❉ Decadence and Deviance in the Doll House.
Many people who know me won’t believe this, but it’s true: as a long term fan of cult and genre movies and TV, including salacious exploitation and sexploitation, the famed / notorious (delete as despicable applicable) Women in Prison – or WiP for short – subgenre isn’t one i’ve ever really taken much of an interest in. I know, I barely believe me, either; I’ve never generally been snooty or snotty or gone all moralistic with myself about fictional substratae of cinefantastique or anything, and it’s certainly not prudishness or an aversion to erotica or pornography or anything like that. I suppose it’s just that the entire phenomenon has managed somehow to pass me by for most of my mortal existence.
Not that I’ve been oblivious as to its existing of course – since I was quite young my vigorous perusal of the literature of horror and fantasy film (by which I mean leafing through lots of issues of periodicals such as The Dark Side, Fangoria and Video Watchdog as well as peering at certain non-fiction tomes in the library that I couldn’t hire about because i didn’t yet have an adult library card) meant that I was at least vaguely cognizant of the concept. Titles such as Jess Franco’s 99 Women (1969), Devil’s Island Lovers (1973), Barbed Wire Dolls (1975) and Sadomania (1981) always seem to have been familiar to me even without having seen a single scene of any of them; ditto the Pam Grier starring The Big Doll House (1971), Jonathan Demme’s famed Caged Heat (1974), John Llewellyn Moxey’s 1976 Nightmare in Badham County and the seminal (ahem) 1969 Love Camp 7 from exploitation maven R. Lee Frost – who also bestowed such delights as ‘naked schoolgirls meet Frankenstein, Dracula and the Wolfman’ epic House on Bare Mountain (1962) and ‘racist head transplant’ moral quandary The Thing with Two Heads (1972) – upon an unsuspecting planet. Love Camp 7 also spearheaded the ‘Nazisploitation’ (sub-?) subgenre, most famously embodied in the buxom form of Dyanne Thorn in Ilsa, She Wolf of the S.S. (1974) and its cubs Ilsa, Harem Keeper of the Oil Sheikhs (1976), Ilsa, the Wicked Warden and Ilsa, the Tigress of Siberia (both 1977).
The already richly seedy and exploitatively titillating themes of the WiP category (attractive actresses – the lead generally portraying an unworldly innocent ingenue – being caged, stripped, whipped and forced into sexual degradation and servitude by guards and wardens [whether male or aggressively Sapphic]) married to the kinkster Nazi imagery such as the S.S. uniform and the notorious post-punk-band-name-inspiring ‘Joy Divisions’ (the Freundenabteiling – the camp brothels first established as Mauthausen-Gusen in 1942 and made famous by Yehiel De-Nur [writing as Ka-Tzetnik 135633] in his 1955 novella House of Dolls) to produce a rich seam of sexploitation: from more ‘highbrow’ and literate erotic cinema such as Liliana Cavani’s The Night Porter (1974, starring such ‘legitimate’ leads as Dirk Bogarde and Charlotte Rampling) to such Italian-made Nazisploitation apotheoses (or nadirs) as S.S. Experiment Camp (also known as S.S Experiment Love Camp, Sergio Garrone, 1976) and the still banned in the UK The Beast in Heat (Luigi Batzella, aka Paolo Solvay, 1977) and The Gestapo’s Last Orgy (Cesare Canevari, 1977).
Following hot on the jack-booted heels of the Ilsa quadrilogy came the French Eurocine production Helga, She-Wolf of Stilberg. Directed by Patrice Rhomm under the amusingly Weirdstone of Brisingamen redolent pseudonym of ‘Alain Garnier’, and starring Malisa Longo and Patrizia Gori, the movie began filming soon after 1977’s Captive Women 4 from the same director and actresses had wrapped, like some sexploitative Nazi-themed conveyor belt production process (or, indeed, an efficient train service which runs on time).
In the lead role of the titular (heh heh) Teutonic tigress is Italian beauty Malisa Longo – as she is actually credited in the title sequence of Bruce Lee’s Rome-set kung fu epic The Way of the Dragon (1972) wherein she appeared in a small cameo role to add more gorgeous local scenery to a film already packed with shots of the Trevi fountain, Spanish steps and the Colosseum. Later to go on to feature in such dubious cinefantastique delights as Alfonso Brescia’s Spaghetti Star Wars knockoffs War of the Robots (1978) and Star Odyssey (1979), and having already graced the disgraceful sexploitation genre with roles in Ken Dixon’s The Erotic Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (1975) and Tinto Brass’ glorious Salon Kitty (1976), Longo had most recently starred as the titular role in Patrice Rohmm’s Elsa, Fraulein S.S. (aka: Captive Women 4, 1977) which obviously led to her being pegged (now there’s an image) by the same director for the eponymous role in Helga the following year.
