Remembering the immortal star of the most outrageous and gleefully offensive series of exploitation films ever made.
Sometimes, a career-defining role comes out of nowhere, and the sensible actor will grab it with both hands. Had Dyanne Thorne not taken on the role of Ilsa in 1973, she would probably have remained a footnote in exploitation film history, one of countless forgotten starlets who made one or two disposable films before vanishing back into obscurity. As it is, Thorned will forever be one of cinema’s most notorious villains, the unforgettable star of a series of utterly disreputable and extraordinary films that perhaps sum up 1970s cinema excess more than any other movies.
The Ilsa films were a non-series that began in 1973 with Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS, a film that exploitation mogul David F. Friedman produced after appearing in the infamous Love Camp 7 in 1968 and realising that there was money to be made from Nazis, sex and violence. Ilsa, alongside the more respectable The Night Porter and Salon Kitty, effectively kickstarted the brief but prolific Naziploitation boom of the mid-Seventies, where (mostly) Italian filmmakers threw good taste to the wind as they revelled in tasteless excess, the like of which has never been seen since.
Ilsa had two things that the later films lacked. Firstly, there was a sense of humour at work in the deliberate excess and bad taste – perhaps realising that turning a Nazi prison camp and medical experiments into softcore entertainment might be a step too far if handled with a straight face, Friedman (hiding under the pseudonym ‘Herman Traeger’) and director Don Edmonds instead took a wildly over-the-top, almost cartoonish approach to the story. It’s a black humour lost on many viewers, who simply can’t see past the wildly offensive nature of the story, but if you can get with it, then Ilsa is up there with the best ‘excess all areas’ movies, from the works of John Waters and Russ Meyer to The Evil Dead.
More importantly though, Ilsa had Thorne, who took the title role and ran with it. Already in her late thirties, she brought a mature, man-eating sexuality and cruelty to the character – she’s the most villainous of villains, delighting in her tortures and belittling men left, right and centre. With a lesser actress, Ilsa might have seemed disposable, but Thorne makes her unforgettable. Exploitation movie fans – always more respectful of a strong, dominant woman than you might expect – took her to their hearts from the opening scene where she laughingly castrates a disappointing lover. “What a gal!” raved a friend of mine on first seeing the film as bootleg copies made their way to the UK video underground in the mid-1980s. It was love at first sight.
The Ilsa series is a curio. For a start., it’s not a series at all – only Ilsa, Harem Keeper of the Oil Sheiks is an official sequel, with both The Tigress and Jess Franco‘s Greta the Mad Butcher retconned into the series by distributors as Ilsa, Tigress of Siberia and Ilsa the Wicked Warden – both feature Thorne in an Ilsa-like role, and so it made sense. But these additions – and, indeed, the official sequel – establish Ilsa as some sort of immortal character, a symbol of torture and cruelty who seems to pop up through the ages, despite meeting a sticky end at the finale of most films. It’s a shame this hasn’t been run with more, either on-screen (the much-vaunted Ilsa Meets Bruce Lee in the Devil’s Triangle must be one of the great unfilmed projects of all time) or in comic books. Imagine Ilsa as a witch hunter, part of the Inquisition, and so on…
If Thorne made Ilsa her own, then it was only part of a fascinating career that took in softcore romps like Swinging Barmaids, The Erotic Adventures of Pinnochio and the oddly chaste Chesty Anderson, US Navy, to hardcore titles (though Thorne didn’t quite get down and dirty herself), the trippy and nudity-heavy horror film Blood Sabbath and the proto-slasher Point of Terror. But for much of her career, she’d already been a singer and comedienne on stage and TV variety shows with the likes of Red Skelton and Steve Allen. Unashamed of baring all, her film career was inevitably one of sexploitation movies, but she obviously had talents beyond that world.
In later years, Thorne and her husband since 1975, Howard Maurer, would perform weddings in Las Vegas – imagine being married by Ilsa! The couple also produced many Las Vegas shows over the years, but never disowned Thorne’s most famous creation – you can hear them on the DVD commentaries, chuckling away at the excesses on screen.
Thorne, who died on January 28th aged 83, has perhaps never had the credit she deserves outside of cult film circles – the nature of the films ensures that, even now, she will not be credited for her pioneering work as a screen villain. But not only are the Ilsa films (official or otherwise) glorious examples of bad taste cinema that deserve a reassessment in these more po-faced times, but they still have the power to shock and startle, and their entire success is down to one woman, the bloody butcher that even the Nazis feared… and the actress who created her.