99 WOMEN (1969) Blu-ray/DVD Combo
Director: Jess Franco
Blue Underground

Horny sexploitation kicks in this seminal (sorry) WIP flick. Blue Underground has released a 3-disc unrated director’s cut of 99 WOMEN, the 1969 women-in-prison actioner from producer/screenwriter Harry Alan Towers (released here in the States by Commonwealth United Entertainment) and director Jess Franco, starring Maria Schell, Mercedes McCambridge, Luciana Paluzzi, Maria Rohm, Rosalba Neri, Elisa Montes, Valentina Godoy and Herbert Lom. Conceived and written over a hurried weekend, and shot for next-to-nothing in a matter of a few weeks, 99 WOMEN made a ton of dough for producer Towers and his various backers, while giving director Franco a rare high-profile hit. Blue Underground’s Blu-ray/DVD/CD soundtrack combo pack sports a new 4K scan that helps make Franco’s grungy brown and green prison epic...even more grungy, while ported-over extras from previous releases (sans the infamous porno inserts—sorry, perverts) help make this a solid buy for newcomers to Franco and the WIP subgenre.

At the infamous “Castle of Death” island prison for women, three new inmates arrive by boat...while another dead convict is being shipped back to the mainland. Jonesing heroin addict Natalie Mendoza (Luciana Paluzzi, THUNDERBALL, THE GREEN SLIME) was busted for drug smuggling. Dancer/prostitute Helga (Elisa Montes, ERIK, THE VIKING, TEXAS, ADIOS), an island alum, was banged up for banging the wrong V.I.P., and sniffling, crying blonde Marie (Maria Rohm, THE HOUSE OF A 1000 DOLLS, EUGENIE...THE STORY OF HER JOURNEY INTO PERVERSION) was unfairly imprisoned for killing one of her rapists (she says). What the trio find waiting for them is brutal, cruel warden Superintendent Thelma Diaz (Mercedes McCambridge, THE EXORCIST, THE CONCORDE...AIPORT ‘79), who rules with an iron fist, and her occasional lover, Governor Santos (Herbert Lom, ASYLUM, AND NOW THE SCREAMING STARTS), who cherry-picks (sorry) the more delectable inmates for advanced games of slap ‘n’ tickle. Natalie quickly buys it, but poor Marie is raped by statuesque inmate Zoie (Rosalba Neri, TWO MAFIOSI AGAINST GOLDFINGER, THE REWARD’S YOURS...THE MAN’S MINE)...with whom she promptly falls in love. The arrival of kindly, understanding muckraker Superintendent Leonie Caroll (Maria Schell, THE BLOODY JUDGE, THE DEVIL BY THE TAIL) only creates further chaos at the prison, since Santos and Diaz ain’t exactly willing to give up their sadistic sexual summer camp, with a breakout-to-freedom being the only avenue left for the tortured women.

99 WOMEN’s frantic production is one of the better-known examples of indie “exploitation-on-the-fly” moviemaking. Spanish director Jess Franco, shooting (with typically lightning speed) THE GIRL FROM RIO, the sequel to English producer Harry Alan Towers’ THE MILLION EYES OF SU-MURU, found himself one week ahead of schedule in mid-February,1968, waiting to pick up second unit shots of Rio’s carnivale, scheduled for the end of the month. Towers, notorious for squeezing blood out of a turnip when it came to shepherding his money-making trash, decided to dash off a women-in-prison script over the weekend, and have Franco and the idle THE GIRL FROM RIO crew shoot as much as possible during their downtime week, prior to carnivale. Using Towers’ wife Maria Rohm, and actresses Elisa Montes and Valentina Godoy, Franco shot over a third of 99 WOMEN in the bush (sorry) outside Rio—the movie’s jungle escape section—while Towers sold the unfinished project to various international investors and exhibitors. When Franco returned to Spain to shoot the rest of 99 WOMEN (it’s reported Franco worked over the screenplay as well), Towers had lined up a marquee-worthy cast to flesh out the picture, including Oscar-winning American McCambridge, PINK PANTHER’s international attraction Lom, highly respected German actress Schell, and from Italy, sexpot Neri and Bond villainess Paluzzi (still a highly marketable name in her home country, after THUNDERBALL). Made for peanuts (some reports quote less than a quarter of a million dollars), 99 WOMEN proved to be a money-spinner all over the world, whether it was chopped up by the censors in Spain, or padded out with hardcore inserts for the French markets (without, reportedly, Franco’s knowledge and/or consent).

Jess Franco’s work is certainly an acquired taste, with most newcomers to his movies forewarned (and pre-hyped) to the threat of his delicious lack of taste. Established fans of the director, as well as his critics, rightfully acknowledge the place 99 WOMEN has in the overall development of the “women in prison” subgenre (it pretty much re-invented the genre the way we perceive its conventions now), while many agree that this iconic title hasn’t weathered the years too well, with surprisingly low levels of sadism and sex being further submerged by a lot of talk.

How much you take that generally accepted critical viewpoint into account depends on how familiar you are with Franco’s work overall, and more specifically, what you’re really looking to get out of 99 WOMEN. If you’re looking here for the heightened levels of WIP nastiness found in Franco titles like ILSA THE WICKED WARDEN and BARBED WIRE DOLLS, forget it. But seen in proper historical context, against most mainstream and exploitation features in theaters in 1969, 99 WOMEN was hot stuff. It’s true that some “set pieces” seemed muffed (sorry). Neri’s and Rohm’s first rape/love scene turns into one of the most extreme examples of late 1960s “Let’s Spot the Body Part” fumbling (it’s not erotic at all—just confusing). The action scenes are fairly ludicrous—the prison escape, supposedly at night, occurs in broad daylight and consists of Rohm and Montes gingerly climbing over a balustrade, while that so-called “prison riot” is over in 3 seconds—while the truly nasty stuff is only suggested, not shown (Franco has the nerve to show whips and chains...but no actual playtime? And what’s with that tantalizing flashback, seemingly out of future Kubrick, with Rohm’s hooded-and-lipsticked rapists lined up for action, right before the censor’s scissors come out?). 99 WOMEN doesn’t come close to going over the top...but I don’t want to see the day come when I can’t recommend a movie solely for ten minutes of Rosalba Neri rolling around topless in black lingerie.

