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

If Looks Could Kill

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“Keeps the pot boiling energetically enough.”

I’ve been a fan of The Asylum studio for a while. They’re famous – or infamous – mainly for two things. Originally, they churned out “mockbusters”, films that rode the advertising coat-tails of larger budget and more famous movies, using titles such as (I kid you not), Snakes on a Train. More recently, they are also creators of the cult Sharknado series for SyFy. However, The Asylum can and will, make more or less anything they think will turn a profit. Their quality of output does vary, shall we say. Yet I was entertained by this slice of Lifetime fluff ‘n’ nonsense more than expected, mostly due to effective performances from the two leads.

There’s Faith Gray (Estes), whose new job as a beat cop has re-united her with Detective Paul Wagner (Kosalka), for whom she has always had a “thing.” But at an incident in a local bar, he meets and ends up beginning a relationship with, Jessica Munroe (Spiro). She’s a drop-dead blonde with aspirations of becoming a movie star – not something easily accomplished in Stillwater, Oklahoma. Before you can say “We’ll be right back after these words from our sponsors,” she’s pregnant and married to Paul. Faith, however, thinks there’s something not quite right about Jessica, though her investigation could be considered more as jealousy-induced stalking. It’s certainly painted as such by its target.

The film never tries to hide the fact that Jessica is nutty as a fruitcake. As a result, its plotting is instead very much concerned just with getting the story from Point A to B, offering few surprises. I’m not exactly convinced by the “Based on a true story” claim here. And let’s not even start with the police procedures depictede: let’s just say, Stillwater PD could use some re-training, and move on. Yet the pleasures outweighed the deficiencies; in particular, as mentioned, watching the mousy Faith and psychotic glam-girl Jessica face off. The latter gets most of the cinematic highlights, vamping it up to great effect. Witness, for example, her hyper-ventilating in order to place a convincingly panicked phone call to her lover. Guess all Jessica’s acting classes finally paid off!

I admit, there’s something fun about watching a manipulative sociopath at work: there’s a reason Dangerous Liaisons is one of the all-time greats. Spiro isn’t quite at Glenn Close standards, yet both she and Estes give it their all, and elevate the material to enjoyable nonsense. Even if we didn’t quite get the hellacious cat-fight climax for which I was hoping, it’s always good to see a film where both protagonist and antagonist are women, and there’s no doubt all the effort went into Faith and Jessica, with the male characters barely registering. Paul, in particular, is so easily deceived you wonder how he ever became a detective. Yet, as pulpy nonsense goes, this hour and a half certainly went by quickly and painlessly enough.

Dir: James Cullen Bressack
Star: Stefanie Estes, Summer Spiro, Tomek Kosalka, Brian Shoop

The Institute

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“A girl has no name.”

Game of Thrones, this clearly isn’t. But both Chris and I were struck by the similarities between what befalls the main character here, and the re-programming which Anya Stark underwent at the hands of the Faceless Men. Because the first, and arguably key, step in both is to destroy the existing personality, so there is a blank slate – the phrase “tabula rasa” is explicitly used here – on which the new character can be drawn. In this case, the victim is Isabel Porter (Gallerani), a young woman who has sunk into depression after the death of her parents. She opts for a stay at the Rosewood Institute, a highly regard mental sanatorium in Baltimore.

It soon turns out those who run it have an extremely creepy agenda, sitting somewhere between local hero Edgar Allen Poe and the Illuminati. Through a mix of drugs and mind-control techniques, Isabel is being transformed from the somewhat rebellious but polite young woman who went in, into… Well, it’s kinda hard to say. But it turns out that her rebellious streak may be about the most robust aspect of her personality, and those in charge will perhaps end up wishing they had left well alone. For when you destroy all moral governors in someone, what’s left can potentially turn round and bite their purported master.

