Like the prisoners in Sadomania (1981), this reviewer has been beaten into submission, surrendering into actually liking a Jess Franco movie. That's not to say this adults-only, women in prison picture is any good, but its outrageousness and general absurdity gradually won me over. Sleazy yet naïve, ludicrous yet self-aware, Sadomania can be a lot of fun if caught in the right frame of mind.
In some unnamed Latin nation (in Central America, according to the pressbook), newlyweds Michael (Angel Caballero) and Olga (Uta Koepke) foolishly begin making love on the grounds of the remote Hacienda Blanca—Rehabilitation Center for Women. Looking about the desolate area, Michael assures Olga, "Ah, there's nobody around for miles!" Of course they're arrested, and hauled before the prison's statuesque warden, Magda Urtado (transsexual star Ajita Wilson), Olga is thrown in the slammer, and Michael is kicked off the property.
Daily life is tough for the women prisoners, almost all of whom are fair-skinned blondes, while the guards are generally brunette, and often black or Hispanic. During the day, prisoners are given picks and shovels, which they poke at the ground for no clear reason. They wear short-shorts but are denied the basic necessity of tops and brassieres (oh, the humanity!). At night, women and guards pass away the time sleeping with one another, but Olga resists their advances: "Sex! That's all you lesbians think about!"
As Michael plots to break his new wife out of jail, the film digresses into several subplots (which, unusual for a Franco film, actually come together in the final reel). One has Magda providing women to Governor Mendoza (Antonio Mayans, a.k.a. Robert Foster) and his bisexual wife, Loba (Gina Janssen). The film's setting is never identified, but its government must be strapped for cash, as the Mendozas drive around in a beat-up Simca, complete with missing hubcaps. Magda rides around in a kind of modern chariot and brandishes a whip like Stephen Boyd in Ben-Hur.
Doe-eyed Tara (Ursula Buchfellner) is seduced by Loba. "You have lovely breasts," she says, "firm and ripe!" But Loba turns out to merely be warming the young girl up for her governor husband. In one of the film's funniest scenes, he turns out to be impotent. "I can't! I just can't!" he screams, slamming his fist on the bed. For all her efforts, Tara is sold into prostitution at a seaside brothel run by flamboyantly gay Lucas (Jess Franco!). After being raped by the Mendoza's playful German Shepard (!), Canita (Andrea Guzon) joins Tara at the brothel, but their reunion is bittersweet. Her right nipple chewed off by an overly anxious miner and suffering from VD, Tara dies in the most hilarious death scene since The Assassination of Trotsky.
Sadomania is so thoroughly unreal that, by sleazy exploitation standards anyway, the picture is almost charmingly naïve. It's certainly not at all erotic, with love scenes that play like parody. Likewise, the violence is so cartoonish the picture never comes off as misogynistic as it might in more talented hands.
Ajita Wilson, who seems to have modeled her appearance after Jennifer Jones, is undeniably a presence, and her cult following in Italy and Greece understandable. Franco admits she wasn't up to the brutality of the character, and this is obvious in her performance, though like the rest of the cast she has been badly dubbed into English. The script, by one Günter Ebert (Hmm, could this be the same guy who used to write movies for Russ Meyer?) appears to consciously embrace its overriding absurdity. With lines like, "I'll soon tame you, my pretty beast!" how could anyone have taken it seriously?
Franco's direction continues to be plagued with relentless zooming and panning shots, but overall is more coherent than a lot of his work. Unlike Franco's movies for producer Harry Alan Towers, Sadomania doesn't aim higher than its budget will allow. A duel at sunrise between Canita (Andrea Guzon) and a rather nasty-looking guard almost works, shot with an interesting dream-like/Italian comic book style. The picture still abounds with bad directorial decisions, however. Franco seems to have fallen in love with filters around this time, but doesn't know how to use them. For much of the picture, one has been used that creates vertical lines of light that look odd instead of atmospheric.
Worse, Franco shoots one love scene mostly out of focus and another with an emphasis (or with at least an obliviousness to) a giant zit on the woman's torso. Perhaps most representative of Franco's style is a long lens shot of a car driving off as seen from behind some trees. Instead of shooting through the branches, Franco shoots directly into into the branches, thus obscuring the view of the car altogether. Similarly, and like The Girl from Rio's toy guns, Sadomania features a toy pistol standing in for the real thing in one key scene. Rather than attempt to hide this, Franco shoots it in tight close-up, where it even can be seen expelling a few drops of water when "fired."
Video & Audio
Chalk up another high rating for Blue Underground. Presented in a near flawless 16:9 presentation, Sadomania looks great. This West German/Spanish co-production is copyrighted by a German company, though Spanish main titles are used. The onscreen title is Sadomania (El infierno de la pasion). (In Germany it was called Sadomania - Hölle der Lust.) A couple of brief scenes use the Spanish-language track and English subtitles, but these run less than five minutes. Otherwise, the film is in English mono only, with laughable dubbing. The dubbing itself has a lot of echo, as if it were recorded in a cave. For you purists, the film is the complete 102-minute cut.
The DVD's primary supplement is the entertaining and informative Sadomaniac -- Interview with Director Jess Franco, shot in 16:9 format and running 17 minutes. Franco discusses how wanted to do an Ilsa type prison film with Wilson (indeed, an unused Ilsa script was used), and talks affectionately about the late actress's offscreen charm. He sums up his comments saying, "She belonged to a world less perverted than our own." As nonjudgmental as he is of her, of himself he amusingly admits to being completely amoral. He also discusses his onscreen role in the picture and Wilson's part in a lovemaking scene that has Victor/Victoria-like ramifications, and of which Franco seems unaware.
Next up is a Poster & Still Gallery, loaded with the usual lobby cards, pressbooks, video covers, and international posters. Also included is the usual Jess Franco Bio along with a fascinating and enlightening Ajita Wilson Bio, written by Sergio Martorelli.
Though overlong, Sadomania has its share of campy fun. Even by women-in-prison standards, the picture is more amusing than good. But amusing it is.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Los Angeles and Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes Monsters Are Attacking Tokyo! The Incredible World of Japanese Fantasy Films. He is presently writing a new book on Japanese cinema for Taschen.