There was a time not long ago when Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS and its sequels enjoyed a sizable cult following among hardcore fans of sicko sexploitation. But their collective profile seems to have dropped precipitously in recent years. Dyanne Thorne’s death in January didn’t seem especially noteworthy in the horror community, and none of the films in the series are currently in print in the States. If you want them you have to buy either bootlegs or foreign releases and hope they’re not chopped up enough to render them unwatchable. The overall feeling I get is that they’ve been swept under the rug. Nothing to see here. Are they victims of a gentrification of horror fandom, too rotten, too tasteless, too controversial to survive in today’s woke environment?
Certainly, the original film is the measuring stick of the original cycle of Nazisploitation, that particularly virulent strain of the women-in-prison conceit. The implications of Nazisploitation are dark, indeed. It’s a genre that uses the Holocaust—perhaps the most horrific series of atrocities committed by humans in history—as the basis for extremely violent, sadomasochistic softcore exploitation. It doesn’t get any more tasteless and crass than exploiting genocide for profit.
Ilsa set the bar because it codified tropes of the genre that a certain type of grindhouse patron was looking for. In it, Ilsa (Dyanne Thorne), kommandant of a Nazi prison camp, conducts sadistic experiments on female inmates in an effort to prove that women endure pain better than men. As for male inmates, when they’re not being used for manual labor, Ilsa enlists them as personal sexual playthings, and castrates them when they fail to satisfy her voracious appetite (which is almost always). This rough outline is basically a pretext to display bound, naked young women being subjected to a wide variety of horrific tortures, mixed in with interludes of sordid sexual escapades. The film’s overt embrace of BDSM culture in an above-ground context perhaps partly explains its financial success. This isn’t some tawdry underground smut mag or a grimy loop filmed in someone’s basement, this is a real movie with a laundry list of taboo perversions on full display. Dyanne Thorne as Ilsa, ice cold in her SS uniform, is an idealized dominatrix, the final boss of sexual discipline.
After the success of the original film, its producers gave it another go-round the following year with Ilsa, Harem Keeper of the Oil Sheiks. It’s essentially more of the same, with a slightly less offensive setting: the palatial estate of an oil rich sheik in an unnamed Middle Eastern country. Ilsa runs the Sheik’s white slave trade for him, keeping a fresh supply of beautiful, nude, submissive young women on hand to auction off and provide diversion. In place of the two Aryan lesbian sidekicks from the first film, this time there’s a pair of gorgeous, topless African karate expert lesbians who rip off guys’ nuts and all that jazz. It’s seventies ultra-sleaze of the highest order.
The third film in the series, Ilsa, the Wicked Warden, was originally an unrelated stand-alone piece of Eurotrash called Greta, the Mad Butcher, but since it stars Dyanne Thorne and is basically an Ilsa knockoff, some enterprising distributor changed the title and passed it off as a sequel. It was directed by the undisputed king of Eurosleaze, Jess Franco, and anyone familiar with his work would know exactly what to expect: unrelenting female nudity, wanton sexual degradation, rampant lesbianism, general ineptitude, Lina Romay. You know the deal. Ilsa (or Greta, or Wanda) runs a female psychiatric hospital/prison facility in some unnamed banana republic, which she of course uses as a personal pleasure palace of sex, torture and abuse. What this one lacks in sadistic violence it more than makes up for with vile sleaziness.
The fourth and final entry, Ilsa, Tigress of Siberia, marks a bit of a departure for the franchise. The first half plays out as one might expect, with Ilsa running a Siberian gulag during the final days of the reign of Stalin. (You may have noticed by now that there’s absolutely zero continuity between the films.) She subjects inmates to various human rights abuses for her own personal amusement, and engages nightly in vodka-fueled orgies with the cossacks in her employ. But when Stalin dies and the political winds shift, Ilsa decides to clear out, and we jump ahead to 1970s Montreal, where she now runs high end brothels and has designs on taking over all mob-related criminal activity in the city. From there the film becomes something more akin to a standard crime thriller with a slightly sadistic bent. It has some cool ideas but is widely considered the weakest of the lot.
I assume the setting and milieu of the original film are the reasons for the series’ low profile these days. But who’s to say where an exploitation film is or isn’t allowed to go? Quentin Tarantino is widely celebrated for high-budget trashy exploitation pastiches that use culturally sensitive (and often wildly inaccurate) historical settings – I’d say using slave ownership in the American south as the basis for a silly, violent revenge story pushes the envelope pretty hard. Tarantino did get some flack for Django Unchained, but by and large viewers were willing to accept it as a fun popcorn flick that ultimately takes a very dim view of its chosen subject matter. Likewise Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS uses a cartoonish and unrealistic interpretation of a World War II German concentration camp as both a means to fulfill genre expectations (however sick those may be) and to portray Nazis as monstrous buffoons. Yes, its producers were ultimately just trying to make money, but at least their sympathies lay in the right place. At the end of the day, I believe that the horror community needs to be careful about censorship and casting judgment on sensitive subject matter. Many fans embrace horror because it pushes the envelope and goes places other genres won’t. Horror should never be blunted by censorship and lose its power to offend and shock.
I’m just saying maybe we should let old Ilsa back into the fold.