For his epic shocker of caged women gone wild, legendary director Jess Franco (Eugenie, Sadomania) brought together a once-in-a-lifetime cast of International beauties including Maria Schell (The Odessa File), Luciana Paluzzi (Thunderball), Rosalba Neri (Lady Frankenstein) and Maria Rohm (Venus In Furs). Oscar winner Mercedes McCambridge (Johnny Guitar) and Herbert Lom (The Dead Zone, Mark Of The Devil) co-star as the sadistic wardens of an island prison where abused yet luscious young lovelies surrender to their own depraved desires. Behind bars...without men...experience the unchained passion of 99 Women!
“From now on, you have no name, only a number.”
Though he didn’t invent the exploitation subgenre known affectionately as “Women In Prison” or WIP for short, Director Jess Franco revitalized it with his 1969 film ‘99 Women’. Made with frequent producer Harry Alan Towers the two men developed a new blueprint for WIP films beyond the pulpy melodramas of the 1930’s by taking advantage of loose censorship and ratings limitations. What they produced became a Euro-cult classic that jump started a genre and built the foundation for the likes of Roger Corman to rattle off 20 variations on “girls in cages”. ‘99 Women’ is rather mild compared to the WIP output in years to follow but what it lacks in over-the-top graphic sleaze and perverse degradation it makes up for in a talented cast, an interesting story, and memorable scenes.
The film opens on a boat carrying fresh meat to an island prison. Marie (Maria Rohm) arrives at the prison known as “The Castle of Death” only to be stripped of her clothes and name. The warden Thelma Diaz, played by an unhinged Mercedes McCambridge, berates the girls by shouting, “There is no future, only the past. No hope, only regret. You have no friends, only me!” Each prisoner is given a number and, you guessed it, Marie is prisoner number 99. When Natalie (Luciana Paluzzi in a bit role) dies from drug withdrawal Marie calls for help. Thelma sees Marie’s call for help as insolence and throws her into solitary confinement. Diaz meets with sleazy Governor Santos (Herbert Lom) who runs the men’s prison on the other side of the island. They’re worried the Minister of Justice might suspect something is wrong with so many dead prisoners leaving the island. Diaz frequently pimps out the prisoners to Santos when he visits as a show of good faith. In this case he is interested in Marie. “Is it hot in here?” he says glaring at the girls while removing his coat. Inmate Zoie (Rosalba Neri) forces herself on Marie after Santos comes by for his visit. A brawl breaks out between the two women with violent slapping abruptly slowing to soft focus, sultry jazz, and light touches. Marie willingly submits to Zoie’s advances. Prison administrator Leonie Carroll (Maria Schell) is sent to the island in hopes of reforming the prison system and potentially taking over Diaz’s role. Seeing this as a threat to their balanced system of perversion, Santos and Diaz scheme to get Carroll removed from the island. When Marie catches wind of an escape plot she can’t help but join in after Carroll refuses to reopen her case.
What drew an audience to ‘99 Women’ was the sex, obviously. Most won’t see an ounce of sexiness in the feature, but in 1969 it was scandalous and raw. The film uses interesting techniques to suggest utterly perverse moments with clever editing. The shadows of the thugs in Marie’s flashback elevates the intensity tenfold and off camera violence help build the tension in the viewer's mind. Sure there are instances of laughable dialogue but the use of flashbacks and other narrative devices in this type of film add weight that could normally be filled with more fights and inmate whipping. Even though there is “skin” to be had in this film when the scenes get heated Franco will typically zoom into darkness or use an out of focus shot to artfully veer into visual ambiguity. With such a stellar cast of actresses it’s no wonder Franco took a lighter approach to the material. He had a chance to put big name stars in his productions thanks to collaborator Harry Alan Towers. The cast list for ‘99 Women’ could easily look like any other Hollywood production! With Maria Schell, Herbert Lom, Mercedes McCambridge, Maria Rohm, Rosalba Neri, and a small bit part for “Bond Girl” Luciana Paluzzi. ‘99 Women’ looks really great on paper, right?
