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

Intruders

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“An R-rated version of Home Alone

intrudersSince the death of their father, brother and sister Conrad and Anna (Riesgraf) have been each other’s companions. Virtually sole, in the latter’s case, as Anna suffers from severe agoraphobia, which means she hasn’t left the house for a decade. After Conrad dies of cancer, her only visitor is Meals on Wheels delivery guy, Dan (Culkin), who dreams of escaping town, but lacks the means. In a moment of empathy, Anna offers him a slab of cash: he declines, but after mentioning it in the wrong place, three criminals, led by J.P. (Kesy), decide to pay the house a visit. They’re expecting Anna to be at Conrad’s funeral, unaware of her condition. They are even more wrong about how helpless it makes her.

Big Sky also used agoraphobia as a plot point, but where this works better, is it uses this as a starting point, rather than becoming the defining characteristic of its heroine. We get an indication, not only of where her condition came from, but how it has affected her in other ways. That helps fill things in after the big reveal, where the tables are suddenly turned on the home invaders, and the hunters become the prey. It’s somewhat disconcerting, since this comes almost out of nowhere and leaves you going “Huh?” for a bit, until things are explained. Better not reveal too much there: let’s just say, this trio of robbers are not the first to enter the house and get what they deserve, instead of what they want.

Originally known as Shut In, before a competing (and larger-profile) film with the same name forced a title change, you do have to wonder if less would have been more. The story eventually unfolding here is rather more convoluted than necessary, except for the desire to provide Anna’s mayhem with moral justification. It isn’t needed, assuming you agree that if you invade someone’s home, your right to life is immediately severely curtailed. You’re Next was better in this area: it didn’t bother with any imperative; for its heroine, all the motivation she needed was her own survival. I’m also not quite sure about the layout here – it’s the same problem we saw in Sweet Home, where it feels as if a floor-plan would help figure out how the various pieces fit together.

However, if you’re looking for a darker version of To Catch a Predator, with additional (mercifully, staged) violence against a budgie, this should be satisfactory. Riesgraf is best known for her work as Parker in Leverage, and you could almost speculate on this being some kind of prequel to the show. It would make for a rather twisted shared universe, to be sure…

Dir: Adam Schindler
Star: Beth Riesgraf, Jack Kesy, Rory Culkin, Martin Starr
a.k.a. Shut In

Into the Forest

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“After the apocalypse, life will be… kinda dull, actually.”

intotheforestNell (Page) and Eva (Wood) are sisters, living in a house deep in the woods with their father (Rennie). Nell is studying for her SATs, Evan is working towards a dance audition, until all plans are interrupted by a catastrophic power outage which leaves the entire country without electricity. Fortunately, they are almost self-sufficient, capable of living off the land as far as food and heat is concerned, even if the lack of power and very limited fuel forces some significant changes in lifestyle: Eva is reduced to practicing her dance routine to the relentless tick of a metronome, for instance. But when the women are thrown entirely onto their own resources, life becomes tougher, and various hard questions have to be answered, about whether to stay in their remote, apparently fairly safe location, or follow the reports suggesting that the Eastern seaboard may slowly be getting back to normal.

It’s nowhere as exciting as your typically post-apocalyptic scenario, though this perhaps has a greater ring of plausibility to it than the usual Mad Max-iness. When the world falls apart, it’s more likely to be with a whimper than a scream. That said: I don’t know who built their home, since it falls into complete dilapidation in less than a year, with a roof that starts leaking like a sieve in just a couple of months. What is it made of? Papier-mache? [I’m perhaps biased here, since the house I grew up in is over 200 years old, and somehow, still stands] This is likely a narrative conceit, necessary to force the heroines out of their survival-based inertia, which occupies the majority of the film. That angle is one of the disappointing areas: they’re reactive, rather than pro-active. If left entirely to their own devices, this might have ended up as little more than 100 minutes of the sisters gathering berries.

It does manage to go beyond that, mostly thanks to the performances of Page and Wood, who have a natural chemistry that feels authentic. They bicker like sisters, and fight like sisters, yet also show that when the chips are down, blood is thicker than water. This is demonstrated with the unexpected appearance of Nell’s boyfriend (Minghella), though he serves little other purpose before walking out of the film’s scope again. Page is also far too old these days to be a convincing high-school student: Juno was the best part of a decade ago now, and she wasn’t in her teens even when that came out. There is something to be said for a more character-driven apocalypse, one which consists of more than a steady stream of threats to be violently countered. However, this likely tilts the balance too far the other direction, and ends up with something too introverted and navel-gazing to be interesting.

