‘Helga is the queen bee here.’

The sleazy prison genre has a number of dubious subgenres, the most notable of which are ‘women in prison’ and the ‘woman runs prison’ films. They generally both comprise similar themes of sexual sadism, torture and inmate catfights and many of the seventies sexploitation films were distinctive with their blend of unacceptability, political barbarity or criminal debauchery.

Love Camp 7 (Lee Frost, 1969) and Jesus Franco’s 99 Women (1969) offered early examples of the genre, that evolved with such films as The Big Doll House (1971) and The Big Bird Cage (1972), which were notable for the collaboration between Jack Hill and Pam Grier. And let us not forget that Oscar winning director Jonathan Demme wrote and directed his first film, the women in prison classic Caged Heat (1974). Notoriety prevailed even more in the launch of Ilsa: She Wolf of the SS (Don Edmonds, 1975), where the titular character uses the dubious Nazi medical camp as an excuse to prove that women can take the pain more than men. Dyanne Thorne’s famous character in this film led to a role in Franco’s Wanda, the Wicked Warden (1977). There are many other examples of the genre such as Love Camp (1977), Caged Women (1976) and Women Behind Bars (1975). Further shocks were to be found in cult films such as Oswaldo de Oliveira’s often banned Brazilian picture A Prisão (Bare Behind Bars, 1980).

Which brings us to the picture in question, Helga, She Wolf of Stilberg a film from French woman in prison maestro Patrice Rhomm (here as Alain Garnier and not his amusing alternative nom-de-screen, Homer Bingo), a political prisoner film set in South America. This is, of course, a South America that looks rather like the South of France but this just adds to its gratuitous charms. The version on this DVD release is in French with subtitles with options to view an English dub if you should wish.

The cruel military dictatorship run by General Gomez (Olivier Mathot) is a highly oppressive regime and he seeks to destroy the leader of the rebels, Vogel, at any cost. Gomez has the support of Helga (Malisa Longo) and despite a distrust of all women (‘Like all women you know nothing about politics’) he has a plan to overcome the rebels and their sympathisers by setting up a prison for women at Chateau Stilberg. Helga is to be in command of the operation. It is an atrocious environment with the new warden enthusiastic to exert extreme torture upon the inmates. The women face labour duties in the area of a farmland run by Doc (Jacques Marbeuf), who bribes the guards and troops with alcohol to get access to the prisoners of his desire and then he subjects them to grotesque sexual violation. Helga is not only aware of this practice, she takes voyeuristic delight in viewing the assaults. A new inmate arrives in the shape of Elisabeth Vogel (Patrizia Gori), daughter of the resistance leader. In order to survive the sadistic camp she needs to become Helga’s new lover whilst planning an escape with another inmate. So her choice boils down to naked whippings or naked lust. With the relentless combination of assaults, forced labour and food denial the chances for the political prisoners look bleak.

As the genre and synopsis indicate this is not a subtle film, nor a feminist one, as the inmates are stripped, flogged, chained and raped by guards, the revolting lecherous farmer and, of course, Helga herself, who takes extreme pleasure both from watching degrading acts and committing them with a gusto defined by her warped morality. The protagonists’ status is defined by their costuming, which ranges here from Helga’s decadent attire to the fascistic symbolic design of the regime’s logo, red and black symbolism which links it to the Nazi themed women in prison films even though the film is set it in the context of a fictional dictatorship. The female prisoners are dressed in virtually thin grey dressing gowns with, as a film of this ilk requires, nothing underneath.

The extra feature included on the DVD consists of a number of scenes from the film shot with clothes on; it doesn’t take the context or sadism away but was presumably useful to sneak versions of the film past rigorous censors. It is fascinating to see the attempts at distribution of such cult sleaze film-making, Helga gets to wield her whip on women that are clothed! Unacceptability abounds in Helga’s sadistic world but that is entirely the point. You have been warned.