The Savage Stack: The ILSA Quadrilogy (1975 - 1977)

For the first Savage Stack entry of 2017, Jacob decided to spend too much time with the Queen of Fascist Sexuality.

There’s always going to be – for lack of a better term – a stack of films we’ve been meaning to get to. Whether it’s a pile of DVDs and Blu-rays haphazardly amassed atop our television stands, or a seemingly endless digital queue on our respective streaming accounts, there’s simply more movies than time to watch them. This column is here to make that problem worse. Ostensibly an extension of Everybody’s Into Weirdness (may that series rest in peace), The Savage Stack is a compilation of the odd and magnificent motion pictures you probably should be watching instead of popping in The Avengers for the 2,000th time. Not that there’s anything wrong with filmic “comfort food” (God knows we all have titles we frequently return to when we crave that warm and fuzzy feeling), but if you love movies, you should never stop searching for the next title that’s going to make your “To Watch” list that much more insurmountable. Some will be favorites, others oddities, with esoteric eccentricities thrown in for good measure. All in all, a mountain of movies to conquer.

The eighteenth entry into this unbroken backlog kicks off 2017 with an overview of the Nazi sexploitation icon that is Ilsa: She Wolf of the SS…

“The film you are about to see is based on documented fact. The atrocities shown were conducted as ‘medical experiments’ in special concentration camps throughout Hitler’s Third Reich. Although these crimes against humanity are historically accurate, the characters depicted are composites of notorious Nazi personalities; and the events portrayed have been condensed into one locality for dramatic purposes. Because of its shocking subject matter, this film is restricted to adult audiences only. We dedicate this film with the hope that these heinous crimes will never happen again.”

Ilsa: She Wolf of the SS is one of the most gloriously wicked motion pictures ever constructed. Combining fascist fetishism with slobbering perversion, producer David F. Friedman and director Don Edmonds bestowed upon the world a new sleaze icon. By sexualizing history’s most recognizable group of mass murderers, they helped corner the market on their own unique brand of sexploitation. Dyanne Thorne’s casting as the titular purveyor of punishment was the duo’s most ingenious stroke, as Friedman and Edmonds realized a grindhouse pin-up that would become recognizable to generations of cult film fans to come, even as she continued to jump ship to many different dictatorships. The unique set of assets Thorne fully owned helped her carve quite a niche career for the platinum-haired, swastika-donning dominatrix. She was the Queen of Pain, extracting pleasure from the sensual torment of those who unfortunately became her captives.

Ilsa: She Wolf of the SS opens with the aforementioned bullshit mea culpa. Immediately after, we’re transported to the swanky bedroom of Ilsa, High Commander of Death Camp Nine, as she writhes away on top of one of her Jewish prisoners. She cums. Showers. Wakes the man from his peaceful slumber. Then escorts him out of the room, just so he can be castrated on an experiment chamber table as Ilsa cackles, keeping her promise that he would “never see the camp again.” It’s an outstanding fist to the gut intro, as you can almost hear EP Herman Traeger (German nom de “go fuck yourself” of master schlockmeister Friedman) giggling off-camera. It’s the ultimate “with all due respect,” as his faux plea for forgiveness is washed down the drain with the poor member-less man’s blood.

Shot on the abandoned sets of a just-cancelled Hogan’s Heroes, Ilsa is pure exploitation, both in content and execution. The production was only given clearance to film on the classic television backlot because a scene near the end called for the set to be burned to the ground. What did the previous financiers care if Freidman (fresh off the Canadian success of the similarly depraved Love Camp 7) created the most pure piece of “torture porn” ever committed to celluloid? The movie’s climax was going to save them a bundle of cash in terms of demolition costs. Out of sight, out of mind — let the filth flow.

And oh, what glorious filth it is. Trigger warnings out the wazoo (obviously) as women are taken to the rack, whipped and passed around the barracks for male soldiers to drunkenly violate. Electrified dildos are shoved into shaved vaginas. Limbs are unnaturally twisted until they appear ready to snap off. It’s a cavalcade of naked flesh and wanton carnage, arousing only to sociopaths and skinheads. Overseeing it all is the eponymous Kommandant (Thorne), whose BDSM-themed sex scenes feel like the chiseled-jaw beauty went full method. Thorne radiates pleasure during the softcore sex, just before she stomps about the grisly research chambers with a grim, terrifying ferocity. This is the stuff grindhouse goddesses are made out of, and Thorne lends the notorious picture a brilliant, magnetic center.