While certainly not for everyone, this is a horror/conspiracy combination which puts it right in our wheelhouse. And perhaps surprisingly, the “based on a true story” claim has more veracity than you might expect. Between the war, poor female patients were basically sold to upper-class families, and put to work by them, as little more than slaves, in what has been described as “a well-oiled human trafficking operation.” The bizarre ritual ceremonies depicted here, do appear to be the fruits of imagination – though I would say whoever was responsible has done their paranoid homework with some of the details.

There’s a strong feminist subtext, with the story set in a time when women were expected to be seen and not heard – Isabel describes her curiosity as a symptom of mental illness. It’s a joy when the tables are turned, though I’m not quite so sure about the final twist, which seems wholly unnecessary, to put it mildly.  I also enjoyed the more Gothic aspects, not least a sequence which is lifted wholesale from one of Poe’s most famous stories. Gallerani is excellent in the central role, and that’s probably a good thing, since some of the other performances aren’t, not least James Franco as Dr. Cairn, who appears to have strolled in from a fancy-dress party. And I’ve no clue at all, what Pamela Anderson is doing in this.

Taking this seriously, would likely be a mistake. Treat it as something inspired by, and in the lurid spirit of, a Victorian “penny dreadful” story, however – right down to the hunchback – and you’ll find plenty of fun here.

Dir: James Franco and Pamela Romanowsky
Star: Allie Gallerani, James Franco, Tim Blake Nelson, Lori Singer

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

Ink Mage, by Victor Gischler

Literary rating: starstarstarstarhalf
Kick-butt quotient: action2action2action2

The small duchy of Klaar has been impervious to invasion, due to a secure location offering limited access. But when betrayal from within leads to its fall, to the vanguard of an invading Perranese army, heir apparent Rina Veraiin is forced on the run. She is fortunate to encounter one of a handful of people who know how to create mystic tattoos that will imbue the recipient with magical abilities. With her already significant combat skills radically enhanced, and her body now also blessed with a remarkable talent to heal, Rina can set about trying to recover her domain. It won’t be easy, since the king is not even aware the Perranese have landed. But she has help, albeit in the motley forms of a stable boy – sorry, head stable boy – a gypsy girl and a noble scion, whose charm is exceeded only by his ability to irritate.

Despite the young age of the protagonist, who is still a teenager, this isn’t the Young Adult novel it may seem. It’s rather more Game of Thrones in both style and content, with the point of view switching between a number of different characters. Some of these can be rather graphic, particularly the story of Tosh, an army deserter who ends up working as a cook in a Klaar brothel. But even this thread turns out more action-heroine oriented than you’d expect. For the madam gets Tosh to train the working girls in weaponcraft, so they can become an undercover (literally!) rebel force against the Perranese. Can’t say I saw that, ah, coming…

Gischler seems better known as a hard-boiled crime fiction author – though I must confess to being probably most intrigued by his satirical novel titled, Go-Go Girls of the Apocalypse! The approach here does feel somewhat fragmented, yet is likely necessary, given the amount of time Rina spends galloping around the countryside. It may also be a result of the book’s original format as a serial. However, it translates well enough to a single volume, and I found it became quite a page-turner in the second half. There, Rina readies her forces to return to Klaar, and take on the occupying forces, which have settled in for the winter. 

The tattoo magic is a nice idea, effectively providing “superpowers” that can help balance out the obvious limitations of a young, largely untrained heroine. It is somewhat disappointing that, after significant build-up involving the Perranese’s own tattooed warrior, the actual battle between him and Rina seemed to be over in two minutes – and decided through an external gimmick, rather than by her own skill. In terms of thrills, it’s significantly less impressive than a previous battle, pitting her against a really large snake, or even the first use of Rina’s abilities, which takes place against a wintry wilderness backdrop – more GoT-ness, perhaps?

Such comparisons are unlikely to flatter many books, and this is at its best when finding its own voice, as in the tattooing, or the gypsies who become Rina’s allies. He does avoid inflicting any serial cliffhanger ending on us, instead tidying up the majority of loose ends, and giving us a general pointer toward the second in the three-volume series. Overall, I liked the heroine and enjoyed this, to the point where I might even be coaxed into spending the non-discounted price for that next book.

