Thursday, July 29, 2010

Ilsa: the Wicked Warden (Jesus Franco, 1977)

AKA Greta the Butcher

The Ilsa films have a reputation. They are fairly early, and lastingly notorious, torture porn. There is an inherent cruelty to them which one cannot avoid when planning to watch or discuss them. Ilsa: the Wicked Warden has a particularly strong effect on people, and is often considered, even by me, to be the most dreadful of the three easily available films. My attitude has changed a bit with my most recent viewing.

The biggest difference is with the story. The first two are pretty simple:

  • Ilsa: She-Wolf of the S.S. has Ilsa running a camp/research facility. She is trying to prove that women are stronger than men in an effort to win the war for Nazi Germany. She cannot be sexually satisfied, until she meets a prisoner who is either priapic or has a Sting-like ability to retain an erection.
  • Ilsa: Harem Keeper of the Oil Sheiks has Ilsa in command of the harem of, you guessed it, an oil sheik. The sheik is blackmailing the West. The Americans are out to stop him. Again, thwart the menace by banging Ilsa into a coma with a big American dick.
This film has, believe it or not, a slightly more complicated story.

Ilsa, or Greta if you prefer, runs an insane asylum for women with sexual disorders of the kind typical of Third World diagnosis. You know, enjoying sex, ability to have an orgasm, infidelity. The really bad ones. [/sarcasm] The asylum is, however, a front. Some of the prisoners are (in typical WIP fashion) the girlfriends of wanted men or in this case, revolutionaries. The sister of a girl who was captured decides to enter the asylum under false charges in order to find her. The other thing Ilsa is doing is making porn films. Torture porn (real torture porn), snuff films, and rape movies. They sell these to earn extra money, and occasionally use them as blackmail.

An initially annoying, yet interesting feature, is how Franco likes to place items between the camera and Thorne. In the beginning she is in the bath with a clear shower curtain before her, in an office scene she is partially obscured by a desk fan, and in a later sex scene there is a tumbler obscuring the action. It is possible that Franco is bringing us into the scene, but it is also possible he is softening Thorne's features. Dyanne was 45-ish at this time, and while a beautiful woman, has never been young looking. She is showing her age in this film. Her hands and legs are obviously those of a middle-aged woman, yet her build is still phenomenal. In her major seduction scene the room is bathed in red light, and there is an extremely soft focus for the first several minutes. When I say "extremely," I mean it.

Then all of a sudden everything is clear for a bit. If it is a way to obscure Thorne's age, it is done very artfully. Ilsa rises quickly from the bed, and that is the moment the focus goes sharp. She is ready to reap the spoils of her seduction and the change in focus seems to shout this. I am no film student, but that is the effect it had on me.

On the subject of Dyanne Thorne, I have always enjoyed her as an actress. She's done an episode of Star Trek, as well as other films like Chesty Anderson USN. She may not be a great actress, but the most striking thing is that she is a face actress.

No one does the crazy eyes like Dyanne. Also, her face is almost always in motion, be it her eyes, mouth or angle of the head. It is easy in exploitation to be "tits on a stick" regurgitating lines, or to just convey the appearance of sexuality or fear. Thorne, in all her roles, uses her face a bit like silent film stars did; she conveys intent with her face when speaking, as well as when she is not.

Despite the softening effect Franco seems to use to mask her age (if that was his true intent), he also understands that Thorne is expressive in a classic style. I am not directly comparing her, but she has a style similar to Lugosi, Price or Lorre. I really think someone made a mistake not ever casting her as a vampire.

A criticism of the film, or rather of Franco, is that he made the film as an excuse to feature Lina Romay. I think this is rather silly, as Franco always featured Romay once they were an item, and she does not really take the lead. She is, among the prisoners, Head Bitch In Charge. She is "Charlie" from Reform School Girls (Wendy O. Williams) or "Alabama" from Women in Cages (Pam Grier). Romay is there to harass the good-girl, and suck up to the warden. This is a change of sorts for the Ilsa films, but Wicked Warden is a truer WIP film than the others. Like all good WIP films, the warden is like Dracula. Dracula is not in every scene, and he's not the hero, but he shows up when it is important, fucks some people up, and leaves. The hero is the good-girl, and the good-girl always has to contend with the HBIC.

To close I'll say, if this film has scared you off, I completely understand. However, if you like the other Ilsa movies you should see this one. I think it is more disturbing than its predecessors because it is not as graphic. Many of Ilsa's techniques are more devious than simple beatings and vivisection. They are more classically Sadean. Another aspect is that unlike the previous films there is no abuse against men, so the torturous parts seem more misogynistic, however I'd say it is no more so than other WIP films. Ultimately, I think it is the smartest of the three. I'm not sure it is better than Ilsa: She-Wolf of the S.S., but it is a close second.


dfordoom said...

There's actually a fourth Ilsa film, Ilsa Tigress of Siberia. Which is an unusual one, being both a WiP film and a spy adventure.

Darius Whiteplume said...

Hi D,

Yeah, I've seen pics from Siberia, but it is traditionally hard to get a hold of. I have a region free DVD player, so I may try finding an R2 edition, but I hear it is not very good. But then, I have heard that about IWW too :-D

dfordoom said...

I actually thought Ilsa Tigress of Siberia was great fun. But getting hold of a copy was quite an ordeal!

I also enjoyed the campiness of Ilsa Harem Keeper of the Oil Sheikhs. Strangely enough the only one I haven't seen is the first one!

Darius Whiteplume said...

A funny thing about the first one is that it was shott on the set used for "Hogan's Heroes" - if you are old enough to remember that. The company that owned the exterior set was going to tear it down, so they let the Ilsa gang in and allowed them to blow the place up. Ilsa uses Colonel Klink's office too. If you know the show, you'll recognize a lot of the sets :-)

dfordoom said...

I hate to admit it but I am old enough to remember Hogan's Heroes!

Darius Whiteplume said...

You never know on the intertubes, though anyone with a Kinski avatar is likely to be culturally rounded enough, despite age ;-)

It is also kind of funny considering how much Bob Crane would have enjoyed it.

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