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Ilsa, Tigress of Siberia

(AKA Tigress) 1977, Starring Dyanne Thorne, Michel Morin, Tony Angelo, Terry Coady and Howard Mauer. Directed by Jean LaFleur.

Nazis, torture, nudity and gore filled the screen in each of the infamous Ilsa films of the 1970s. It doesn't exactly sound like the road to box office glory, but over a three-year period, four Ilsa films appeared in local grindhouses and drive-ins, shocking and titillating moviegoers with extreme scenes of gore, sadism and sex. Even in the most vehement cult movie circles, there is little argument that these over-the-top romps of stomach-turning evil are surpassed by few films.

It's a little known fact, however, that Ilsa is actually a Canadian creation. When Lee Frost and David F. Friedman's pioneering 1969 Nazi softcore epic Love Camp 7 turned out to be a big hit in Canada, Andr Link and John Dunning of Montreal distributor Cinepix quickly drafted a script for a similar movie called Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS and contacted Friedman to see if he was interested in producing it. Friedman (Blood Feast, The Defilers) accepted the job and hired former Vegas showgirl Dyanne Thorne to star as the nasty Nazi nympho. In the film, the busty Thorne gruesomely tortures and kills her prisoners on leftover Hogan's Heroes sets, until she gets her comeuppance when the prisoners revolt and she is shot to death by her Aryan lover. Although tongue-in-cheek, it's still a gruesome update of Island of Lost Souls, and was a huge hit on 42nd street. Unfortunately, monetary issues with Cinepix and then-producer Don Carmody would later lead Friedman to disown the film.

The sadism was slightly toned down when Cinepix funded Don Edmonds to make the sequel, Ilsa, Harem Keeper Of The Oil Sheiks (1976). Partially shot in Canada, this film takes the apparently reborn Ilsa to the Middle East for more torture and lustful activities among a group of women being trained as harem girls. A third "unofficial" sequel, 1977's Ilsa, The Wicked Warden was directed by Eurosleaze favourite Jess Franco. It was released under the titles Greta, The Mad Butcher and Wanda, The Wicked Warden long before it was even tied to the Ilsa series. Dyanne Thorne is here of course, but few other elements connect it back to the original. The earlier films have a few parallels with early 1970s women-in-prison films, but none so much as Franco's installment, which brings the sadism to South America.

That same year, Ilsa whipped her way back to Canada for an official end to the series. Ivan Reitman had been recently brought on to produce at Cinepix, and taking a break from working with David Cronenberg, Reitman teamed up with Roger Corman to bring Ilsa full circle. Strangely enough, Jean LaFleur was brought in to direct Tigress. Although Jean LaFleur had served as editor on many of Cinepix's classic Canuxploitation films such as Valerie and Death Weekend, he had only personally directed children's films up to this point.

When Ilsa, Tigress of Siberia was finally released, Dyanne Thorne's fans were generally disappointed with the final product. Most claim that this Canadian film is the dullest in the series, and Franco's "unofficial" third installment is usually preferred. Fortunately, for those who aren't die-hard Ilsa fans (myself included), Ilsa, Tigress of Siberia is not all that bad. It gives a unique Canadian twist to the familiar set-up, even if it doesn't live up to the sex and gore parade established by its predecessors.

This time, Ilsa (who is actually only referred to as "Comrade Colonel" ) is in charge of mentally and physically destroying prisoners at a Siberian gulag during the 1950s. Even with the help of her man-eating tiger, Sasha, it's hard work dipping prisoners in ice water and arranging arm wrestling matches where the loser's arm falls on a buzzing chainsaw blade, so Ilsa relies on the hired help to make everything run smoothly. Her fellow conspirators include Ivan, a burly Russian who likes to impale prisoners with a pole, and Leve, a mad doctor experimenting with electroshock and psychological torture. At night, the men drink heavily and wrestle each other for the privilege of being one of the two men that Ilsa takes to her bedroom each night. There, they know they can whisper sweet nothings like "Your body is as warm as mother Russia" to their Comrade Colonel, who, decked out in little more than spurs, smacks them with her riding crop.

Before long, trouble starts with one of the prisoners. Usually, all Leve has to do to break a man is to show him a picture of Stalin and turn on the juice until the prisoner cracks, but Andrei Chikurin resists the electroshock treatments. When Ilsa hears of his defiance, she brings Andrei to her cabin and tries to seduce him. He won't submit to that either, and is dropped into Sasha's cage to become Meow Mix. While the guards are distracted with this entertainment, the prisoners attempt to revolt. Many escapees are shot to death, but sensing that the jig is up, Ilsa and Ivan start torching the camp. Ivan and Leve shoot everyone in sight, including their fellow comrades. As the sadist hierarchy escape from the destroyed gulag, Andrei manages to beat Sasha to death and get out of the cage. On seeing his dead friends, he vows vengeance on Ilsa and her followers.

