From among the Video Nasties

During the Video Nasties era, movies of every stripe made it onto the DPP's hit-list: slashers, gialli, art films, gory science fiction, and plenty besides. But two genres made a particular splash, and they're the two genres that most reasonable people would likely consider the most appropriate candidates for a nationwide censorship program (if the reasonable people first concede the existence of a nationwide censorship program, that is). I refer to cannibal films, and Nazisploitation, two charming subgenres that are both predominately Italian, because as any exploitation lover can tell you, the Italians are by far the most fucked-up filmmakers in the world, besides Japanese pornography animators.

The cannibal films were few in number, and virtually every one of them ended up on the Nasties list, but I'll get to that lovely convocation of awfulness when the time comes. The Nazi films are what we're here to discuss now: a dispiritingly robust group, too, of which four ended up on the list, though a great many more were made. Their roots lie in the "Women In Prison" genre, which is exactly what it sounds like: noting that the best place in the world to maximise both shower scenes and lesbian encounters was a women's prison, a clutch of savvy exploitation filmmakers began setting their movies in such locations, late in the 1960s. Almost as soon as the WIP pictures started to take off, with 99 Women, directed by the legendary crap filmmaker Jesus Franco in 1969, its bastard sibling, the "Women In Concentration Camps" movie came to life: this is typically said to have started with Love Camp 7, one of the few American Nazisploitation films, which itself came out in 1969.

That year also saw the release of a decidedly more serious work of cinema: Lucino Visconti'sThe Damned, an epic family drama married to a probing deconstruction of homoeroticism in the Third Reich. It was the first of what would prove to be many attempts to examine the sexuality of the Nazis, a genre which as often landed in the art house as the grind house: The Conformist, The Night Porter, and Salon Kitty range successively from brilliantly artistic to self-consciously provocative to goddamn tawdry, but all three (and they are far from alone) were at least vaguely serious attempts to explore the link between Fascism and eroticism in World War II.

Partially due to the critical shield offered by these films, the mid-70s saw an explosion of unabashedly exploitative movies which presented the most bent, perverse sexuality in the camps and office of the Third Reich; the moment when the "Women In Prison, but during a war" film mutated horribly into the "Nazisploitation" film came in 1974 (the year that The Night Porter, arguably Nazisploitation itself, was released), with the infamous Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS. By origin a Canadian film, Ilsa was in many ways just another WIP picture, but its massively exaggerated depravity, and the characterisation of Ilsa herself, coupled with its box office success, led to a flowering of the genre that included straight-up pornography alongside the more famous exploitation titles like SS Experiment Camp (one of the films that kicked off the Nasties craze), Fraulein Devil, or SS Girls.

The cycle ran its course right around the start of the 1980s - when the Italian genre film industry devoted itself body and soul to zombie films and Road Warrior rip-offs - leaving behind some of the most obnoxious motion pictures ever perpetrated. Two of the films that made the Nasties list, Love Camp 7 and SS Experiment Camp, are regarded nowadays as innocuous stupidity, guilty only of bad taste and feeble, intensely dull execution; but the other two, both released in 1977, are generally agreed to have some genuinely odious bite. These are The Gestapo's Last Orgy (one of the only Nazisploitation films in which the victims were actually Jewish), and our current subject, SS Hell Camp, to give it its original American title, though in Britain at the time of the Nasties, it was called The Beast in Heat, a much more exact translation of the Italian.

There's an interesting fact about this film: virtually every credited actor in addition to writer-director Luigi Batzella took pseudonyms, while most of the crew went uncredited altogether. That was a good call. The Beast in Heat, you will certainly be shocked to learn, sucks, and nobody involved would have gotten anything worthwhile out of their association with it, save for maybe a swift kick in the shins from every decent person in the world. And I say this as someone much too far gone to still call myself a decent person, where such matters are concerned.

But on to the plot: the first thing we encounter is the icy visage of Dr. Ellen Kratsch (Macha Magall), a cruel woman describing with sadistic pleasure the duties she owes the Aryan race, and how ethics do not stand in the way of her grand experiments. We get to see those experiments pretty darn quickly, and it would not appear that Kratsch understands exactly what "creating a master race" entails, because all that seems to be going on is that she throws a naked woman into a cage with a grotesque human beast (Salvatore Baccaro, under the name Sal Boris), who eagerly rapes the woman to death, in a scene that might be genuinely horrifying if it weren't so obvious that the creature's genitals aren't remotely near the woman's. Any question of what conceivable value these "experiments" might possess - and this is science about as much as it's science when a thuggish nine-year-old pulls the legs off a caterpillar - doesn't really matter, though, because what we're meant to understand is that Kratsch is Ee-vil, obviously modeled after Dyanne Thorne's Ilsa, right down to the way she celebrates the brutal death of her latest subject by making out with one of her pretty female assistants.