Eschewing any pretence at gritty realism and delving deep into outright fantasy, Helga, She-Wolf of Stilberg is from its very opening a sort of Technicolor holocaust. From the bizarrely incongrous jaunty and carnivalesque opening theme music to the oddly quasi-fascistic and un-Nazi uniforms of the ‘Nazi’ characters, we are in a realm of strangely heightened reality: the opening scenes of a meeting between the upper echelons of the ruling party feels less like the Final Solution-deciding conference of Frank Pierson’s 2001 Conspiracy, and more akin to the slapstick comedic cosplay of Yen-Ping Chu’s 1983 Jackie Chan lunacy Fantasy Mission Force.
During this conference scene, we are treated to our first sight of Helga, giving long, Longo, smouldering looks across the table as the generals and ministers discuss the activities of the rebel alliance (there’s always one of those to rise up against a right-wing empire, don’t you find?) led by the enigmatic Vogel. I noted that during the French-language version of this scene, the President seems to refer to Longo’s character as “Elsa”, rather than “Helga” at least once – i wonder if there was originally to have been some kind of continuity link betwixt this film and Rhomm and Longo’s Elsa of the previous year… Being in charge of the party’s propaganda department, like a sexy Goebbels, Helga is given command of Stilberg Castle – a fortress for political prisoners in which she can indulge her whims and wend her wicked way like the wolves of winter. Helga takes charge of this camp Colditz and uses her new position to recreationally ride around the surrounding fields on horseback in a tight satin blouse, and occasionally thrash her young female inmates for her own pleasure: instructing a nubile young lady to remove her regulation khaki chemise but keep on her uniform knee-high leather boots and whipping her with a cat o’ none tails for sundry imagined slights and transgressions – the whip, in love not given lightly… imperious… strike, dear mistress, and cure her heart.
A new intake of female politicos is brought to the fortress as Helga is indulging in one of her pastimes of being soaped down in the bath by a female subordinate who puts the ‘sub’ in subordinate, in contrast to her ultimate domme. Helga’s busy schedule also allows for an intimate relationship with her comrade Hugo Lombardi – a very Viva Zapata Zyklon-B zombie, and a most non-Teutonic brother in ‘arms’. One of the incoming inmates is, as the caprice of chance would have it, is the lovely Titian-haired Elisabeth Vogel (Patrizia Gori, also a previous star of Rhomm’s Elsa), the daughter of the elusive leader of the rebellion. Ms Vogel catches the immediate imterst of our anti-heroine, as she finds herself plunged into a strange new world of titillating torture and light-hearted sexual assault – more like reform school girls than Nazi prisoners.
Elisabeth is warned by her prisonette Jenny, upon her arrival, that her new surroundings are a welcme to “pure hell”, but given the fantasy elements and lack of gritty realism it may as well be a Ronald Searle cartoon strip: The Pure Hell of St Stilberg’s, perhaps? As the belles of St Stilberg’s go about their routine rebellions and sexy torture punishments, will Elisabeth manage to turn the tide? Will Helga’s burgeoning lust for her overcome the nmity of the ages? Do I know whether or not to feel uncomfortable being titillated by this kind of thing?
It seems surprising even to me that having grown up with the names of actresses such as Dyanne Thorne, Ajita Wilson and Laura Gemser being so familiar to me, I had never actually watched either a WiP or Nazisploitation film before. So a big thank you to Screenbound Entertainment for giving this movie a home cinema release through their Moulin Rouge label. Thank you for taking my WiP cherry, at long last. Possibly forcibly, at the threat of a cat o’ nine tails, of course…
“No life at all in the house of dolls…” sang Ian Curtis, sadly. I dare say this goes without saying. But sometimes, in escapist exploitation, it can look different. As the song at the end of Mel Brooks’ 1967 The Producers goes: “We’re still prisoners of love…”
❉ Helga, She-Wolf of Stilberg (MR002) was released on DVD through Maison Rouge on 13 March 2017, RRP £9.99. Elsa Fraulein S.S. is released on 17th of April.