I Spit On Your Grave 2

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“Model prisoner.”

This sequel is almost entirely unrelated to the original, beginning with a new, fresh character who will be tortured within an inch of her life, before escaping and roaring back for revenge. However, it manages to be a little more coherent, even as it replaces the redneckophobia of the original, with much more straightforward xenophobia.

The victim here is Katie Carter (Dallender), a wannabe model who takes advantage of a free photography portfolio session, offered by sleazy, Eastern European cameraman Ivan (Absolom) and his assistant, Georgy (Baharov). The latter becomes obsessed with her, and won’t take no for an answer. When Katie’s screams alert her apartment building’s caretaker, he’s stabbed by Georgy, leaving Ivan to clean up the mess. Still, it’s nothing that a large crate, stamped “Bulgaria”, can’t solve… When Katie discovers what’s awaiting her in Sofia, she’ll wish she’d been the one left in a pool of blood.

The narrative here is a bit more coherent. For instance, an early scene establishes that Carter is no shrinking violet, being a Midwest girl who knows a thing or two about hunting vermin. We also get to see more of the period between her escape, and her returning to take action – she survives with the help of a kindly local priest. He’s about the only Eastern European character here who is not an utter scumball, and in that aspect, I was reminded a fair amount of the first Hotel movie.

Initially, I thought it was going to spend the entire film in New York, and that might not have been a bad thing. Monroe is good at capturing the “urban jungle” aspect of the city, in much the same way as Abel Ferrara. There are a number of elements early on that brought Ms. 45 to mind, with that classic of the rape-revenge genre also having a sequence in a photographer’s studio. Dallender has the kind of willowy steel look as Zoe Tamerlis, too. It’s a shame it didn’t retain that approach, instead of becoming some kind of cautionary tale about foreign travel.

Once it leaves that setting, however, and scurries off to Sofia, the film becomes less interesting, more or less going down the same path as the original. Indeed, some of the beats are exactly the same, e.g. the heroine appears to find sanctuary in an authority figure, only to have that yanked away from her. Some of the resulting unpleasantness is hard to watch – please note, I’ve seen more than my fair share of cinematic nastiness, so I do not squirm easily – and that applies on both sides of the brutality. But its impact is never more than a visceral shudder. To be truly effective, it needs to pack an emotional punch as well, and in the main, that’s not present. It’s technically solid, and that may be part of the problem; it perhaps should be a little less polished, and rougher around the edges, in line with the content.

Dir: Steven R. Monroe
Star: Jemma Dallender, Yavor Baharov, Joe Absolom, Aleksandar Aleksiev

I Spit On Your Grave

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“The Hills have thighs.”

Having been pleasantly surprised by I Spit on Your Grave 3: Vengeance is Mine, I thought I should rewind and catch the first two films in the series, see if they were also above expectations. Sadly, the answer is “not really”. The first, in particular, suffers as a direct remake of the notorious original, directed in 1978 by Meir Zarchi (originally released, to little attention, as Day of the Woman). It fails from our perspective for much the same reasons, mostly through being more interested in the rape than the revenge. Though there is a certain, nasty inventiveness to the latter, which salvages the final third.

Writer Jennifer Hills (Butler) moves into to a remote cabin she has rented, in order to have peace and quiet while she pens her next book. Before she has even arrived there, she has crossed paths with the local rednecks, a trio led by Johnny (Branson). Things escalate from there, until the trio – along with the “developmentally-challenged” local plumber, burst into Jennifer’s house, and brutally assault her. She manages to flee, seeking sanctuary, only for things to go from bad to worse. But she is just able to escape with her life, falling into a creek and vanishing from her assailants.

At this point, she effectively vanishes from the film as well, which is part of the problem. There’s a logical gap here, in need of explanation. Who takes care of her? And if she’s working on her own, how is a skinny little thing like Jennifer, whose background is entirely in writing (rather than – oh, I dunno – construction), capable of dragging around the unconscious bodies of the men as she takes her revenge? I mean, she suspends one of them up in the air, dangling over a bathtub like a trussed chicken. That’s not trivial. I did enjoy the imagination in the savage vengeance, which does surpass that of the original. We get a face dissolving, fish-hooks and the ol’ rape by shotgun. Jennifer is not messing around, shall we say.

