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Ilsa: She-Wolf of the SS (1974)
Tonight's Feature Presentation

ILSA: SHE-WOLF OF THE SS (1974)

Starring: Dyanne Thorne, Gregory Knopf, Tony Mumolo, Maria Marx, Nicole Riddell, Jo Jo DeVille

Written By: Jonah Royston Directed By: Don Edmonds

The Short Version

Behold the most infamous exploitation film ever made.

Without question, Ilsa: She-Wolf of the SS takes the term “disturbing” to a whole new level.

But it is also a shockingly well-made movie.

Don’t approach it as sexploitation; approach it as horror.  That’s what it really is.

If you can stand it – and I understand fully if you can’t – Ilsa: She-Wolf of the SS is a horrifying but important stop on the grindhouse tour.


The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?

LIMBURGER.

The atmosphere it generates keeps most people away, but it’s much better than it smells.


Pairs Well With...

ST. PAULI GIRL LAGER.

German beer known just as much for its poster girl’s famous figure as it is for anything else.

“You should have waited.”


Of all the feature films ever to roll at the grindhouse, of all the flicks ever to be shelved under the heading of “exploitation” at the video store, and indeed, of all the works in the pantheon of motion pictures in general, there is one title so legendary for its reputed sleaziness as to give even the most jaded of moviegoers pause:

Ilsa: She-Wolf of the SS.

Explicit nudity (both female and male), sex (both consensual and not), hideous torture, violence, blood, gore, and, lest we forget, the backdrop of a Nazi medical camp and a Nazi Commandant for a villainess; oh, yes, Ilsa: She-Wolf of the SS covers all of the uncomfortable bases, and it does so with only the very slightest hint of shame.  Even many audiences that are normally numb to all of the items at the beginning of the above description come to a sudden pause once the swastikas and confirmed World War II era setting come into play, finally finding the one line that they can’t bring themselves to cross.

As a human being who feels real feelings and has, I like to think, more than a few shreds of real decency, I understand and respect that.

But for those who seek a full understanding and appreciation of the grindhouse and exploitation genres (and maybe, just maybe, human nature as a whole) who can read a title like Ilsa: She-Wolf of the SS without instantly feeling the uncontrollable urge to turn around and run, I dare suggest that there’s more to this film than meets the eye; perhaps (though not necessarily) even more than some of the filmmakers themselves originally intended.  It may be one of the most uncomfortable stops on the grindhouse tour, but to me, that is exactly why it is one of the most important.

First, let’s start with the stuff you were probably expecting after looking at the title.

The film takes place during World War II at a “medical research camp” called Camp 9 (played by the leftover set of “Hogan’s Heroes”), which is controlled by its fearsome Commandant, Ilsa (Dyanne Thorne, Blood Sabbath).  The stated objective of her “medical research” is to prove that women can in fact tolerate more pain than men can, with the idea being that once she has proven this (through torture, of course), women of the Third Reich will finally be given equal opportunity to serve at the front lines in the German military.  She also has a side project involving male prisoners, from whose number she selects one each night to come to her bed.  Any man without the stamina to outlast Ilsa – and she can go all night – is doomed to be castrated in the morning… if he’s lucky enough for Ilsa and her surgeons to stop there.  Thus far, no man has been equal to Ilsa’s standards.

As the movie begins, a fresh crop of inmates arrives, including a tough-as-nails woman and a cocksure American man.  Each will prove to be the ultimate “test subjects” for Ilsa’s “research projects,” though the Commandant may not like the results…

Looking at that description, Ilsa: She-Wolf of the SS sounds like a pretty sleazy sex and torture film, doesn’t it?  Perhaps even the lowest possible expression of the “women in prison” subgenre?  After actually watching the movie, I’d say “no.”  While there’s no denying that Ilsa: She-Wolf of the SS crosses a lot of thresholds, the overall presentation is much more “horrifying” than it is “sleazy,” and uncomfortable though the subject matter may be… it’s a shockingly well-made movie.

Now, let’s look past the title.

There can be no denying that the conceptual intent for Ilsa: She-Wolf of the SS was to make a grindhouse exploitation film, and on the surface, that’s exactly the movie that was made; all of the nudity, sex, violence, and torture suggested above are there, and they are indeed lingered upon.  But the filmmakers are also obviously aware that they’re crossing a line, prompting an opening title card decrying Nazi atrocities and further stating that the acts depicted, while not exactly “based on a true story,” are composites of the behaviors of several real people.  The latter claim isn’t as farfetched as it sounds; it’s widely accepted that the inspiration point for the character of Ilsa was real-world Nazi Else Koch, for example, and the fetish demonstrated by the General is said to have been one enjoyed by Hitler himself.  The rest of the opening statement can come across as disingenuous – there’s still all of that leering exploitation, after all – but whether or not its placement is a pure CYA maneuver (you decide), if one really pays attention to the way that Ilsa: She-Wolf of the SS is filmed, there is something different about it for the majority of its runtime.

First, though, there is one specific trigger that brings on the atmosphere and focus one would generically expect: whenever Dyanne Thorne’s breasts are set free from their fabric prison, Ilsa: She-Wolf of the SS looks and feels like straight up softcore porn… and there’s really nothing wrong with that.  Every one of those scenes involves (reasonably) consensual sex (plus one lingering solo shower), and there’s nothing disturbing or torturous about them.  Hell, they’re even outstandingly filmed.

