Nostalgic for Sleaze, part VI: film review for ‘Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS.’

Dyanne Thorne and her intimidating assets feature prominently on the film poster for ‘Ilsa She-Wolf of the SS’.

At last, we come to the final of the three exploitation films I planned to discuss for my Nostalgic for Sleaze series of blog posts.  In June, I offered my two-cents worth on Joe D’Amato’s Images in a Convent (1979), and then earlier this month I discussed Women in Cages (1971). As promised, I reviewed each film in [quote] “descending order from “most enjoyable/least offensive” to “least enjoyable/completely offensive” [end quote]. And thus, we now arrive at that most notorious of naziploitation films Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS (1974).

To begin, I’d like to get a few obvious points out of the way. Any film that hinges its plot — however threadbare this plot might be — on ‘dramatic recreations’ of actual Nazi atrocities is not going to be pleasant viewing. I understand that a subgenre of exploitation cinema exists that’s dedicated to detailed accounts of war atrocities — many of them focused on Japanese WWII war crimes, curiously enough — but I personally find these distasteful as forms of entertainment. Oh sure, Ilsa offers up topless Aryan babes in highly fetishized Nazi uniforms whose bodies glisten with sweat as they flog prisoners to death, but…Sweet Jesus, they just flogged those prisoners to death. And then hung them upside down, naked and bloodied, for the rest of the camp to admire. Sexualized violence reaches its most vile and maladjusted apex in this nasty piece of exploitation cinema. Even though Ilsa was filmed on the former set of Hogan’s Heroes, this definitely isn’t a fun film.

Quick Synopsis: A female Nazi Stalag Commandant performs gruesome ‘medical experiments’ on her female prisoners in an effort to demonstrate that women can endure more physical pain than men, and should therefore be allowed into combat. When she’s not torturing women, Ilsa amuses herself by forcing various male prisoners to satisfy her carnal urges. When these men disappoint her — as they invariably do since, in addition to being a sadist, she’s also an insatiable nymphomaniac — she has them castrated. Ilsa becomes flummoxed when she encounters Anna, a prisoner who seems capable of withstanding an enormous amount of pain. She also discovers a male prisoner — with the über-masculine name Wolfe — who possesses impressive porn-star talents that just may help him keep his, um, manhood.

Ilsa and her blonde henchwomen.

Though it would be impossible to deny the excessive sleaziness of this film, there are a few elements that make it almost watchable. The scenes between Wolfe and Ilsa are hilarious, as the ordinarily domineering Commandant coos and swoons like a schoolgirl before his cocksure male swagger. Are we to understand that Ilsa is a misunderstood sadist-Nazi who’s simply looking for the right fella to fawn over? The other amusing element is one of Ilsa’s implements of torture, which is an electrified dildo. While that does sound rather nasty, the image of Dyanne Thorne waggling this menacing black dildo under the nose of her victims is thoroughly giggle-inducing.

But then, there’s the rest of the film. Fans of this cult favourite argue that the gore and torture is so over-the-top that it’s cartoonish and silly. While I can agree with this to a point, I simply cannot defend the film’s continual coupling of naked titillation with extreme violence. Here’s a quick sampling of some of the unpleasant ways you could meet your end if you’re a woman in Ilsa’s prison camp:

1. Being flogged to death by topless Nazis.

2. Having your innards spew outwards inside a pressure chamber. Oh, and we get a good look at your tits while you’re spewing.

3. Being boiled alive till you’re red as a lobster.

4. Having some highly dubious gynaecological surgery performed on you, without anesthesia.

Admittedly, the many moments of high camp and pure, B-movie excess in Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS make it more ridiculous than truly sinister. That said, I still felt like having a shower after watching it. Yuck.

Can’t recommend it, but hey, it’s your party. Watch at your own risk.

Nostalgic for sleaze, part II: Nazis, nuns, and wicked prison wardens.