Now, ordinarily this is what we'd be subjected to for the next 87 minutes, but Batzella has other plans - thank God, because nobody can honestly claim to want 87 straight minutes of a wicked German lesbian smirking in delight as a caveman rapes women to death - and for shit's sake, don't contradict me on this point in comments - and so the film switches gears to become a wildly unexpected drama of the Italian Resistance, leaving us to find Lupo (Xiro Papas), leader of the local Resistance cell, conferring with his demolitions expert Drago (Gino Turini AKA "John Braun") about the very important bridge they've just blown up. Seems that Drago has a certain reluctance to kill anybody, even those damn Nazis, which has somewhat irritated Lupo, who was hoping to take out a whole train of German troops along with the bridge. This study in the nature of wartime morality isn't going to go anywhere, and the film hops back over to the Nazis, where we meet the monumentally ineffectual Captain Hardinghauser, (Edilio Kim, AKA "Kim Gatti"), who just can't do anything to stop those damn partisans, though he sure can taunt the crap out of them, by referring to them always as "bandits". Boy howdy, if that won't teach 'em, right?

Hardinghauser's commanding general (who receives no credit, under any name; and believe you me, I'm not going to hunt down every actor who doesn't have on-screen or in-IMDb credit for this picture) disagrees, and he assigns Kratsch to help in the interrogations. There is, of course, only one way that a sexually sadistic Nazi ice queen could possibly interpret "interrogations", of course, and that's exactly what she does, submitting both men and women to a series of cruel tortures ranging from naked fingernail-pulling, to hanging upside-down naked, to being naked and watching your naked girlfriend being raped to death by the beast. Meanwhile, the partisans are fighting against the Nazis as they best can, which involves a boatload of war footage from the evidently higher-budget When the Bell Tolls, also directed by Batzella, seven years earlier. I'll say this much: the Resistance subplot meshes with the Nazi sexual experimentation subplot much better than in similar movies that I have seen.

That's just about the only way in which The Beast in Heat manages to be functional, though. (Well, that, and Magall's performance, which might not be terribly subtle or thought-out, but it's exactly the right sneering, vicious characterisation that the character needs, and since she's surrounded by clowns and buffoons - the rape-beast mugs like a wannabe Ritz Brother - every time we see her, it's a genuine, if small, pleasure). And to a certain degree, I'm pleased. Something like SS Experiment Camp, which doesn't have a damn thought rolling around in its head, shouldn't really offend anybody who has the stamina to keep awake through the whole thing. But a version of The Beast in Heat that actually did right by the material presented in the film would be a rather tough sit. It's the difference, I guess, between the Nazisploitation films that are stupid, and the Nazisploitation films that are stupid and cruel. A movie in which the main villain oversees a program in which women are raped to death, that has to be treated delicately. There's a fine line between depicting an unfathomably horrifying act and wallowing in the same horrifying act, and without a doubt, Batzella's slack visual treatment of Kratsch's chamber of horrors is wallowing - or would be, if the experiments didn't look like red paint being indifferently applied to various body parts, or if the frenzied rats meant to be burrowing through a woman's stomach weren't guinea pigs painted black, that just sort of waddle around until one of them tumbles off.

You see, as is true of the Video Nasties much more often than not (as it is true, one might cynically note, of exploitation films generally, more often than not), the film reveals very little talent or facility with any aspect of cinematic language. While The Beast in Heat may not be the tremendous wasteland of ability that some of the Nasties were (I'll remind you of Blood Feast, last week's subject), it is certainly a very, very bad movie. Though fortunately, a movie that you can laugh at fairly readily. Besides the transparently fake Nazi atrocities on display in the lab scenes, or the tortured plot mechanics of the Resistance scenes (which are, in the main, boring; but not so aggressively, vindictively boring as SS Experiment Camp), the film simply isn't made very well. It is, in fact, the kind of film in which a not-terribly-interesting tracking shot of a car can be spiced up only by the single most obvious camera shadow that I have personally seen in any motion picture.
Above: crew or equipment visible
There's a certain pathetic tang to a movie that plainly wants to be shocking in its reality-inspired brutality, as The Beast in Heat does, but so bad that it can only inspire dismayed giggles in the scenes that aren't distractingly dull, as The Beast in Heat is. That might honestly be the most offensive thing about the film: not that it looks to exploit the Holocaust, but that it can't. It can only cheapen. And no matter how laughable an ineptly-staged rape scene might be, there's something ineffably slimy even in the act of laughing at it. Naturally, those of us who enjoy both ineptitude and feeling slimy will flock to it, and everything I say should be taken in the context of being the guy who rattled of the name of a half-dozen Nazisploitation pictures like I was reading a grocery list. Still, The Beast in Heat is just not at all a movie that nice people should ever think about. Meaning that not only am I worse for watching and then reviewing it, you're a worse person for reading my review.

But at least it wasn't directed by Joe D'Amato.

Body Count: 65? But with a big handful of asterisks: for this is a war movie, not a body-count film, and it simply hits a point where you miss one or two in the big combat scenes - and perhaps ill-advisedly, I included the stock footage deaths in the body count. I did not, however, include anyone who dies off-stage, and whose body is never seen, and there are at least four people who almost certainly meet that qualification.

Nastiness Rating: 4/5, pretty damn Nasty. The concept is in staggeringly bad taste, and the dead-eyed POV of the "raped to death" scenes makes them somehow more objectionable than would otherwise have been the case. Only the film's limitless incompetence keeps it from a perfect 5/5.