Sunday, 25 January 2015

Ilsa: The Wicked Warden (Jess Franco, 1977) Review

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“Her Prison was Hotter than Hell!” First there was Ilsa: She-Wolf of the SS, then there was Ilsa: Harem Keeper of the Oil Sheiks, and then came Ilsa: Tigress of Siberia – but when is an Ilsa movie not an Ilsa movie? When it's a Greta movie. Jess Franco (99 Women), the prolific master of Euro-sleaze, brought the world this unofficial Ilsa movie between the second and third instalments in the official series under the original German title of Greta: House Without Men. Indeed, in classic grindhouse fashion, this seedy little flick has numerous aliases, such as Ilsa: Absolute Power, Wanda The Wicked Warden, and Greta the Torturer (aka Mad Butcher, aka Sadist). It may have morphed into an apparent Ilsa movie after-the-fact in a canny advertising move, but it does cover similar ideas: a sex-mad wardress, despicable scenes of torture, the inevitable blood-crazed vengeance … just the kind of movie your Granny would love, surely?

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“I've told you the truth, no more shock treatment!” When the first scene of a movie involves a gratuitous group shower, and the heart-fluttering sight of Dyanne Thorne (of the Ilsa trilogy) ever-so-slowly descending into a bubble bath where she meticulously showers her pneumatic assets with a sponge, you know where the director's priorities lie. Let's be honest though, you don't watch a Jess Franco film like this for a considered examination of South American mental health treatment – you want to be shocked by alluring titillation and the sadistic proclivities of a villainous wardress.

“She's one of our most difficult patients, dangerous.” Fleeing into the sweltering heat of a hellish jungle (in, of course, nothing but a skimpy smock), Rosa Phillips (Angela Ritschard) tries to escape the unconventional treatment of the Las Palomas clinic. Chased through the swamps, she's wounded by gunfire, but finds herself in the safe hands of Dr Milton Arcos (Jess Franco) only to be quickly apprehended by Warden Greta. Dragged back to the secretive sanatorium it comes as no surprise that Rosa is soon thereafter pronounced dead.

“Mystery surrounds this institution, it's more like a concentration camp than a clinic.” Dr Arcos smells something rotten, but without a reliable witness the authorities are powerless – step forward Abbie Phillips (Tania Busselier), Rosa's sister. Going under cover, Abbie is committed to the facility in order to discover the truth. Now on the inside, she's promptly stripped and hosed down, before being introduced to the overly-friendly inmates at the behest of the masochistic Juana (Lina Romay, Women Behind Bars). Within this hellhole there are no names, only numbers. Juana is #10, the personal and private toy of Greta, while Abbie is reduced to the number 41. Surrounded by madness, nymphomania, and the looming threat of being lobotomised, can Abbie survive the horrors that are yet to come and ultimately expose the truth?

“All men are so vulgar. Women are so lovable, passionate, sensitive … guys are so cruel, big smelly beasts.” Unsurprisingly, there's practically wall-to-wall flesh-baring in this flick, from sweaty bunk-ups with Greta to soapy girl fights (no jiggling flesh or flashed crevices spared), and yet there's a surprising fascination with glorious close ups on beautiful faces. Dyanne Thorne commands every scene she's in – all purring dialogue and captivating eyes – brandishing her inescapable silver screen lure as she fondles her whip. Greta is raving mad and a sure-footed seductress, greasing favours from the Governor of Federal Prisons (Howard Maurer, Thorne's real-life husband) with as much aplomb as when she's painfully extracting information from her supposed patients, but lust and hubris are her most powerful vices.

“We have ways to turn you into a peaceful dove.” Similar to the Ilsa movies – particularly She-Wolf of the SSThe Wicked Warden boasts its fair share of stomach-turning sadism. From electroshock 'therapy' to an escalating sub-plot involving Pablo (Eric Falk) Rego's sideline in flogging surreptitiously filmed ultra-smut to a despicable distributor, Franco's film never fears to tread into psychotically graphic territory. Indeed, the climax combines depressing bleakness with horrific retribution … but the darkest of nightmares have never been about fluffy teddy bears, have they?

“Hey, don't be too hard on our new pussy cat.” Even at 95 minutes there are some sluggish moments (e.g. interminably long panning shots, or scenes of vehicles driving from one point to another), and the droning English audio dub for Franco's character is truly awful, but fans of cinema extreme and Ilsa alike will find something to get their hands dirty. Not for the faint of heart, and certainly not for the easily offended, Ilsa The Wicked Warden may be a grotty non-PC affair, but far better to fake it for a mere movie than practice it in real life. Exploitation films have always flirted with mankind's capacity for darkness; they provoke nightmares in their audience, but they also afford the opportunity to gain satisfying, bloody retribution – and all of it's ultimately just staged, flickering images on a screen.

“We must know your most intimate thoughts.” Sleazy and shocking, this may not officially be an Ilsa movie, but it ticks many of the same boxes – albeit under Franco's particularly saucy gaze. Within the framework of a clothing-optional crackpot banana republic, Dyanne Thorne steals the entire show with the captivating screen presence that has earned her an enduring place in the hearts of exploitation cinema fans around the world. Deep down everyone loves a movie villain, and Ilsa – or in this case Greta – is one of the most iconic (but Ilsa beats Greta, hands down). The official Ilsa films (of which Tigress of Siberia is my personal favourite) are undeniably superior to Franco's Greta/Wanda/Ilsa, but this does at least match them in terms of birthday suits and savage domination.

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