To be completely frank, She Wolf of the SS is utterly indefensible. Even though the abandoned family TV sets add a layer of cheese to the proceedings, Ilsa nevertheless feels like the product of a truly diseased mind. There’s a cruelty contained within every one of Edmonds’ frames that makes you genuinely wonder how much of this he is actually getting off on behind closed doors. That’s special, and cannot be replicated in the modern age. The best exploitation feels unsafe, as if you’re witnessing the personal desires of a deviant who just happened to get their hands on enough cash to help project their fetishes onto the big screen. Ilsa is undoubtedly this kind of trash, as even though our titular murderess is undone by an American who can hold back his semen for days (no kidding), we can’t help but feel uncomfortable knowing that those who made the film are still out there, waiting to unleash their offensiveness on the world at any given moment.

Despite being straight up murdered at the end of She Wolf of the SS, Ilsa comes striding out of a Middle Eastern palace at the beginning of Harem Keeper of the Oil Sheiks, ready to inspect a set of crates the military has delivered for her master (spoiler: they’re full of future sex slaves). Just in case we were worried Thorne’s cruel temptress had lost her edge along with the boxy 'do (her stylist was shooting for more of a “Fascist Charlie’s Angel” look here), the former death camp administrator degrades a poor beggar and orders him to be flogged simply for being dirty and poor. Returning director Edmonds seems set on proving he can outdo the tastelessness of the first movie; a mission that only a fool would embark upon.

Astonishingly, Harem Keeper of the Oil Sheiks almost gets there. Instead of utilizing the iconography of history’s worst genocidal regime, Edmonds goes racial, creating a cinematic depiction of the “mystical” Middle Eastern caricature. Where She Wolf of the SS was brazenly transforming Nazi leather into kink for the most depraved members of the audience, Harem Keeper of the Oil Sheiks lingers on the glistening brown skin of its models’ breasts. Its softcore Kama Sutra, painting the men (who are slathered in bronzer and eyeliner) as incorrigible savages, while the women writhe in pleasure on silky pillows. The soldiers who guard the gates all look like they’ll be auditioning for Menahem Golan’s Delta Force a decade on. Terrorism was already a hot button topic in America, thanks to incidents like the ‘72 massacre at the Munich Olympics, and Edmonds is mixing this stereotyped fear of the dangerous “other” with pure titillation. In fact, the result is possibly more offensive than its notorious predecessor; internationals incident transmuted into spank bank fodder.

Harem Keeper of the Oil Sheiks might also be an overall better movie than She Wolf of the SS. There’s a swashbuckling, adventurous tone to the whole affair that keeps it from ever becoming boring. Playing like a Z-Grade Bond picture, an American businessman (Jerry Delony) and his army commander compadre (Max Thayer) imbed listening devices in the ruby-studded navels of belly dancers, as the commander proves himself to be the harem keeper’s sexual equal. But while Edmonds is certainly poking at the audience’s buttons, Ilsa herself has become more accepting, racially speaking. Flanking her at almost all times are Satin and Velvet (Tanya Boyd & Marilyn Joy), her pit fighting Nubian bodyguards. The well-oiled warriors have no problem (literally) ripping a man’s face off if he gets out of line. Where She Wolf of the SS is very much a one woman show, Edmonds (along with screenwriter Langston Stafford) is smart enough to know he’s going to have to abide by sequel rules and go “bigger,” providing side characters just as beautiful and deadly as the central paramour.

Edmonds would sit the rest of the “franchise” out, but his two contributions are unique pieces of extremely smutty sexploitation, complete with exploding diaphragms and multiple mechanical sex toys. The most consistent element in both is the director’s willingness to commit himself to the films’ garish sexuality with reckless abandon. Edmonds admirably understood that if you’re going to try and make entire generations squirm in their theater seats, you really have to go for broke and pull no punches. There’s no shame. No remorse. No apologies. The very best exploitation is unrepentantly repugnant. In that regard, Edmonds’ Ilsa pictures rank near the very top.

Leave it to Jess Franco to keep one of the most perverse series of films to ever hit any cinema going, while still working completely on his own terms. The Wicked Warden saw Edmonds and Friedman abandoning further installments of their smutty parade, leaving it in the hands of Spain’s premiere pervert. What results is something akin to Samuel Fuller’s Shock Corridor, only instead of delving into the depths of abuse, Franco twists the formula to fit his own lesbian fantasies. Easily fitting in with the rest of his filmography, The Wicked Warden is undoubtedly the most sensual of the Ilsa series, as Franco doesn’t seem as interested in the pain as he is in the porn.

One of seven pictures Franco would complete in ‘77, The Wicked Warden wasn’t originally intended to be the second sequel in the abominable erotic series. This lack of connective tissue is certainly felt in the way he films Dyanne Thorne, who is no longer a platinum blonde bombshell of Nazi degradation, but rather a redheaded, lusty superintendent of a jungle psychiatric institute for women troubled by “diseases of the libido”. Lesbians, bisexuals, transwomen and nymphomaniacs are all locked together under the strict supervision of the titular fuck-hungry monster. Only instead of stomping about in her usual black and red, Ilsa (who I’m pretty sure is never called as such during the picture’s scant ninety minutes) looks to have cribbed her fashion sensibilities from Fidel Castro. In fact, Ilsa even crawls into bed with a Latin American dictator, trading her body (and, in the film’s most harrowing sequence, those of the prisoners under her care) in order to become a “revolutionary puta”.