In my previous blog post, I waxed nostalgic over the print advertisements for grindhouse theatres that appeared in the newspapers back in the 1970’s, the heyday of exploitation cinema. I felt the need to establish my long-term relationship with these films, in order to provide context for the discussion that follows. As you’ll soon read, the relationship I have with exploitation cinema is a conflicted one. It’s highly reminiscent of those teenage Bad Boys I yearned for in high school: appealing in their dangerous good-looks and rule-breaking nonconformity, but essentially all abusive jerks. Simply put, exploitation cinema isn’t always kind in its treatment of women.

But before we delve too much further, let’s trot out the standard definition of ‘exploitation film‘ as offered up by Wikipedia:

Exploitation film is a type of film that is promoted by “exploiting” often lurid subject matter. The term exploitation is common in film marketing, used for all types of films to mean promotion or advertising. These films then need something to exploit, such as a big star, special effects, sex, violence, romance, etc. […] The audiences of art and exploitation film are both considered to have tastes that reject the mainstream Hollywood offerings. […] Exploitation films may adopt the subject matter and styling of regular film genres, particularly horror films and documentary films, and their themes are sometimes influenced by other so-called exploitative media, such as pulp magazines.

Typically, the exploitation film was a low-budget B-movie, created as cheap, double-feature fodder for drive-in theatres. In order to attract audiences, they promised risqué content not offered by mainstream Hollywood productions. Sex and violence frequently intermingled, and were served up as an intoxicating cocktail of naughtiness. Hence, many of the exploitation subgenres — including the three I’ll examine here — contain copious amounts of nudity and sexualized violence.

As mentioned in my previous post, I shall focus my discussion on three subgenres of exploitation cinema: nunsploitation, WIP (Women in Prison) films, and Naziploitation. Apart from the fact that I typically write about depictions of gender in film, I wanted to address these particular subgenres for the simple reason that they are variations on the exact same narrative. And this narrative runs as follows:

A sadistic lesbian [Mother Superior/prison warden/Nazi Stalag Commandant] oversees the naked torture and general abuse of her attractive female wards. A young ingénue enters the [convent/prison/concentration camp] and must overcome great obstacles. She ultimately escapes, and her tormentor/s receive their final comeuppance.

Now, let’s parse this narrative. The variable same-sex settings — convent, prison or concentration camp (essentially another form of prison) — provide the excuse and opportunity for lesbian sex. This is the same sort of lipstick-lesbian fantasy that frequents pornography produced for heterosexual men. Presumably, the buxom women that populate these films are (mostly) lesbian by circumstance, rather than true sexual preference. This detail maintains the fantasy element for its predominantly male audience, who can enjoy the lesbian spectacle onscreen, while their belief in the inherent heterosexuality of these female characters remains intact.

The same-sex settings also provide opportunity for a second, considerably more sinister element: violence perpetrated on women by other women. Given the context of the various scenarios, this violence takes the form of ritualized or systematic abuse and torture. The cruel prison warden portrayed by Pam Grier in Women in Cages (1971) derives sadistic pleasure from the physical punishment of her female wards. Similarly, the Mother Superior from Joe D’Amato’s Images in a Convent (1979) vents her sexual frustration on one of her nuns through ritualistic flogging. The Nazi Stalag Commandant from Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS (1974) tortures her female prisoners with the curiously-misguided goal of proving female superiority over men. Is all this girl-on-girl violence merely the cinematic equivalent of a catfight, or is there something more menacing at play here?

Flogging constitutes a form of foreplay in Joe D’Amato’s raunchy “Images in a Convent” (1979).

One possible theory I have is that girl-on-girl violence seems less sinister and realistic than violence perpetrated on women by men, and thus more palatable to an audience in the context of an exploitation film. It can argued that the poorly-written scripts, implausible scenarios and less-than-stellar acting commonly found in these films tends to undercut any convincing menace in a torture scene. When you also factor in the high camp of a Nazi Commandant whose ample bosom threatens to burst out from her fetishistic SS uniform — well, it all seems more absurd than truly sinister.

But none of this answers the question “why is sex and violence so often paired together in these films?” I’ll attempt to tackle this big question in my next blog post.