Author: Victor Gischler
Publisher: 47North, available through Amazon in both printed and e-book versions.

Iron Swallow

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“A bit hard to swallow.”

ironswallowGenerally, if someone is roaming the country, carrying out brutal attacks on apparently innocent citizens, blinding and disfiguring them, they’d be the villain of the piece, right? Not so here. For despite such distinctly non-heroic actions, Iron Swallow (Lee) is the heroine, disabling the men she holds responsible for killing her father years earlier. Needless to say, they’re not exactly impressed with the situation. To make matters worse, someone is flat-out killing her targets, intent on covering up something or other, and is trying to make it look like Swallow is responsible, by leaving her trademark darts behind at the scene. There are also two friends (Tao and Chung) rattling around, the son and pupil respectively of the region’s leading martial arts master Chu Hsiao Tien (Yuen), who get involved in the murky situation because Chu is one of Swallow’s targets and has hired a particularly loathsome assassin to bury the case.

Murky is, to be honest, putting it mildly, and the plot here appears to have been constructed from finest quality raw ore, taken from the Kung Fu Cliché mine. And I stress the word “raw”, since there doesn’t appear to have been much processing, in the way of logical thought, given to those ideas between their conception and the screen. It’s the kind of kung-fu film where you can’t be sure whether they made the story up as they went along – however, if they had, it would explain a lot of the tedious incoherence. I read another review which called this a martial arts version of I Know What You Did Last Summer, and that’s a decent enough summary. At one point, Chris meandered in and wondered whether this was the source film for Kung Pow: Enter the Fist, based mostly on Swallow’s hair-style. Though she says that for about 40% of period kung-fu films, so it probably doesn’t mean much.

It’s certainly one of those cases where you might as well bring a book, and forget about trying to follow the indigestible lumps of plot between the action scenes. Fortunately, those are decent enough to sustain interest, and relatively copious, particularly in a final third which more or less abandons the plot, replacing it with multiple varieties of fisticuffs. Swallow’s skills are obvious, and given multiple opportunities to shine. It’s a shame that Lee was never allowed to showcase her own identity, in the way Angela Mao received, instead being the victim of a highly dubious marketing campaign which alleged she was Bruce Lee’s sister. Whatever the short-term benefit that brought, it did her career no good in the longer term, and she was all but gone from the screen by the end of the seventies. I have to wonder if whoever came up with that genius idea, was also responsible for the script here…

Dir: Judy Lee, Don Wong Tao, Ting Wa Chung, Yee Yuen
Star: Chang Pei-Cheng
a.k.a. Shaolin Iron Eagle

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

Iconoclast

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“Does ANYONE know what’s going on?”

iconoclastLadies and gentlemen, we have finally found it: the Plan 9 From Outer Space of action heroine films, which manages to combine shoddy production values and pretentious nonsense to devastating effect, with the result being a completely incoherent mess. I knew I’d made a terrible, terrible mistake inside the first five minutes, which consisted of utterly overlong shots of a beach, into which a woman strolls, apparently coming directly from a clearance sale at Hot Topic, and performs an interpretive dance routine. She then wanders aimlessly round the woods, and menaces another woman, who is tied to a tree, while endlessly repeating, “Blood for blood. A life for a life. The wheel upon which we must all be broken.” It didn’t get any better, or any more comprehensible, thereafter.

For the closest thing you’re going to get to an explanation, I turn to the official synopsis, as written by the director: “Iconoclast is the story of a lone warrior who is resurrected by a dark goddess and sent into the wilderness to slay all of the old gods and take their power, so that she can craft him into a powerful weapon to wield against the crusading knights that sweep across the land.” Ooh. Sounds quite good. I wouldn’t actually mind watching that film. However, it bears absolutely no resemblance to what was delivered, and even less to the sleeve. I should have realized that any production with an obviously “artistic” cover is not going to live up to it. I remember first learning that particular lesson at the video store in the late 80’s, with any number of sub-Frazetta covers that concealed badly dubbed Italian B-movies.

