The Lives of Ilsa, the Wicked Warden
Jess Franco’s Greta, the Mad Butcher, or Wanda the Wicked Warden, and also known as Ilsa the Wicked Warden, has been one of the many cult films of the last few decades which possibly made fans wonder where it played in it’s theatrical run. A dark and vicious film with one stone cold atmosphere, this is seriously a grim ride that may be among one of the Director’s strongest films, but also one that’s not for those seriously new to his work – unless if the interest is mainly for the sadistic stuff. Not as inventive as his early works or playfully sexy as films like Eugenie, Greta is a WIP film that takes things seriously using the rumored underground of the Snuff Film Industry as a backdrop to the story of a woman looking for her missing sister which leads to a prison for sexual deviants – being a Franco film, it replaces death with Sex in the hidden camera moments until the very end where Greta gets her own punishment.
Although the name was different at first and the hair color changed from blonde to red, it was a given that Ilsa would figure in the plans at some time even before the camera started rolling – a plan perfect for it’s US Distribution with Bernie Jacon who used to be with Cambist (who Distributed the first two Ilsa films in The US) and was Distributing some of the company’s films in the very late 70’s. Produced by legendary EuroSex Producer Erwin Dietrich while he was making some WIP films with Jess Franco, this was made in quick time using the sets of Barbed Wire Dolls, a film that was distributed in The US through Aquarius in 1978 (with an appearance at the Cabaret in Southfield without an ad in 11-78) and played in a few areas before Wanda whipped onto the US screens in 1979. In a Canadian run before unleashing it in The US, Cinepix paired it up with Love Train for the SS in it’s run in Montreal while Jacon put it in doubles usually with the second Ilsa film or triples with both of the previous installments (Tigress, the last Ilsa film, would not see many plays in The US if any).
While it is Dyanne Thorn’s show, Lina Romay is perfect as the boot-wearing butch leader of the prisoners with a “romantic” connection to Greta and Tania Busselier is good as the Journalist. The torture scenes are pretty strong stuff and the dead seriousness of the film enhances the feeling without touching a camp factor – possibly a reason why some can’t get into it. Thorne’s husband Howard Maurer is the Governor and Jess Franco appears in a cameo as a Doctor ready to help.
Released in The US first as Wanda the Wicked Warden before it’s VHS incarnation as the third installment of the Ilsa series – at first non-official now fully a part of it – this was perfect for the Downtown, Second Run, and Drive In theaters where it touched in the dying days of the classic Exploitation era. Seedy and sordid, the slow-paced grime featuring some sick sex games including the infamous Torture by Pins scene brought in the cinema ghouls who knew what they were getting. Those looking for the intense camp of She Wolf of The SS and Harem Keeper were at a loss.
Around the time of it’s first US playdates, the Cineshowcase release of Franco’s Jack the Ripper with Klaus Kinski was also moving around The States.
5-18-79, Oklahoma City
12-14-79, Anniston – Very fittingly for the town David F. Friedman would live in after retiring from the film industry, the original and best Ilsa was it’s second feature…although sadly the R-Rated cut.
2-8-80, Carbondale, Illinois
4-25-80, Toledo – The Colony, the city’s prime indoor Exploitation friendly theater, would close up shop in the Summer of 1981. I’m wondering if the R for Wanda was fake.
5-16-80, Toledo – The Urban-Action focused Pantheon was another theater that closed in 1981, leaving the city left with a couple of Drive Ins that played it about half of the time (or a little more) and the occasional sleaze and Independently Distributed Horror film playing at the Mall-based AMC theaters, the Showcase Cinemas and Franklin Park.
12-12-80, Detroit – The Adams would be tri-plexed in 1986 and sadly closed by the Fall of 1988.
9-25-81, St. Louis
10-13-81, Dubuque, Iowa
By 1986, the film would be known as Ilsa the Wicked Warden through it’s VHS release through American Video…cue to my first rental in the Late 80’s.