By Your Humble Reviewer’s standards, Italy was the king of the rip-offs during the great 1970’s/1980’s era of exploitation filmmaking. The Italian genre film mill could take any popular film, strip it to its most exploitable essentials, crank up the excess and deliver a distinctive knock-off that could blow the grindhouse fans out the back wall of the theater. Better yet, they were willing to try these tactics out on any import. It didn’t have to be an iconic cult item like Dawn Of The Dead or The Road Warrior – any vaguely popular or notorious film could get the Italo-ripoff-remake treatment.
A great example is Hanna D.: The Girl From Vondel Park, which is the Italian riff on a German film, Christiane F. The original was a dark, grueling adaptation of a teen’s autobiographical chronicle of drug addiction and prostitution. It was a critical success around the world, even in the badly-dubbed U.S. version, and retains a certain cachet in cult movie circles for its concert footage of David Bowie (and the use of several Bowie tunes on the soundtrack). It was a shocker but the shocks were there to support its anti-drug message and there was nothing titillating about its portrait of the junkie lifestyle.
Simply put, Hanna D.: The Girl From Vondel Park is the funhouse-mirror reflection of its model. Sober message-mongering is replaced by push-it-to-the-limit sleaze, documentary-styled depictions of drugs are replaced with Reefer Madness-style hysteria, grim realism is replaced with gratuitously absurd melodrama… and the result is an uninhibited sleaze cocktail that will leave cult-movie obsessives with knowing smiles on their faces.
As in Christiane F., the heroine of Hanna D. (played by the distressingly teenage-looking Ann Gisel Glass) lives in an apartment with her boozy mother (Karin Schubert) and the mother’s sleazoid boyfriend. However, young Hanna is not just a drug-curious teen, she’s also a full-on teenage prostitute who hooks to pay the family’s rent. Domestic strife drives Hanna into heroin addiction and the arms of motor-mouth pimp svengali Miguel (Fausto Lombardi). As she sinks into depravity, she gets a lifeline in the form of unconditional love from good-guy Axel (Sebastiano Somma) – but will it be enough to triumph over the evils of the sex/drugs abyss?
The finished product plays like a 1930’s drugsploitation epic that collided with an early 1980’s softcore effort. Director/co-writer Rino Di Silvestro is as subtle as a flying mallet, cramming in overripe monologues where a single line would do and allowing every big dramatic scene to erupt into a screaming, teeth-gnashing frenzy (the shouting matches between Gisel and Schubert are to die for). The script wastes no time in delivering the grotty goods – Hanna is stripping for a customer with the first two minutes – and it never passes up an opportunity to throw the viewer into the most depraved scenarios imaginable. For instance, many a fan’s favorite moment in this film arrives when Hanna is trying to kick heroin cold-turkey in jail and an inmate working for her pimp produces a secret fix for Hanna that was hidden in her anus.
This kind of excess wouldn’t work if the acting didn’t live up to the wildness of the scenario. Thankfully, Hanna D.: The Girl From Vondel Park is packed to the gills with scenery-chewing of the first order. Sexploitation vet Schubert threatens to steal the show with her wild-eyed antics as the alcoholic nympho mom and Lombardi piles on the sleazy charisma as he delivers many florid monologues crammed with “dog eat dog” showbiz/rat-race cliches. However, Gisel takes top honors with her all-stops-out lead performance. Whether she is thrashing and puking through withdrawal or bumping and grinding through a sex scene with a tear in her eye, her total commitment to her character’s tribulations is hypnotic.
It also helps that the movie has a genuine amount of craftsmanship propping up its excesses. Franco Delli Colli’s glossy photography makes great, atmospheric use of genuine Amsterdam locations and the editing by erstwhile trash director Bruno Mattei is unexpectedly artsy, particularly a jaw-dropping montage depicting Hanna going through an impossibly sordid cycle of faceless sex and drug use. Luigi Ceccarelli’s synth-driven new-wave/jazz score adds the final element of delicious retro-kitsch.
However, the most surprising thing about Hanna D.: The Girl From Vondel Park is how genuinely committed it is to its sordid mission. Whatever Di Silvestro lacks in subtlety or originality, he makes up for with an intense belief in his story. His direction grabs the viewer by the scruff of the neck and drags it through the film’s neon underworld with an almost furious intensity. He may not command your respect but he commands your attention… and this relentless energy makes Hanna D. a trashy high in that classic Neapolitan style.