The Wicked Warden is shoddily produced compared to its predecessors, the lack of abandoned television sets giving way to a dirty, cold, anonymous prison. This is, no doubt, due to Franco’s fast and cheap production style. But the bleakness of the film’s interiors only works to strengthen the reputation of the facility as being an unknowable dungeon of pain that needs to be penetrated by the concerned sister of one of its victims (Tania Busselier, of Franco’s The Perverse Countess). The truth is not as shocking as one may think (Ilsa and one of her comrades are making “hidden camera” rape videos and selling them on the black market), but the relentless beige bleakness is almost overwhelming compared to the previous films’ borderline cartoonishness.

Thorne’s performance in The Wicked Warden isn’t unlike Sean Connery’s in You Only Live Twice. At this point, Thorne had now worn several uniforms out, and she seems kind of bored with the whole routine. It doesn’t help that Franco doesn’t treat her like the same icon from the previous two films (her introduction in this, while soapy and naked, lacks the thundering presence of her past entrances). But it’s difficult to imagine Thorne didn’t know what sort of sandbox she was frolicking in. While it was probably fun to play such a prominent role in the minds of perverts everywhere, Ilsa barely has a name in this picture (it was actually sold as Greta: The Mad Butcher and Wanda: The Wicked Warden in several markets), and Thorne was undoubtedly just there for the paycheck. Had Franco not focused on crafting a bare bones bit of WIP badassery, The Wicked Warden would be a complete snooze. Instead, it ends up being one of the better works in the director’s rather disreputable catalog.

If we’re being completely honest, The Tigress of Siberia barely feels like a full movie. In fact, the picture (which does little to try and pass off Canada for Siberia before giving up halfway through) feels like two films mashed together; as if producer Ivan Reitman (who was a Canuxsploitation King during the '70s) met up with Roger Corman (bringing this series full circle into the ultimate kingdom of schlock) and combined two separate scripts from their respective dusty reserves. But this bipolar bit of offensive insanity doesn’t skimp on the sex and violence, as two men arm wrestle between chainsaws and Ilsa (who is again never actually called by name) engages in random three-ways with burly prison guards. Sadly, Thorne had completely checked out by this point, unenthusiastically welcoming the end of the line for her 42nd Street heartthrob.

What distinguishes The Tigress of Siberia from the initial three films is that, for the first time in the series’ history, we actually get to see Ilsa exist outside of a prison setting. While the first third finds the Comrade Colonel in her usual role, the second act (if we’re actually able to call it that) peaks with the snow fortress burning down. Without even a semblance of warning, we jump ahead twenty-five years to Toronto, where the former warden plays brothel madam and hostess to the Russian Olympic hockey squad. After capturing their star player, the country sends in the Russian mob to try and rescue him, only to find their Olympic hopeful has been mentally dissected by the most beautiful torturer on the planet.

Most will try to convince you that The Tigress of Siberia is the worst in the “franchise”, and they’re not wrong. Yet the movie is still far from uninteresting. Beyond the completely gonzo set up(s), the film also dives into pure absurdity. There’s an utterly spectacular scenario involving a petrol-filled waterbed, and one poor spy is done in via snow plow. The final twenty minutes or so are some of the most bug-nuts in the four pictures. Corman and Reitman are no doubt wringing the dread corpse of this series for all its worth on the final go, and if it weren’t for the general apathy displayed from every actor involved, it might have turned out to be an all-timer.

Strangely enough, The Tigress of Sibera also becomes distinguished in one very important regard: we never see Ilsa die on screen. While it’s impossible to deduce that this is intentional beyond the money men never wanting to shut the door on Dyanne Thorne returning to the titular temptress, it nevertheless becomes an oddly haunting coda to a series that only seemed to be marginally aware of its own insanity. We could ultimately read this carefully calculated moment of greed to be an inadvertent comment on how we feel after watching any of these motion pictures. Ilsa will always be alive; the dark, weird desire that lives inside the belly of all people. Because no matter how pure one might perceive themselves to be, there’s always going to be a repressed need for carnal depravity. Ilsa is the ultimate avatar for this want; an external manifestation of her creators’ collective fetishistic id run wild. There’s a reason these movies make even the most hardened cult aficionados fidget — they’re utilizing ultimate taboos to unashamedly try and turn you on. Thanks to Dyanne Thorne, it’s impossible for anyone to say that they don’t at least partially succeed. The woman was committed to punishing not only her fictional victims, but the audience as well. You will submit to Ilsa’s every command. And you will like it.

Sadly, the Ilsa box set is OOP in the US, but you can find individual discs on Amazon.