As it so happens, most of the rest of the movie is also outstandingly filmed; indeed, it’s filmed to a standard that far exceeds what one generally expects out of the grindhouse.  But as long as Ilsa (and Ilsa specifically) keeps her shirt (or at least her bra) on or isn’t in the picture at all, there’s a subtle difference in atmosphere, and that difference is incredibly important.  Whether the filmmakers made the shift consciously or not, while I was watching Ilsa: She-Wolf of the SS, I couldn’t help but recognize it as a horror movie.  A leering, exploitive horror movie, to be sure, but still a horror movie.

That difference is huge.

And once one starts to see Ilsa: She-Wolf of the SS through that light, the word “sleazy” just doesn’t fit anymore.  Yes, the camera’s still leering over the gratuitous nudity, but it’s the same leer that would later become the hallmark of slasher films.  Yes, the tortures are awful and sadistic, but the way these scenes are filmed, it’s clear that the aim is not to glorify, but to horrify, and “horrifying” is what “horror” is all about.  Yes, there’s rape – my regular readers know this is always a bad trigger for me – but that is the one type of scene where nudity is not lingered or leered upon and where the cut of the shot is comparatively minimized, with the overall feel being the antithesis of glorification.  I’m certainly not going to call it tasteful, but unlike in so many other “women in prison” films, it’s absolutely not a celebrated centerpiece.

As for the scene in the film that does involve a “centerpiece…”  I won’t give it away, but it is one of the most surreally chilling and unnerving things I can remember seeing in a film in quite some time, and the fact that the scene does not come to a sharp or loud resolution but rather a quiet one makes it all the more effective as, once again, an element of horror.

The horror vibe is further kept by the fact that Ilsa: She-Wolf of the SS is played almost entirely straight.  Hard drama?  No; it’s too self-aware for that.  But straight?  Yes.  Had the filmmakers gone for laughs, it would have been beyond redemption, but only in the brief (and totally inoffensive) moment when the score chooses a victorious fifer’s fanfare for the cocksure American’s triumphant return from Ilsa’s bedroom is humor reached for.  Beyond that...

“Disturbing”?   Yes.  “Uncomfortable?”  Absolutely.  “Sleazy?”  Much to my admitted shock – for I was certainly expecting Ilsa: She-Wolf of the SS to be one of the sleaziest things I’d ever watched – I have to say “no,” it’s not sleazy.

And then there’s the matter of Ilsa herself, Dyanne Thorne.

Without question, Ilsa: She-Wolf of the SS lives or dies based on the work of its leading lady.  Had Dyanne Thorne delivered anything but an exceptional performance, none of the items mentioned above would matter, for the movie would simply have fallen apart and doubtless become forgotten over the years by all but a few genre die hards.  But the fact is that Dyanne Thorne does deliver an exceptional performance, and it’s that performance which has, even more than all of the movie’s shock value, made Ilsa: She-Wolf of the SS stand the test of time and remain the legend it is today.  Starting with the blatant sexual angle (since that’s what everyone thinks of first), former Vegas showgirl Thorne has an outstanding figure and she is not afraid to show it off.  When she gets naked, she’s all in, and she revels in bringing on the sexy for the camera.  But Thorne’s performance here goes so much more than skin deep; she makes every effort to turn Ilsa into a real character with genuine depth that goes well beyond the printed words of the script, and that’s something you really don’t see every day at the grindhouse.  Yes, Ilsa is cruel and domineering and sex obsessed, but in the hands of Dyanne Thorne, she’s also surprisingly vulnerable, using her cruelty as a mask and a denial of that vulnerability.  Thorne’s Ilsa is a very human monster, almost pitiable; something she conveys through delivery and expression and carriage that is all very much a matter of actor’s craft.  Yes, her German accent’s a bit sketchy, but beyond that one very easily overlooked point, Dyanne Thorne does fantastic and I daresay highly underappreciated dramatic work here.  In a role that many others would have taken as an easy paycheque, she gives it her all, and the results are striking.

Do I think that the makers of Ilsa: She-Wolf of the SS set out to create high art?  Of course not; they were out to make a buck while playing in a genre built on leering and shock.  But a funny thing happened on the way to the set formerly used by “Hogan’s Heroes,” and whether they realized it or not, they ended up making something more than just another exploitation flick with a particularly shocking title.  They turned a creepy Nazi/women in prison/sex movie into one of the most important (and notorious) films of the grindhouse era… and made a genuine horror picture out of it, to boot.  Yes, it’s disturbing, and yes, it’s uncomfortable to watch at times, but that’s part of the point.

Bottom line, Ilsa: She-Wolf of the SS is certainly not for everyone – indeed, it’s not for most audiences, no matter how well it’s made – but it is none the less a film that deserves more respect and reflection than it gets (especially when it comes to leading lady Dyanne Thorne).  For those capable of looking past the title and who feel themselves capable of making it through the undeniably heavy content, it is indeed worth the effort, whether or not you end up liking what you see. 

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, March, 2014


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