Ilsa: Harem Keeper of the Oil Sheiks
Directed by Don Edmonds, © 1975, 1:33:00
The first thing to note about Ilsa: Harem Keeper of the Oil Sheiks is that it is a worthy successor to the infamous, original Ilsa flick, She Wolf of the SS. It not only shares the same director with its predecessor, but several actors as well. Aside from Dyanne Thorne who essentially plays the same role she had in She Wolf (despite meeting a rather nasty demise in 1945), Richard Kennedy, Buck Flower, Uschi Digard and Sharon Kelly all return for more sado-sexual shenanigans. The gruesome make-up effects of Joe Blasco are back too.
Moreover, the director of photography on Harem Keeper is Dean Cundey who went on to shoot Back to the Future, Jurassic Park and Apollo 13, among many other A-list productions. The art direction and sets are by Erik Nelson who graduated to become props master on Lethal Weapon, The Color Purple and many more well-known favorites. As a result, the overall look and feel of this low-budget effort is far better than it has any right to be. Technically, it is remarkably well made for what is in essence an S&M fetish film.
That said, Harem Keeper isn't nearly as brutal or outrageous as the original. It avoids the nasty Nazi associations, and the female victims look more like the pampered porn stars they are rather than downtrodden concentration camp inmates. Overall, Harem Keeper has the gloss of a Russ Meyer film, and even features several of his regular girls in the cast: just look for the ones who "stand out" from the others.
So what's inside? Well, let's just admit the writers aren't about to win any Oscars for best original screenplay. Remember, the plots of terrors like this one exist only to set up the sex and peril. And that, in case you are wondering, is a good thing. But unlike a traditional X-rated porn flick, there is a story here which ties together the action, so Harem Keeper is far more watchable than say, Debbie Does Dubai.
The plot consists of a hodgepodge of separate threads which sometimes overlap, but generally progress along independent trajectories. The first of these involves the arrival of three young beauties captured by white slavers and brought to the desert compound of El Sharif (an over-the-top performance by "Victor Alexander"), the Middle East sheik whom Ilsa serves. The hapless girls are played by Kelly, Digard and a third actress who valued her career enough to keep her name out of the credits. They arrive at El Sharif's harem, naked and unconscious, laid out in wooden crates for Ilsa's inspection.
As the titular harem keeper, Ilsa is responsible for whuppin' this trio into shape, which primarily involves turning them from spoiled rich bitches into compliant sex slaves. This plot thread wastes a wealth of GIMP opportunities. The girls are always naked, imprisoned in giant bird cages, and hide their pussies beneath unwieldy chastity belts (good or bad depending on your preference for 70's style pubic nests), but their peril is limited to being "forced to use their tongues" and being threatened with hungry rats crawling up their hoo-haws (a punishment which sadly is never enforced).
Given this is an Ilsa film, there could have been much more anguish in store for these babes, but aside from pleasuring the sheik in what appear to be semi-consensual sex scenes, they don't suffer all that much. Granted, Sharon Kelly's character meets a rather tragic end when she is accidentally shot by an assassin trying to kill El Sharif, but the other two survive their "ordeals" and happily fly home at the end of the film. Overall, the new-arrivals plot is a major disappointment, and a real waste of GIMP talent (especially if you remember what happened to Digard and Kelly in She Wolf).
Thankfully, some disconnected scenes involving other harem girls are considerably more brutal. Early in the film, the sheik's personal doctor proudly shows Ilsa the tricks he uses to "enhance" the unfortunates chosen to be sold at auction. One has her rump inflated with a direct injection of silicone, another has her chewed-off ear disguised, and a busty gal with really bad gashes under her boobs has the wounds covered up as if Bondo™ were being applied to a rusted out Ford. There's no real peril here, just pained victims and non-anesthetized surgery, so these scenes won't appeal to everyone.
For reasons which escape me, morbidly obese women command top dollar at the slave auction, so another GIMP scene shows an underfed girl in the harem dungeon being slapped around before having a disgusting gruel mechanically forced down her gullet. This is followed by absolutely terrifying shots of women who have no problem eating their porridge voluntarily, apparently by the bucketful. Be warned, watching this sequence will likely scar you for life.
The auction itself is a rather dreary affair, with assorted naked harem girls and even a few guys parading around in chains and being humiliated. One of the females has a particularly dazzling set of chompers, which displease her new owner who "does not like the scrape of teeth". So we are treated to a scene of the poor woman undergoing some impromptu dental work performed with a hammer and chisel. In another gross-out moment, the dismembered remains of a wayward harem girl and her eunuch lover (?) -who failed in their bid to escape- are displayed to Ilsa's charges to warn them of the consequences of such foolish behavior.
These sort of shock scenes pop up frequently in Harem Keeper, and have little to do with the overall narrative, but they are GIMP related so I've included them here. The main story involves a diplomatic mission from the US, a rather impoverished one as it consists of only two guys: a senior bureaucrat named Kaiser portrayed by Kennedy (the bombastic Nazi general in She Wolf) and his aide Adam, played by an unbearably wooden actor named Max Thayer. Kennedy plays his part as if he were Henry Kissinger (remember this is the 1970s) and the other guy just reads his lines from off-screen cue cards.
