The second release on new UK sub-label Maison Rouge (we’ll be reviewing the first, Jess Franco’s Bare Breasted Countess, shortly) is one of those films that will probably divide the casual viewer from the hardened Euro Trash admirer. Lacking the individualist style and excesses of a Franco or a Jean Rollin film, this is the sort of no-nonsense sex and violence pot boiler that used to be the mainstay of the flea pit / grindhouse circuit, and later the pre-cert video days – not that this particular movie actually found a UK release until now. As such, if you grew up educating yourself on Euro sleaze by watching this sort of thing on assorted fly-by-night video labels, you will probably find it a lot more entertaining that someone coming it to without that experience.
While the title suggests a Naziploitation saga – it it, after all, riffing heavily on Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS – Helga is closer to the women in prison movie that was a mainstay of 1970s European sleaze cinema. Set in some fictional fascist dictatorship (all the bad guys have Swastika-inspired insignia on their armbands, the film follows the plight of the young women who, labelled revolutionaries, are forced into Stilberg prison, where they are subjected to assorted indignities at the hands of commandant Helga, played by the imperious Malisa Longo. Helga likes to pick the most comely of prisoners to join her as lovers, while the rest are left to suffer… well, actually, for the most part, they don’t really seem to be suffering very much. While individual girls are subject to rape at the hands of a sleazy supporting character (in the sort of gratuitous and morally questionable scene that used to give the BBFC kittens), most simply lounge around – Stilberg prison doesn’t seem that far removed from a badly decorated dormitory for the most part.
When Elizabeth Vogel (Patrizia Gori), the daughter of the rebel leader, joins the inmates, Helga takes a liking to her, and after a bout of mild torture, Elizabeth agrees to join her in her bed chamber, all the while (apparently) planning an escape. The plotting of the film is loose enough for this to remain rather vague, but eventually, she breaks free and meets up with the rebels in time for a stock footage-heavy explosive finae as the rebels move in to otherthrow the government and liberate Stilberg (if anyone complains about spoilers at this point, I have to assume that you’ve never seen a women in prison film before).
Alain Payet’s film is oddly restrained, given what it is – everything feels a little muted, as if the film is simply going through the motions. The usual women in prison staples – cat fights, shower scenes, rampant lesbianism, sadistic torture – are here, but only just – the lesbianism isn’t very rampant, the torture not very sadistic. Even the nudity – of which there is plenty, as you’d expect – doesn’t feel as flagrant as in other Eurocine films of the era. By modern standards, of course, this is utterly outrageous stuff – you would never get away with making something like this today for mainstream consumption (and make no mistake, these films were made with the intemtion of pulling in as big a regular audience as they could find), but if you compare it to the WIP films that Franco was making at the same time – or, indeed to Ilsa or the multitude of Italian Naziploitation films – it feels rather tame.
Quite why this isn’t a naziploitation film, given the title and the obvious Nazi references of the armbands, is hard to fathom. It could hardly be squeamishness on the part of the producers, who a year earlier had made the much more fun Elsa, Fraulein SS (with Longo in the title role, and many of the same supporting players) – perhaps they simply felt that the genre was played out by this time.
But while Helga is feels oddly restrained, it’s not without its appeal. Longo is always arresting, whether naked, lounging around in a silk dressing gown or parading around with in a fantastic satin blouse / leather trousers combo, clutching a riding crop. She might be no Dyanne (Ilsa) Thorne, but it’s not for the want of trying. She’s a great sexy Bad Girl, and she probably deserved to be playing that role in rather more memorable films than this.
And there’s a certain naive charm to the Eurocine productions of this time – they are what they are, and there’s a distinct feel to them that is as recognisable as a Hammer horror film. If you are not a fan of these movies, then this won’t change that – and it’s probably not the film to start exploring their output with. But long-time fans will find this to be comfort food viewing, a familiar and pleasing sense of familiarity compensating for any shortcomings that it might have. For that reason, we also suggest you forget the subtitled version, and go for the English dub, which not only brings back memories of watching this stuff on VHS (for those of a certain age), but also provides extra fun with a variety of unlikely accents (much posh Englishness) that only occasionally syncs with the lip movements.
This disc also included alternative clothed versions of some scenes – something Eurocine did at the time to expand markets – that are a curiosity but hardly essential, and three ‘art cards’ – covers for future releases on the label. Most of those films are better than this one – but I’m very glad that I’ve finally had a chance to catch up with it, having somehow missed it over the years, and it’s very pleasing to know that films like this are out there.