While the first half of Ilsa is firmly rooted within the boundaries of her previous cinematic outings, Tigress suddenly changes gears at this point and relocates to Montreal, 1977. Andrei is the manager for the visiting Russian Olympic hockey team, and LaFleur takes opportunity to take us inside the Montreal Forum in footage that was most likely reused from his last film, Mystery of the Million Dollar Hockey Puck. After the game, the Russian players take Andrei to "Aphrodite," a Montreal brothel where the prostitutes parade themselves on a runway to funky 70s rock. Andrei declines to pick out a companion, opting to wait in an adjacent lounge.

Of course, Ilsa is running Aphrodite from a remote Montreal mansion (again, a location used in Mystery of the Million Dollar Hockey Puck). Not having aged much in 25 years, Ilsa and her friends are enjoying their old habits in a safer locale. Besides recruiting more girls for her business venture, Ilsa has a nice sideline going in which she tortures local mob bosses until they agree to sign over their businesses to her. Instead of sparing their lives, giving Ilsa what she wants leads to a trip to the bottom of a frozen lake in an airtight container.

Ilsa has outfitted Aphrodite with video cameras, and when she spots Andrei, she sends two thugs to bring him in. When Andrei arrives, Ilsa shows her old nemesis that Leve has updated his crude brainwashing methods with state-of-the-art psychological torture equipment. Now, his main duties are to break the wills of prospective Aphrodites in isolation booths, forcing the young girls to have hallucinations of their greatest fears. After a demonstration, Leve straps the reluctant Russian prisoner in the machine, and even Andrei is surprised when it reveals that through all of his revulsion for Ilsa, he is actually attracted to her.

When the hockey players finish at the brothel and can't find Andrei, they fear he may be defecting. The Russian Embassy is contacted and they trace him back to Ilsa's mansion. Members of the Russian mafia are brought over to Montreal to rescue Andrei, which leads to several scenes of men outfitting themselves with ski masks, slamming cartridges into machine guns, and storming the mansion. In retaliation, Ivan jumps on his ski-doo and grabs his trusty impaling pole, readying himself for the final deadly showdown.

While the first half of Ilsa, Tigress of Siberia is purely set-up meant to connect the film to the earlier installments, the second half of this film is great Canadian fun with a spy/action flair. LaFleur, who indulged his audience with recognizable Montreal locations and gratuitous Canadian references in Mystery of the Million Dollar Hockey Puck, once again makes Ilsa a proudly Canadian film that must have pleased Montreal film-goers at the time.

Despite claims that this film is the least interesting in the series, Ilsa, Tigress of Siberia isn't totally exempt from exploitation film craziness. Some of the more notable occurrences include a great scene with a gasoline-filled waterbed, and a killer snow plow that does away with an embassy spy. Also fun is the way the film degenerates into complete anarchy for the climax. Oddly enough, this is also the only film in which Ilsa doesn't die at end, yet it is also the final Ilsa film ever made.

The most obvious difference between this and the other Ilsa films is undoubtedly the type of torture that the Wicked Warden and her minions dole out. While the other films in the series focus exclusively on physical torture whipping, asphyxiation, hot needles, poison ants, multiple castrations, and even an exploding diaphragm, this Ilsa is specifically concerned with destroying Andrei not physically, but mentally. The fear of electroshock and brainwashing can be found in many Canadian films, like Jean-Claude Lord's Mindfield, and can be traced back directly to horrific events in our national history, such as the Duplessis Orphans. The addition of Leve to Ilsa's brood changes the entire dynamic of the picture from gratuitous torture sequences to a struggle for free will.

As further proof, Ilsa films usually feature a scene in which the nastiest Nazi is "tamed" by the hero's lovemaking. There isn't one in Tigress, though this time, Ilsa uses sex (twice!) in an attempt to psychologically break Andrei, equating her seduction with his submission to Stalin. Andrei uses each opportunity to spit in her face.

Most surprising of all, this film was one of the few Canadian exploitation films to receive a good review from Cinema Canada when it came out. The reviewer recognized the over-the-top aspects of the character, something they failed to do in almost every other Canuxploitation title they wrote about.

When it comes to the Ilsa films, you either like them, or you don't. While I'm sure this review won't win any converts to the Ilsa camp that wouldn't have gotten there eventually anyways, it is interesting to see the way Canadian filmmakers dealt with an already established cult film character. Ilsa, Tigress of Siberia is definite proof that at least in the tax shelter days of the late 1970s, Canada had a diverse film culture in which anything could, and did, get made.

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