The goal of this mission is to persuade El Sharif to relinquish more oil from his desert empire to the States. Kaiser prefers to do this via traditional diplomacy, while Adam resorts to subterfuge. Adam has planted a comely female agent in the harem to spy on the sheik, and he also hopes to seduce Ilsa to get her support. Plan A fails miserably (more on that later) but within hours of the Americans' arrival at the sheik's compound, Adam succeeds in bedding Ilsa (in a truly embarrassing sex scene). Our reserved heroine soon falls for Mr. Dull-as-Dishwater and her loyalty to El Sharif begins to waver.
When she disobeys her master and refuses to dispose of Adam, it's time for the Teutonic blonde to get a taste of her own medicine. The sheik chains her up spread-eagled between two pillars, then sets loose a leprosy-stricken beggar (whom Ilsa had beaten earlier) to do with her as he pleases. Although this scabrous chap looks like he's already got one foot in the grave, he still knows a good thing when he sees it. Crawling up to the restrained Ilsa on all fours, he tears off her gown and proceeds with some serious carpet munching. As her character endures this rather oddball rape, Dyanne Thorne really sells the scene with her guttural groaning and looks of disgust. Nobody can do revulsion quite as well as Ilsa.
Of course, being ravished and humiliated in front of her employer and his entire entourage does little to patch things up between Ilsa and El Sharif. She pretends to have learned her lesson, but secretly teams up with Adam to overthrow the sheik. This leads to a climactic battle in the final reel, which echoes the prisoners' revolt in She Wolf, though in this case the outcome is far less grim. El Sharif is killed and his twelve year old nephew (previously locked up in the dungeon because he is the rightful ruler of the sheikdom) takes his place.
Other highlights in Harem Keeper include an impressive fire stunt (regrettably with a male victim) and a lesbian dance number featuring Satin and Velvet, Ilsa's frisky and usually topless assistants. These two ebony, well-oiled babes are so entertaining, they really deserve a movie of their own. When not making out with each other, they're usually terrorizing the neighborhood, administering discipline on Ilsa's behalf. In one memorable scene, they wrestle a hulking male guard to the ground and tear his gonads off with their bare hands. Later, whilst wearing nary a stitch of clothing, they grease up and dive into the final skirmish, joining Ilsa and Adam to fight it out with the sheik's private army. Sadly, both Satin and Velvet are killed during the assault, and any hope of GIMP action featuring this lovely pair dies with them.
"Then what's the big deal?" you may ask. A few so-so peril and torture scenes alone won't hold a jaded viewer's interest, nor will the gross-out gore… and all those wasted opportunities are just plain frustrating. So, as if to make up for the movie's failings, one of those gratuitous plot threads is aimed squarely at the hard-core sadists who lined up for She Wolf years earlier.
This story thread features the aforementioned spy-girl hired by Adam to infiltrate the harem and secretly monitor El Sharif's actions. Not only is the ill-fated, nameless agent (played by the pneumatic Haji, one of those Russ Meyer girls) among the most gorgeous gals in the cast, she single handedly endures enough thoroughly nasty treatment to redeem the whole movie.
You know Haji the spy is in for trouble when she's introduced as a woman looking for revenge against the sheik, having watched him torture her family to death when she was a child. She agrees to go undercover as a belly-dancing harem girl and wears a microphone hidden in a navel-affixed ruby (which constitutes the bulk of her skimpy outfit). After barely completing one dance, the careless agent is nabbed by Satin and Velvet while listening to her secret recordings.
Quick as a whip, Haji winds up in Ilsa's dungeon… and a whip is what is being used on her as Ilsa begins the obligatory interrogation. After a relatively mild lashing, Haji concocts a lame story about stealing the recording apparatus from one of the other harem girls (one whom Ilsa observes "is conveniently dead"). Ilsa doesn't buy it, and demands to know who is behind the plot to spy on El Sharif. When Haji bravely refuses to answer, Ilsa orders up some more persuasive tortures.
In the next scene, we see topless Haji with her double D breasts streaming blood and clamped in a giant vice. As Ilsa continues her questioning, Satin and Velvet (yes, it takes both of them to operate this contraption) turn the screws which bring the jaws of the vice closer and closer together. Haji screams for mercy, but her three tormentors are relentless. Ilsa begins to lose patience and reveals a box filled with flesh eating ants. "If the press does not persuade her," she says, "we have ten-thousand friends who will. How can she dance when she has no feet?" Apparently with better things to do, she delegates the rest of Haji's interrogation to her assistants: "Call me when she begins to talk."
