One of the most outrageous examples of the exploitation genre is the Nazi Prison/Concentration Camp film. It's no big surprise that such sagas usually combined two of the staples of this cinematic category - nudity and violence. But the surreal sensation of seeing softcore sex scenes interspersed between horrifying homages to the Holocaust is downright unsettling. Certainly the systematic slaughter of the Jews as part of Hitler's half-assed 'final solution' is nasty enough. But to juxtapose lesbianism and gratuitous group grouping smack dab in the middle of one of the darkest chapters in human history feels downright sacrilegious. Still, several moviemakers both American and foreign have felt the need to use the Third Reich as a jumping off point for their perversion - and SS Camp Women's Hell is a prime example of this idea. Directed by Italian hack Sergio Garrone (famous for his sequels to the Django spaghetti westerns) this mixture of torture and titillation is just heinous. It's never nasty enough to make us nauseous, and the sex is static and forgettable.
When a new group of prisoners arrive at a Nazi Concentration Camp, one immediately stands out. She is Arlena, a French resistance fighter of Jamaican descent. Her chocolate skin makes her the perfect paramour choice for the prison's prolific whorehouse, and she immediately finds herself screwing around with the Commandant and the Aryan head of the science department. Other girls are used by the matronly madam of the brothel - the rest are made to work, or are destined to become the subjects for cruel and unusual experiments. The devilish doctors in this prurient place purposely set the limbs of their subjects on fire, hoping to use a salve developed by an imprisoned Jewish doctor as a means of curing the horribly charred flesh. Guess who supplies the gams? Eventually, Arlena learns that the war is about to end and that "all evidence" of the prison will be purposefully and systematically wiped out. She begins a plan to overthrow the German scum, hoping to free herself and the rest from this SS Camp Women's Hell.
Dull as a dinner party with your infirmed out-of-town relatives and twice as erotic, SS Camp Women's Hell is a horrible film. Its pace drags, its horror is hokey and its sex is just silly. Perhaps in light of a mid-70s era release, when such taboo shock tactics would have appalled most moviegoers, there was something to this numbing, nominal movie. But in light of our modern attitude, so jaded that actual acts of suicide are sold on the Internet for their "entertainment value", this film is the very definition of dull and dreary. Director Sergio Garrone is definitely from the 'churn 'em out' school of cinema, never one to pass up a ballyhooed bandwagon if there is a buck to be made on it. His passable point-and-shoot technique is matched only by his middling narrative skills, making SS Camp Women's Hell more scattered than scandalous. Sure, we see girls tortured, and lots of gratuitous shower scenes, but the overall tone is not mean enough. Nazisploitation (sounds like the set-up to a Mel Brooks' joke) has its fans and its fascinations. But it appears that Garrone is relying solely on the touchy tenets of the subject matter to give his film the foulness it requires. It never does.
Let's face it - people don't partake of these movies for their historical accuracy. They want to see women beaten, burned and bedded. There is an inherent fascination with the Third Reich and all its repugnant raison d'etras that also fuel these films, making them a lurid and lascivious type of escape. Some filmmakers have even approached the topic with abject stylized seriousness. Tinto Brass's Salon Kitty comes to mind. His luxuriant view of the vileness in the Nazi regime is engaging because Brass, as a director, never lets us wallow completely or get lost exclusively in the abundant corruption. Instead, he sprinkles his scatological scenes with snippets of philosophy, politics and proselytizing. Garrone goes this route as well - at least as first. There is some incredibly awful stock footage of mass graves and dead prisoners, and before we get down to the baneful bump and grind, Garrone offers a few mild monologues condemning the Reich and all that it stands for. This appears then to be the free pass the director desires, the excuse for all the hideousness to follow. Once we get past these pointless speeches however, we expect a real Germanic geek show. What we wind up with is a lot of derivative dreariness.
