alley, and carrying a knife, a Tazer and a can of lighter fluid.

I was sure I knew where this was going. Meeting someone called “Marla” at a support group, is such an obvious nod to Fight Club, I was certain she’d turn out to be a figment of Angela’s imagination, and there are fantasy sequences also pointing down that road. Happy to be proved wrong, and the film twists in some unexpected directions the rest of the way, right until the end. It’s most memorable feature, however, would be two absolutely – bold and capital letters please – BRUTAL sequences of Angela’s revenge. The first, in particular, is going to stick in my mind for a very long time, in part because it comes virtually out of nowhere. But once it begins, it delivers a one-two punch of almost unsurpassed magnitude: barely had the words “Holy sh…” begun to escape my lips, when it got ten times more savage.

It has to be said, having set the bar so staggeringly high in terms of carnage, I was left wondering how the movie could follow up. Truth is, it doesn’t, and that probably counts as a misstep, since it also distracts unnecessarily from what’s actually a solid performance from Butler. She gets to run the gamut from seductive to extremely scary, and is effective enough at both ends of the spectrum. Make no mistake, this is frequently vile and repellent; yet, it’s exactly how sexual assault should be depicted, because that’s what it is. Just be sure to find an unrated version, and if you’re male, you may want to watch from a spot where curling up into the foetal position is easily managed.

Dir: R.D. Braunstein
Star: Sarah Butler, Jennifer Landon, Doug McKeon, Gabriel Hogan

PMS Cop

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“A not-so fair cop”

pmscopBeginning with a jokey caption stating “The producers of this movie are in no way admitting to the existence of PMS,” this is a rather uneven B-movie, which has a potentially interesting premise. Unfortunately, it then does not enough with the concept.

Mary (Hall) is a police officer with anger management issues. After beating up a rapist dressed as a clown. she’s ordered to undergo counseling. Her therapist puts her in contact with a pharmaceutical company testing a new drug, Corybantic, aimed at reducing the impact of PMS. After consulting with the leader of the project, Dr. Sokolov (Skinner), Mary starts taking the drug, and is injected with a chip to track her body’s response. But after witnessing her partner being gunned down during a convenience store robbery, it triggers a violent psychotic reaction. The drug company re-capture their test subject, only for her to break out of their restraints and go on a brutal rampage through the facility. Turns out the chip wasn’t just for telemetry either; it came from an abandoned Soviet project into mind-control.

There a number of ways this could have gone. Social satire, as hinted at in the opening caption, or perhaps a modern version of the Frankenstein story. Instead… Well, there’s not much more than Mary, or her “PMS Cop” alter-ego (played by a different actress, Means), roaming the drug company’s building, banging heads together. The gore is enthusiastic and nicely practical; I particularly enjoyed the silicone implants ripped out of one poor victim’s chest, then used as the means of death for another. You don’t see that every day. However, there simply isn’t enough going on with the story-line to sustain audience interest.

It also shifts notably in tone. Early, it’s almost jokey – for instance, the clown rapist ties up his victim with balloons. Yet the humour is abruptly switched off as soon as Mary begins the drug trial; you’re left feeling like the rest of the film is a comedy without jokes. You can certainly check off the movies director Blakey is inspired by. Robocop, The Terminator and possibly Lady Terminator. Not that there’s anything wrong with influences. It’s just that those are all significantly better movies, and Blakey doesn’t bring sufficient new or interesting to offset this disadvantage. In technical terms, the lighting could certainly also have been better, with too many scenes painfully under-lit, in what may have been a misguided attempt as “atmosphere.”

While I’ve seen and enjoyed B-movies which have skated by on even thinner premises, they’ve been able to take their concepts and do more with them. This instead feels like a 15-minute short, stretched into a feature. I suspect it’s one which would have been more effective at the shorter length.

Dir: Bryon Blakey
Star: Cindy Means, Heather Hall, Elaine Jenkins, Megan Dehart