It pains me to skewer this as utterly irredeemable, since it was obviously an effort of love for Argo.Based on the Kickstarter page, he appears to have gone out to New Zealand and begged WETA for some leftover bits and pieces of armour and weapons from Lord of the Rings, and shot their footage there. I’ve no idea why they bothered, because unlike LotR, this is not in the slightest bit epic. Indeed, there is nothing to indicate this wasn’t shot in the forest behind Argo’s house, never mind New Zealand. What narrative there is (as opposed to droning pseudo-philosophical nonsense, vaguely derived from Celtic mythology 1.0.1) , gets delivered entirely in voice-over, by completely different people to those performing on screen. The fight scenes are staggeringly inept, and the storyline is flat out baffling, with no clear expression of even the most basic of ideas.

About the only positive thing I can say is that Ms. Hot Topic, a.k.a. “The Black Goddess of the South Gates” (Kristel) is kinda hot, if you like chicks who have angel wing tattoos on their bac. Otherwise, how bad was this? By the end of it, I was devoting more attention to arguing with 9/11 Truthers on Reddit. That’s pretty frickin’ terrible.

Dir: Sean-Michael Argo
Star: Stellar Kristel, Sean-Michael Argo, Petra Grace, Penny Walker

Iron Girl: Ultimate Weapon

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“Post-apocalyptic soft-porn sci-fi soap-opera.”

irongirlHaving used my entire quota of hyphens for this review in that tag-line, what do we have here? I could remember virtually nothing about the original, even though it was only a couple of years ago we reviewed it. Seems to have ended up with the same vaguely mediocre rating though. The problem here, however, is mostly one of pacing. After a brief flurry of impressive activity at the beginning, there’s not much happening on the action front for about an hour, and what takes its place falls short of adequate entertainment.

It’s the same setting, with Japan’s technocracy having imploded, and the country now a slew of little fiefdoms, where bandits and bounty hunters roam the land. Chris (Asuka) is the latter, trying to raise enough reward money so she can buy a device that will restore her memories. She was unconscious and suffering from amnesia when found by fellow bounty-hunter Kento (Iwanaga) and his sidekick, Miriya (Kishi). Now, with the aid of her nifty cyborg suit ‘n’ sword, she’s taking out the leaders of the Sparti gang, who are less than impressed with her work. So, they lure here away from the peaceful settlement where she lives, and while she’s out, get medieval on the scientists and others who are there. This doesn’t exactly discourage Chris, obviously.

In between the opening, where she saves a brothel from harassment, and the final assault on the Sparti headquarters, there’s not much going on. You get a fair amount of Chris using her sexuality on men, then whacking them in the crotch, to the extent this begins to feel like a Japanese version of Ow! My Balls! [or a Japanese game-show; you decide] This could be a commentary on the male gaze, except the film itself is obviously extremely interested in that perspective of Asuka, as evidenced by the gratuitous shower-scene. There’s obviously some unresolved sexual tension between her and Kento, and she has her own sidekick to fend off, a lecherous guy wearing aviator goggles, who provides broad comic relief. It’s all not very interesting, unfortunately.

The action scenes do seem a little better, with Asuka making a greater impression this time – experience does matter, it seems. If there’s nothing quite as memorable as the opening fight, where she traps an opponent’s sword with her high heels(!), the film delivers some fairly decent battles in the final chunk. Chris works her way up the Sparti chain of command, until facing someone (thing?) who may be her equal in terms of technological enhancements. It’s likely no spoiler to say the film does not end with the heroine recovering her movies, instead setting things up for a third entry in the series. I guess I’ll be watching it, and imagine by the time that happens, I’ll have forgotten all about this second movie, just as much as I did the first.

Dir: Kenichi Fujiwara
Star: Kirara Asuka, Hiroaki Iwanaga, Asuka Kishi, Ryunosuke Kawai