Garrone does enjoy showing us women with "real body types" (read: flabby, cottage-cheese cheeked femmes of limited attractiveness) getting naked and taking soapless showers. But the overall sexual angle of the film is handled horribly, with little eros and even less energy. When the prostitutes pork their SS officers, they aren't interested in the act (and truthfully, they probably shouldn't be). Indeed, Garrone films them looking indifferently off in the distance. This may be an attempt to show how defiant these unlucky ladies are - or how doped up the actresses were on set. In either case, it's awkward and uninvolving. The only true novelty within the faux fornication is the Nazi's overt obsession with the black Jamaican Arlena. Seems like the whitest, pinkest men in the camp all want to hop of this honey and we get endless shots of our light skinned actress faking her fun.
Indeed, all this chocolate lass can do is look dour. Even when she's ripping off rounds with a machine gun, her glum glower is everpresent. She's like a comatose Coffey, or a joyless Jackie Brown. Equally unappealing is the movie's sole torture sequence. Frankly, old horror movies do a better job of assault and battery. Aside from a single sequence where a tongue is ripped out of a mouth (Blood Feast did it better), and a few moments of finger fu (said digits are lit on fire - how novel) the rest of the nude nastiness is tame, tepid stuff. Most of the bloodletting happens off screen and what little gore there is resembles Kool-aid, not claret.
It's all par for the pathetic course in Garrone's gangrenous grasp. As a director he lacks intelligence and drive. His film just sits there in a persistent vegetative state, barely able to move on to the next scene. He is not beyond using crappy special effects (double exposure, fake forced perspective) to realize his dumb death scenes and his set design is all cardboard and concrete, rendering his sets unrealistic and his locations lame. The acting is only mediocre, the girls performing less like prisoners and more like pedestrians who just happened by the production site one day. When taken in total, there is nothing left to recommend this movie. SS Camp Women's Hell is not grotesque enough, garish enough, gritty enough or gonzo enough to intrigue our modern methodology. Maybe as a throwback to a far more innocent time, it offers up some interest. But if you're expecting Holocaust atrocities and lots of them, mixed with some sensuous mattress maneuvers, aim your abhorrent hopes elsewhere. The only slice of Satan you'll experience here is watching how slowly the clock reaches the end of the movie's meandering 96 minute running time.
Presented in a 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer, SS Camp Women's Hell doesn't look too bad. The colors are correct and the contrasts are just right. There is minimal dirt and hardly any scratches or stock element defects. While Garrone is no visionary behind the lens, this presentation gives his film a professional polish...which is more than can be said for the other cinematic elements contained therein.
Horrendously dubbed in improper pigeon English (mouths don't match, and sometimes fail to move at all), the Dolby Digital Stereo is still perfectly serviceable. The dopey dialogue is easily understood and the limited use of music never mars the other aural facets in the film.
The best part of this DVD, without a doubt, is the insightful interview with director Garrone. Attempting to defend his film, he pulls out the old "it's just a commercial product, not art" case, and says that these types of films are a "catharsis" for the audience. Hmmm. He then argues that reality TV is viler than any Nazi Atrocity Exploitation film and discusses the difficulty of filming SS Camp Women's Hell simultaneously with his other notorious Swastika-fest, SS Experiment Love Camp. Jovial and very animated, this is an interesting Q&A, and more than makes up for the paltry additional features (gallery, trailers) as part of the package.
Frankly, even individuals freakishly fascinated with Nazi war crimes will be bored by this bunkum. Even the hardest hardcore exploitation fan will find this flaccid flop a real detriment to the genre in general. Therefore, the only rating SS Camp Women's Hell deserves is a certified Skip It. Sometimes, controversial films earn their contentious reputations. Other times, the movie never does live up to its legacy. In the case of this so-called scandal, the original status should never have been at issue. There is nothing inflammatory or infamous here. The sex is stunted and the violence is vacant. True, referencing the Holocaust for your motion picture merriment is a pretty dismal dynamic, but this film feels less like a history lesson and more like a bad bit of cornball cabaret. At least these numbskulled Nazis have Ilsa and her ilk beaten in one arena. They're committed crimes are against both cinema and humanity. Talk about torture!
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