It’s a shame the film didn’t emphasize the intellectual angle a bit more. Initially, it seems that Hills’s brain is the threat to the locals, who have no idea how to handle or even interact with someone who is clearly their mental superior. However, any efforts in this direction are rapidly abandoned, in preference for her simply being physically attractive. Post-attack, too, it doesn’t really appear she’s using her brain, so much as feral cunning. It certainly does go a long way to explaining how royally screwed-up Jennifer is by the time Butler revisited the character (under a different director) in Part 3. Yet, it’s also clear that the lengthy depiction of the abuse suffered by the character does as much to detract from as emphasize the reasons for that damage.

Dir: Steven R. Monroe
Star: Sarah Butler, Jeff Branson, Daniel Franzese, Rodney Eastman

.357: Six Bullets for Revenge

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“As the crow lies…”

It wasn’t until the end, when the credits ran and I saw someone’s name I knew, that I realized this was actually a local production, shot here in Phoenix. Maybe I should have been paying more attention, or maybe that just speaks to the bland lack of place present in this low-budget Crow knock-off. For, despite the poster which is obviously riffing off another comic-book movie, this one is clearly inspired by Alex Proyas’s cult classic. I am, however, pleased to report that the lead star here did actually make it through the entirety of production with a pulse, so they come out ahead of their inspiration in that department.

On their wedding night, Eric – yes, as in Eric Draven – and Jade (Love) have their nuptials rudely interrupted by a gang of thugs belonging to Lyle Barnes (Ames), due to Eric having skipped out on them with Jade and, more importantly, fifty grand. He is killed; she is brutally assaulted and wakes up the next morning beside his corpse, with one though on her mind: vengeance. She trades her wedding ring for a gun at a pawn shop, and with the assistance of a mysterious stranger, Hammer (Williamson), begins a relentless pursuit of those responsible for her husband’s demise, all the way up the chain of command to Barnes.

The problem with being such an obvious copy, from the page-flipping opening credit sequence, to the black, feathery wings worn by Jade as she goes about her business, is you’re inevitably going to be measured at every step against your inspiration. And when you are going up against an undeniable cult classic, it’s unlikely to be a positive comparison. If this had taken the same basic elements, but gone in its own direction, I’d likely have been more tolerant of its flaws, most notably fight scenes which are ploddingly assembled – apparently from flat-packs with an Allen wrench. And a low budget is absolutely no excuse for the apparent lack of originality, which is the main problem here.

Fred Williamson’s presence helps elevate things, but it’s clear they only had him around for a couple of days, and his character’s departure from the film is every bit as abrupt as his arrival [though I was amused by him being called Hammer, that basically being what Fred calls himself!] If he had lurked in the background for the entire movie, providing motivation and guidance, it would have been better. William Katt, playing a sleazy pawnshop guy, also stands out, but Love’s performance isn’t enough to overcome an ill-considered costume, which feels like it came off the remainder rail at Hot Topic. The grindhouse aspects offer a welcome dose of grime, and is perhaps the one area where this does manage to surpass its predecessor, with the film offering copious female nudity (from just about everyone bar the heroine, who may have been body-doubled). This probably isn’t quite enough to justify it as a viewing experience.

Dir: Brian Skiba
Star: Laurie Love, Brian Ames, Krystle Delgado, Fred Williamson

Left For Dead

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I knew I shoulda taken that left turn at Albuquerque!

Coming out of the micro-budget scene in New Mexico, this is a straightforward tale of vengeful “hell kittens”, to quote the official synopsis. Bella Meurta (Kate) is a hooker, who kills one of her clients after he gets rough with her. In revenge, her little sister is savagely beaten and left dead [note: not left for dead…] in the street. Bella gathers together her posse to take out the mobsters responsible: stripper Fageeda Cunt (Blackery), dominatrix Silky Gun (Coi), and jailbird turned home healthcare professional Harley Hellcat (Rebelle). [Look, I’m just reporting these character names, I didn’t create them. Particularly Fageeda’s] But as the saying goes, “Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves.” Or perhaps more, in this case.

The aim is clear here, with West looking to create (yet another) throwback to the days of grindhouse and straight-to-rental action flicks. Which explains the faux artifacts like film scratches, I guess – though since it’s clearly shot on video, you kinda wonder why they bothered. Unfortunately, the execution falls a bit short as well. Cheap, I can easily forgive; it’s the occasional sloppiness here that’s annoying. For instance, when we see little sis lying dead in the road, her corpse is in pristine condition. Then, when Bella shows up in the next shot, the body is suddenly blood-spattered and badly bruised. Having a low-budget is no excuse for glaring continuity gaffes such as that.

