Cult Filmmakers You Should Know #13: Don Edmonds

By Michael Varrati

In the spring of 2008, I joined a bevy of other individuals in the horror community to attend the Cinema Wasteland expo in the outskirts of scenic Cleveland, Ohio. Long a fan favorite for those who appreciate the dark underbelly of cult exploitation cinema, that particular Wasteland event was notable in the fact that it also saw a large percentage of contributors from Ultra Violent magazine (to which I am known to contribute) gathered in one location. Since we writers are often scattered to the four corners of the Earth, UV’s managing editor thought it would be a wise decision to commemorate the occasion by getting us all together for a group photo. However, since said editor himself would also need to be in the snapshot, it became necessary to find a de facto photographer to help us capture the moment.

Enter: Don Edmonds.Just as the photo quandary was hitting its apex, this kindly grandfather of a figure just happened to be sauntering by our table. Seeing an opportunity, our editor asked him if he would mind taking the snap for us, and that is how, my dear children of the popcorn, yours truly was once photographed by one of cult cinema’s greatest figures.

But who, you may ask, is Don Edmonds?

Luckily, that’s what I’m here to tell you. So, hold tight, because those of you not in the know are about to get a cult education on one of the genre’s most subversive filmmakers.

Edmonds first arrived in Hollywood in the 1950s, making an initial splash not as a director, but as an actor in some of television’s most popular programs. The budding actor’s run on such shows as The Munsters, Green Acres, and Petticoat Junction proved to be steady, but ultimately not entirely satisfying to the ambitious young Edmonds. After several failed attempts to produce a motion picture with a friend, Edmonds decided to break out on his own and write & direct a “nudie” picture.

In an era where softcore cinema was still something of a novelty to the theater-going audience, Edmond’s first two forays into the world of filmmaking, Wild Honey and Tender Loving Care, saw the director dabbling in a lurid sense of style that would foreshadow the signature appeal of his later pictures.

Capitalizing on the concept of hypersexuality, Edmonds’ third film became the one to truly push the filmmaker into the realm of the notorious. In 1974, Edmonds conspired with legendary sleaze producer David Friedman and writer Jonah Royston to bring to the screen the story of a Nazi dominatrix with a penchant for sexual torture. That film, titled Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS, became a huge success in the grindhouse theaters of New York City’s 42nd street and almost instantly passed into the canon of midnight movie legend.

Filmed in the afterhours on the set of Hogan’s Heroes and starring former Las Vegas showgirl Dyanne Thorne, Ilsa’s brutal take on sexuality almost single-handedly created a boom in Nazisploitation cinema in the decade that followed, and has thematically been paid homage to by filmmakers as diverse as Rob Zombie and Quentin Tarantino.

Edmonds would return again to the Ilsa character in 1976, removing her from the controversial climate of a concentration camp and dropping her smack dab into the Middle East. Just like its predecessor, Ilsa, Harem Keeper of the Oil Shieks spared little in the way of pure shock and awe. Indeed, Oil Shieks may well be the first and last instance in cinema history where a villain offs their victim with exploding vaginal inserts. That said, this very brand of sexual savagery is what makes the work Edmonds so outstandingly unique in the realm of cult cinema and why his films remain hugely sought after classics.

The continued success of Ilsa would see two more sequels (one of which, Ilsa, The Tigress of Siberia, was produced by Ghostbusters director Ivan Reitman), albeit without the involvement of Edmonds. However, the continued filmic endurance of the character serves as a lasting testament to the legacy Edmonds left behind.

More than a one-trick pony of sexual shenanigans, Edmonds followed his work on the Ilsa films with a branching out of sorts into several cross-genre endeavors. 1977 saw the filmmaker write and direct a blaxploitation/slasher film amalgam called Bare Knuckles. The film, about a bounty hunter on the trail of a masked kung fu killer, showed Edmonds in a new light. Fast-paced and well-cast (Gloria Hendry, a legend of soul cinema, appears), Bare Knuckles offered some definitive blood-spattered action for a legion of fans.

This delving into the realm of horror would continue in 1980 with Terror on Tour. Concerning a make-up laden rock band (think B-movie KISS) that comes under suspicion of murdering groupies, the movie was  on the ground floor of the 80s slasher boom. Featuring original music and magnificently campy dialogue, Terror on Tour is truly an oft-forgotten gem from a filmmaker who definitely understood the novelty of subversive fun.

Edmonds’ final feature film effort as a director would come in 1991 with the release of Tomcat Angels. Unique in the respect that it was one of few movies of the era willing to recognize the Gulf War, Edmonds used Tomcat Angels as a return to form, dissecting current events and war with a sexual veneer. Building the story of female fliers around actual military air footage, Tomcat Angels became one of the more popular titles for its distributor, Troma, in the early 90s.

Although Tomcat Angels proved to be his last feature, Edmonds continued working as a producer and actor, and even returned to the director’s chair to helm the pilot episode of the sizzling crime drama, Silk Stalkings. Notably, Edmonds also produced the movie True Romance, which was written by a then unknown Quentin Tarantino, and helped jumpstart the now infamous Hollywood bad boy’s career.

Sadly, Don Edmonds passed away in 2009, leaving behind an incredible legacy to the world of cult cinema. From Nazi villainesses to killer rock bands, Edmonds’ work ran the gamut and offered a little something for everyone.

Unfortunately, I didn’t ever really get to know Edmonds personally beyond our few interactions that weekend at Cinema Wasteland, but the impression he left behind remains. Whenever I happen upon that group picture, whether it be on a website or a friend’s social networking page, to see the caption “photo by Don Edmonds” always gives me a moment to take pause and fills my heart with fanboy satisfaction. To have crossed paths with this genius of the subversive is a moment I will always treasure and proudly sing about to the world.

For a lifetime’s work of sinister sexuality and unabashed cinematic fun, Don Edmonds is truly a Cult Filmmaker You Should Know.

Until next time.

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