Dir: Patricia Rozema
Star: Ellen Page, Evan Rachel Wood, Max Minghella, Callum Keith Rennie

I am Grimalkin, by Joseph Delaney

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“How to keep a head of the pack.”

grimalkinThis is the ninth novel in Delaney’s Wardstone Chronicles series (known as The Last Apprentice in the USA), and full confession: I haven’t read any of the others. I generally wouldn’t start reading a series so far in, but I was recommended this, on the grounds that it worked as a stand-alone piece, and certainly qualified for inclusion here, in a way the rest of the saga didn’t. Can’t argue with that assessment: while I sense you would likely get significantly more from the book if you have read its predecessors, Grimalkin makes a heck of a bad-ass.

As we join the story in progress, she is carrying round the severed head of The Fiend [who appears, more or less, to be Satan] in a bag, having separated it from his body after he killed her child. However, she is being pursued by a host of his acolytes and the kretch, a creature spawned for the specific purpose of tracking and killing her. They are intent on retrieving the head and re-uniting it with the rest of him – which will cause all hell to break loose. Fortunately, Grimalkin is a witch herself – and not just the cauldron-y, hubble-bubble kind, but the assassin of her coven, a position obtained by killing the incumbent. Normal witches? Don’t stand a chance. Custom-created hell-spawn with a poisonous bite and armoured eyelids? Now, you’re talking.

Actually, even that would probably be a light challenge, Grimalkin’s talents being so well-honed. However, having created this Superwoman (and I’m thinking more Nietzsche than Jerry Siegel), Delaney makes the smart move of then dialing it back, weakening his protagonist early on, which brings her down to the level where she could be taken out. And, since she’s not the central character of the series – Tom Ward doesn’t even appear –  there’s a genuine sense Delaney could dispose of her; he certainly has few qualms about disposing of just about everyone who assists her, at a rate of which George R.R. Martin would approve. This story is, more or less, an extended chase sequence with occasional pauses for reflection, and flashback to learn how Grimalkin reached her position, teamed up with Thorne, her apprentice, etc. It makes for a rather breathless pace, but certainly keeps the reader’s interest.

There are times when it does become a little too “young adult”-ish for my taste – I took to rolling my eyes, every time I read another occurrence of “I am Grimalkin!” But credit Delaney for not attempting to shoehorn in any element of Twlight-esque romance. Because that would be utterly inappropriate for a character who can say, “Cowardice and courage are just labels—words invented by foolish men to bolster their egos and denigrate their enemies. In battle we should be cold, clinical, and disciplined.” While there was a movie version of the first novel (albeit one largely ignored, even by fans), this entry is probably close to unfilmable, simply because Grimalkin is pure, undiluted anti-hero, which is very difficult to make work on-screen. I’d like to see them try, yet amn’t holding my breath there. All told, I certainly enjoyed this one, yet am not sure if I’ll bother with the other, Grimalkin-free entries. It just wouldn’t be the same.

Author: Joseph Delaney
Publisher: Bodley Head, available through Amazon, both for Kindle and as a physical book.
a.k.a. The Last Apprentice: Grimalkin The Witch Assassin

The Informationist, by Taylor Stevens

Literary rating: starstarstarstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2action2action2action2

informationistThe jacket copy for this opening volume of the author’s Vanessa Michael Munro series gives the impression that our heroine’s adolescent career, as part of a gang of gunrunners in the African jungle, lasted for years. It didn’t –she fled from Africa at the age of 15, after about a year with the gang. (They also weren’t mercenaries, and their smuggling operations included drugs as well as guns.) Otherwise, the information is accurate as far as it goes. We meet her nine years later, when she’s 24 years old. Before we do, though, we’re treated to a two-page, attention-grabbing prologue, set somewhere in West Central Africa, describing a terrifying experience which we quickly realize is related to our main plot, and which gives us a little bit of information and a whole lot of tantalizing ambiguity.

Four years later, Michael is approached by super-wealthy oil tycoon Richard Burbank, who wants to hire her to trace the now four-years-cold trail of his adopted step-daughter, who vanished somewhere in Africa on the cusp of adulthood. Finding a missing person isn’t something she’s ever done; she’s an information broker, a compiler of deep background on foreign countries, for governments, NGOs and corporations. But she’s extremely good at this, blessed with a facility for learning languages, strong computer skills, a powerful intelligence and single-minded focus and determination.