Even at barely an hour long, there feels like there are significant chunks of padding, such as scenes of Fageeda and Silky at “work”, which bring plot development grinding to a complete halt. Particularly in the second half, the plot seems herky-jerky, with scenes in utterly different locations next to each other, lacking any explanation of how or why the characters went from Point A to Point B. There’s also a weird, almost complete lack of anyone over the age of about 30, which makes this seems like a revenge-based remake of Logan’s Run. And it appears most of the lead actresses are local burlesque dancers. The Venn diagram of the skills needed for those professions is not two superimposed circles, shall we say.

Yet I can’t say I hated this. We’ve been involved with enough low-budget film-making to be able to appreciate what’s involved, and much of the same vibe is present here. There are enough moments of quirky eccentricity, such as the Russian mobster confused by an ignition interlock device, which kept me adequately entertained through the film’s slacker moments. The fight scenes – something we always found a nightmare to try and make look even half way to good – didn’t entirely suck. You certainly will need a high degree of tolerance for ultra-cheap independent cinema to get through this, and I wouldn’t recommend it for beginners in that genre. Yet, I’ve seen worse [much worse, trust me on that], and despite the flaws, have to acknowledge the obvious effort involved.

Dir: Mikel-Jon West
Star: Intoxi Kate, Joy Coy, General Blackery, Holly Rebelle

Huff

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“Brings home the bacon.”

A modern-day update of The Three Little Pigs, this works better than you might think. The wolf is “Huff” (O’Connell), a really warped individual whose interests appear to be religion, drugs and molesting his three step-daughters. Bit of an odd combination. Their mother, Lorelei (Elina Madison), is a largely absent stripper, who seems not to care too much that her boyfriend’s attention have now turned from her oldest daughter, Brixi (Bollinger), to the youngest one, Shay (Stefanko). But when Huff prepares his big score, using cash “borrowed” from his mistress’s ex-husband (or something like that – the relationships here are so complicated, you need a chart to keep track), Lorelei sees her opportunity, sending the three girls away with the money. That leaves Huff in serious trouble, and he’s soon after them, intent on retrieving the cash. Huff is indeed going to puff… on his asthma inhaler.

Yeah, that’s a bit of an over-reach, and you feel it might have worked better, had the makers not apparently felt obligated to stick so close to their source. Contrast, say, Freeway, which was a similarly modern version of a fairly tale, specifically Little Red Riding Hood – but had no qualms about discarding elements that didn’t fit, and was all the better for it. Here, even the daughters’ names are clunkily shoehorned in to the narrative; as well as Brixi and Shay, there’s Styx. Okay, I think we get the concept: even for a stripper mom, those are a bit much. Fortunately, when it’s not being incredibly contrived, this is a decent enough slab of trashy fun, located right at the bottom of the social pecking order – although everyone has far better teeth, and are generally much more attractive than you’d expect. This is a compromise I’m happy to live with, since it is clearly not intended to be Winter’s Bone.

O’Connell was The Batchelor in the show’s seventh series, in 2005, so guess it’s a bit of a change in pace and content here. He certainly makes for an ultra-evil villain, right from the get-go when he’s telling his (at that point, extremely young) daughters a particularly sordid tale from the Bible. Indeed, it’s kinda remarkable that the sisters have managed to survive with any fragment of their morality intact. Yet, on more than one occasion, Brixi is prepared to imperil herself to protect her siblings – a cooler head might have considered saner options. If you know the fairy-tale, you’ll already know how things progress, and the story follows its inspiration closely, up to the point where Huff and Brixi face off. It’s a finale that really doesn’t deserve the coda it receives, which seems to render much of what has gone before pointless, or close to. But as a tacky grab-bag of low-life scumminess, where an unpleasant death is never far away, it appears more than happy to wallow in the mud along with its “little pigs”. It does so adequately enough to be a guilty pleasure as a result.

Dir: Paul Morrell
Star: Marie Bollinger, Charlie O’Connell, Jenna Stone, Elly Stefanko
a.k.a. Big Bad Wolf

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