As for all that talk in 99 WOMEN that so many don’t like...it’s rather interesting, and rather well integrated into the WIP format. Franco’s love of the ugly and the beautiful folding into each other finds a perfect representation in a sadistic women’s prison filled with gorgeous convicts. The movie’s first image is a rotting animal corpse, complete with buzzing flies, as the hushed, romantic cooings of composer Bruno Nicolai’s score incongruently plays over it, with the hot prison broads boated ashore in the background. The gross and the lovely are forever linked, according to Franco (before witnessing Rohm’s rape, Lom states, “Love and hate are never very far apart...and sometimes they go together,”). Regardless of how unlikely the reality, perhaps that’s what he’s trying to convey with Rohm’s rape, which quickly turns into a seduction...and then a fully participational love scene (critics and particularly feminists go ape over this scene, but later Franco makes no bones about what he thinks of male rape, with poor Rosa’s fate).

Franco’s distrust of authority figures is pretty obvious in 99 WOMEN (coiled McCambridge, screwed down tight and flinging out her arms and kicking her legs like one of the Lollipop Guild, is always growling about rules and society and punishment for transgressors), but his sad embrace of poetic, doomed love and fate is surprisingly successful (and unexpected) for this kind of movie. McCambridge’s opening speech to the new convicts absolutely seals their fate (“You have no future, only the past....You have no friend, only me”), before she takes away their names and gives the girls numbers. Hopelessness is a constant theme in 99 WOMEN (in the movie’s best scene, Schell and McCambridge jockey for position discussing this depressing thread in their lives). No one here is successful in love. Rohm is raped by Neri, and then falls in love with her, only to be jilted for another convict (and that’s because possessive Neri is jealous of Schell’s attentions towards her girlfriend). Rohm’s boyfriend didn’t believe her story of being gang-raped or her reason for killing one of her attackers. Neri finds love in the arms of a man, but is forced to kill her jealous female boss, ruining her life forever. And Rosa, escaping to meet up with her husband, loses him, only to lose herself in mindless sex with her dead husband’s friend (as Rohm watches in envious lust—a typically thematically layered, super-sick Franco scene)...only to be gang-raped to death. When tough gal Montez, contemplating the breakout, states, “It will be tough if we make it; if we don’t...it will be worse,” she means it, as does a numb Rohm, who replies in the best noir fashion, “I don’t care.” At the movie’s end, with absolutely ineffectual Schell leaving, having caused much more harm than having done any good, as a suspicious, bitter Rohm watches her, McCambridge croaks to Lom, “Like old times.” Nothing changes at the “Castle of Death.” That’s not bad at all from Franco and company, considering that so many want 99 WOMEN to be just another hyped-up lesbian crank yanker fest.

Blue Underground’s new 4K scan of 99 WOMEN looks a treat. The 25GB single layer 1080p HD widescreen 1.66:1 Blu brings out a surprising amount of fine image detail (BU makes sure there’s a disclaimer at the beginning, letting us know that an inferior-grade U.S. theatrical print was used for the opening and closing credits, since the original negatives appear to be lost). Colors, such as they are here (lots of dingy browns and greens), are subtly varied, while skin tones look correct. Blacks are pretty solid, while grain is mostly tight (where not, it’s the original look of the rushed cinematography and lighting). A considerable step up from previous transfers (same for the DVD disc here...just less so, naturally). The English DTS-HD mono audio track is as clean as it’s going to be, with a hefty re-recording level and relatively snappish dialogue. English, French and Spanish subtitles are available.

Extras for this 3-disc unrated director’s cut of 99 WOMEN include 2005’s interview, "Jess’ Women" (17:32), where Franco gives some nice background on the movie’s production, and some fun stories about the performers (a modest McCambridge very helpfully let it be known to Franco that she was a better actress than Schell). We also learn that Franco bought off the Madrid cops to film Neri’s and Rohm’s sex scenes, and that future partner AIP wasn’t happy with the movie...until it made a boatload of money. Next, "Jess, Harry, and 99 Women" (16:26), has author Stephen Thrower giving an excellent accounting of the movie’s production and reception (as well as the censorship troubles), along with colorful observations of both Franco and Towers (Towers apparently got those name actors by wining and dining them...only to be short of money to actually shoot his movies). There are three deleted/alternate scenes included: "Marie’s Flashback" (4:39), which is an extended assault scene; "Zoie’s Flashback" (16:20), taken from a largely unwatchable Greek VHS copy, has scenes not shot by Franco, and featuring a different actress than Neri; and "Extended Ending" (1:35), taken from the “soft” Spanish version, sourced from a VHS tape. In addition to a standard DVD version of 99 WOMEN, there is also a CD of the movie’s soundtrack score. Next, a 20-page illustrated booklet, authored by Thrower and adapted from his book, Murderous Passions: The Delirious Cinema of Jesus Franco, is an energetic take on the movie’s themes. Reversible cover art, a killer original trailer (1:42), and a poster and still gallery round out the extras.
(Paul Mavis)