Several scenes later we return to the dungeon, where Satin and Velvet are busy loading ants into a sealed glass container encasing Haji's left foot. The poor spy looks considerably worse for wear, but still very attractive despite having two blood-soaked splotches where her breasts used to be. The carnivorous ants are doing their work. We are treated to slow-motion time lapse photography of the little critters slowly chewing away Haji's foot until only the bones remain. This proves too much for our stoic young heroine, and she finally spills that she is working for the Americans (surprise!).
At this point, the movie returns to some of its other disconnected story threads, and seems to drop the Haji plot altogether, leaving us to think the agent is dead. No such luck for her though. In one of those grisly shock scenes, we return to our long-suffering gal still chained up in the dungeon, but now missing her right eye. It's been gouged out and fed to Kaiser, who thinks he's downing a sheep's eyeball at El Sharif's dinner party. Apparently sheep are treated better than treacherous belly dancers in the harem.
As if all this abuse wasn't enough, there's still more in store for Haji, who finally is dragged out of the dungeon to wind up strapped to a gurney in the med-room. Here Ilsa proudly announces that she's kept her favorite victim barely alive to act as a demonstration of her latest invention, a way for El Sharif to do away with his many enemies. This sequence really needs to be seen to be believed, but I'll give it a go here…
Haji lies on the gurney unconscious, dressed in nothing but a tiny, blood-splotched white towel. Plastic explosives are rammed up her snatch (no reaction) followed by a dildo attached to an electric crankshaft (still no reaction). El Sharif and Ilsa step behind a screen (for safety) while Ilsa starts up the crankshaft which proceeds to thrust the dildo in and out of Haji's pussy. Finally, the failed spy begins to react. Shock? Pain? Horror? No sirree… after days of torture and despite losing her tits, her foot and an eye, she is getting turned on! As Ilsa speeds up the fucking machine ("faster… deeper…") Haji's sexual moaning and orgasmic expressions reveal that she is being forced to climax.
Just as she bleats out her release, the explosives, which have been rigged to detonate at just that moment, blow the failed spy to bits, splattering gory chunks of Haji across the barrier protecting Ilsa and an awe-struck El Sharif. Apparently, Ilsa's secret weapon will create girl-bombs who will literally fuck the sheik's enemies to death. Haji's last, selfless act was to prove that Ilsa's invention works. This scene is truly as delirious as it sounds, and plays like a sexual sadist's interpretation of John Hurt's chest-burster segment in Alien.
With Haji finally pushing up daisies, the best GIMP elements of Harem Keeper draw to a close. But I've devoted the lion's share of this review to her scenes as they are what make this movie, as mentioned earlier, a worthy successor to the original. Haji's character was created solely for the purpose of providing the requisite thrills we seek, and she is not only a gorgeous victim, but a very game and believable one at that. How many actresses, mainstream or otherwise, would agree to play a role like this today?
And finally, what of Ilsa? Once again, the film squanders a great opportunity. Briefly joining the good guys, Ilsa can't hide her stripes for long. In her eagerness to get revenge on El Sharif, she instructs one of her girl-bombs to pleasure the sheik while he is strapped down and gagged. Having watched the Haji demo earlier, he knows what's, er… coming, but can't warn the girl who is diligently riding him that she will explode on climax. Of course she does (though this time with less fanfare), blowing both herself and her former master to smithereens.
When Adam catches wind that Ilsa sacrificed an innocent girl to get even with El Sharif, he ditches her and blabs to the twelve year old nephew. At this point, the new ruler could easily have consigned Ilsa to the dungeon to endure another twenty minutes or so of torture at the hands of her former victims. But nooooo... she winds up in the straw-covered pit in which the nephew spent his years in captivity. Far from an ideal ending, but it did leave things open for a sequel. Too bad that the sequel proved to be a major fail.
So how do I score this one? Well, as a mainstream exploitation picture which features sex and sadism, Harem Keeper is no She Wolf, but still a solid B+ (especially when compared to the limp "torture porn" being released today). As a GIMP purist's fetish film with lots of bondage, rape and clothespins on the nipples, it's at best a C, but that's not what it was intended to be. And for a compilation consisting only of Haji's tortures and over-the-top demise (my personal reason for keeping this one in my top ten) I give it an A
* * * * *
Postscript: I have seen at least three versions of Ilsa: Harem Keeper of the Oil Sheiks. The one reviewed here is what I believe to be the original "director's cut", and was available on DVD from Anchor Bay. It's been deleted from their catalog, but can still be purchased from Asian Cult Cinema, among other distributors (check e-bay for the best prices).
When I first saw the film in Canadian theaters in the mid 1970's, the version shown substituted Haji's breast-crushing scene with a demo involving cantaloupes.. or maybe grapefruits... or dare I say it, watermelons? Otherwise, it was complete, including all of Haji's explosive finale. Apparently, this alternate cut is out on DVD. If anyone knows where I can get it, please tell me.
A third version was released on VHS tape about two decades ago, and is heavily censored. In this one, virtually all of Haji's scenes (except the original dance number) have been cut, which is the equivalent of editing out all the songs from The Sound of Music. Avoid this version at all costs.