"You don't judge characters. You create them." Dyanne Thorne.
A guilty pleasure? Listen to the participants on Anchor Bay's wonderful DVD commentary track - more on that later - and it's clear they don't regard their involvement with any degree of shame or embarrassment. Nor should the fans who shelled out their hard-earned in order to possess a pristine copy of this down and dirty classic.
Having first encountered Ilsa years earlier, via a 3rd gen bootleg video, I'd never really held it in high esteem: in those days, it looked a low, low budget quickie, populated by a few reasonably competent actors and a cart load of never- will-be's. Of course, that's largely how it was but after watching this film again, courtesy of a new home entertainment medium, I now view Ilsa in a different light.
One of the main criticisms leveled at Don Edmonds and co concerns the graphic depiction of Third Reich atrocities in the name of entertainment. Granted, a large proportion of the running time contains extremely strong footage, but it's important to remember that Ilsa is an exploitation film, shot over a 9 day period for next to nothing, and provided a group of people with work. It does exactly what it says on the tin, and personally, I was no more offended by this than Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan which really does take liberties; with history and with its audience.
Here, the end result far transcends the meagre resources that were available: interior shots were realised by mostly two-wall sets, Glen Rowland's DOP skills and large dollops of perspiration. As far as inspiration is concerned, look no further than three very important people: Edmonds, who worked a minor miracle under the circumstances; Joe Blasco, whose excellent fx makeup is just beginning to receive due credit and, naturally, Ilsa herself. Dyanne Thorne - one of the few people involved who chose not to hide behind a pseudonym - is excellent as the sadistic frauline and if this controversial role all but ruined her career, it also made her a legend.
Listening to the audio commentary, Thorne and her co-participants (Edmonds and producer Dave Friedman) clearly remain proud of this film, virtually ignoring the onscreen terrorism to indulge in a marvellous anecdotal chat which often deviates to fascinating sidebars regarding the pressures of low budget shoots. We learn how Wolfgang Roehm (Ilsa's critical superior) actually threw up during the 'worms' scene; why Thorne felt distinctly uncomfortable when the female prisoners arrived for inspection; Edmonds reply when asked if he could prepare an R-rated cut for American release, and the identity of the actress who Edmonds would cast in a remake- if Thorne was unavailable, of course (clue: her initials are G.P). The one downside to this audio track is the witless blathering of alleged 'humourist' Martin Lewis; not quite as bad as I'd feared, but mouth really does overtake brain - particularly during the last 20 minutes of the film - and you may well be imploring Ilsa to do something nasty to him.
As for image quality on this DVD.... well, you haven't really seen Ilsa until you've watched this disc. It's a razor sharp transfer with little evident grain, and the increased resolution highlights some superbly lit sets, while Blasco's fx makeup is even more impressive (and uncomfortable). This is one cheap exploitation movie that really does benefit from the increased clarity afforded by DVD and it's now possible to appreciate that several characters were driven by damn good performances. While much of their dialogue is corny and clumsy, the script did allow for exchanges that amplify the human misery inflicted by the Nazis; now, at last, some of the cast can be seen to make the most of their lines.
There's still one pressing issue to resolve: does this film go too far? At the end of the day, there are few limits in cinema. Shit happens, and you can either work round it or go head to head. Both angles can work and Don Edmonds chose the latter. Almost 30 years on, Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS is still attracting new audience members and you know what? It will probably outlive the bloody lot of us!