She’s also a mistress of disguise, who (with her hair cut short and her bosom tightly bound) can pass for a male if she needs to. Some reviewers focus on this, and on her preference for using her middle name, to make “androgyny” a central aspect of her character. IMO, this idea has been overstated; her character comes across as essentially female, without any ambiguity (though she’s more in touch with her kick-butt side than many women are). Passing for a male is a tactical device that can come in handy in some situations (and she’s not the only fictional heroine to find it so; Madeleine E. Robins’ Sarah Tolerance, for instance, does it frequently), and doesn’t entail any repudiation of her femininity. As for preferring “Michael” over “Vanessa,” she’s not the first person in literature or real life to want to change the way she’s addressed after a major transition in her life –especially from a traumatic period that she’d like to forget. (Her African associates knew her as Essa.) Anyway, Burbank has been assured that these skills will be transferable to ferreting out the fate and whereabouts of a person, and that Michael can succeed where others have failed.

Combat-capable females aren’t as rare in literature as they once were, but her fighting skills aren’t what make Michael a rather unique fictional heroine. (Though she has few peers where those skills are concerned –she’s adept with both guns and blades, and could kill you with a set of car keys if she has to). She’s a very complex and nuanced character, with aspects of her personality that aren’t all pretty. Her missionary parents, who didn’t plan for or want her, raised her in a mindset that sees God as an angry and condemning Judge rather than a loving and forgiving Father. The experiences of her African adolescence left her with massive internal abysses of guilt and anger which she uses her work to keep at bay; she has hardly any friends, and walks a psychological knife edge between moral decency and a homicidal darkness she could easily plunge into for keeps. Now, with the quest for Emily Burbank taking her back into a world she left nine years ago, she’ll face external conflicts with some very nasty villains; but her most desperate and consequential battle will be inside herself, and she’ll come to a moral decision that may save her –or destroy her.

Taylor Stevens’ unique personal upbringing gave her a first-hand knowledge of a number of world locales; this is probably reflected in the vivid way settings in several countries on three continents are realized. (Some of Michael’s formative experiences may have something in common with Stevens’ own as well –though one hopes not.) The African milieu that forms the main setting is particularly life-like, with a you-are-there immediacy especially marked in the portrayal of the dangerous, paranoid Twilight-Zone nation of Equatorial Guinea, the model for Frederick Forsythe’s setting in The Dogs of War (a novel that Stevens references here –conditions there haven’t improved much since Forsythe wrote). Her prose style is crisp and quick-moving, with a wealth of realistic detail that lends verisimilitude. All of the major characters are fully three-dimensional, adding to the texture and emotional evocative quality of the storyline. Plotting here is a tour-de-force, with major twists and surprises in store; the quality of suspense is very taut through much of the book, and comes right down to the wire.

This is an action-adventure novel, so the reader should expect that it’s going to have some violence; more than a few people are going to get killed here. None of the violence is gratuitous, and it isn’t over-described for its own sake; but some readers might find one scene a bit disturbing. There’s no explicit sex, but some sexual encounters are noted without being described in detail, and Michael’s sexual behavior is, like every other aspect of her life, affected by the psychic damage she carries. Readers concerned about bad language should note that there’s a fair amount of use of f-word, and profanity/cursing. For perhaps the first third or more of the book, this isn’t so marked, but it gets worse. (A couple of the English-speaking characters could be expected to have barracks-room vocabularies, but it’s less realistic when English obscenities are put into the mouth of non-English speakers.)

In a couple of place, I have a quibble or two with details. (A camera affixed to the peephole of a hotel door, for instance, would register images directly in front of it –NOT the adjacent door. And one tactical action near the end seems to have no credible reason for being done, except that it serves the author’s ultimate plotting purposes.) But quibbles don’t interfere with the fact that this is, overall, a very strong first novel. And, although there are sequels in the series, this opener comes to a very satisfying conclusion in itself; for readers who don’t want to get sucked into another open-ended series, this book can function perfectly well as a completed stand-alone.

Author: Taylor Stevens
Publisher: Broadway Books, available through Amazon, both for Kindle and as a printed book.

A version of this review previously appeared on Gooodreads.