I expected an exploitation circus given the material, but it's completely digestible compared to other Franco fare. Besides the prisoner’s salacious flashbacks the film remains lean and quick. Unfortunately the dialogue is clunky even with the dubbing. Franco’s gratuitous zoom is everywhere, but when he has the opportunity to show more he restrains himself just enough to keep the scene coherent (for a Jess Franco film). Unlike most of his output ‘99 Women’ feels like a real mainstream effort with a great cast, interesting script, a solid musical score, and a director anxiously toying with concepts that would later define his career.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
‘99 Women’ screams on to Blu-ray thanks to Blue Underground. The movie is pressed onto a 25GB Region Free Blu-ray disc housed in a transparent case with reversible cover art. Included with this release is a DVD copy of the film and a CD Soundtrack. The CD is on the left side of the case while the Blu-ray and DVD occupy the right side of the case stacked on top of one another. The disc opens to the Blue Underground logo before arriving at the Main Menu. When you hear the swinging 60’s music you’ve made it!
Presented in 1080p with an aspect ratio of 1.66:1 ‘99 Women’ gets the 4k restoration treatment and comes out looking great. The film begins with this statement about the transfer:
“To create this new 99 Women “Unrated Director’s Cut” 4k scan, negatives from several sources from around the world were meticulously assembled, graded and restored. However, the english main and end credits negative could not be found. Therefore, an inferior quality 35mm US Theatrical print was used for these two sections.”
The opening and closing credits are a bit rough compared to the quality of the rest of the film. That being said this “Unrated Director’s Cut” is vibrant, bright, and a giant step above previous home video releases. Flesh tones are even, black levels are consistent, and detail is strong throughout the feature. No visible grain structure. Fine detail especially present on close-ups and costume textures. Image stability issues are infrequent but noticeable.
Blue Underground provides a single audio option for ‘99 Women’ with a DTS-HD Mono track. Carrying the weight of scoring, dialogue, and effects this track sounds nicely balanced and full throughout the feature. Volume levels are consistent. Dialogue is clear and projects confidently through the audio mix. English SDH, French, and Spanish subtitles are available.
Jess’ Women (HD) (17:10) A casual interview with Jess Franco in which he talks about the film’s history, production, and cast interspersed with relevant film clips. This featurette is carried over from the 2005 Blue Underground DVD release.
Jess, Harry & 99 WOMEN (HD) (16:27) Interview with Stephen Thrower, author of Murderous Passions: The Delirious Cinema of Jesus Franco. Thrower, who also wrote the film booklet essay, examines the partnership between Jess Franco and producer Harry Allan Towers.
Deleted & Alternate Scenes (HD)
Scene 1: Marie’s Flashback (4:54) An extended version of the Marie flashback sequence with the motorcyclist. Unfortunately some audio is missing due to lost materials.
Scene 2: Zoe’s Flashback (16:26) Alternate sequence to Zoe’s flashback filmed without Franco or the actress portraying Zoe, Rosalba Neri. Footage sourced from a VHS of the Greek version of the film. Zoe’s flashback of killing her employer is replaced with a long, drawn out subplot with Zoe’s sister Tracey and her lover Darren.
Scene 3: Extended Ending (1:30) Longer ending from the Spanish version. Sourced from a VHS tape. Look for the Jess Franco cameo!
Theatrical Trailer (HD) (1:41)
Poster and Still Gallery 70 images including marketing materials, stills, posters, and home video art.
CD Soundtrack Bruno Nicolai’s soundtrack for ‘99 Women’ on a 24 track CD.
DVD Copy of the Film
A rather tame and grounded outing from Franco, ‘99 Women’ is a solid prison drama with a talented cast and a high rewatch factor. I’ve had this one on my list for a long time and I can say that it didn’t disappoint! Franco is a tough director to explore given his controversial back catalog, however this is an excellent introduction to the cult director’s filmography.
Blue Underground is also releasing the “Notorious French Version” in a Limited Edition Blu-ray set which also includes the version reviewed here. The French version is an unauthorized edit with hardcore scenes inserted by Italian director Bruno Mattei. Using terrible body doubles to create the clumsy x-rated shots, it’s a tough watch even with the pornographic material included. Mattei just cuts the narrative to pieces! I can only recommend the Limited Edition Blu-ray set to completists and those whose curiosity gets the best of them.
Credited with reinventing the WIP genre with salacious sex, sleaze, and lesbianism, Franco’s ‘99 Women’ would inspire an entire genre for years to come. Blue Underground’s Blu-ray gives the film a much desired HD release with a respectable A/V presentation given the available elements. The new special features and CD soundtrack will certainly please long time fans of the film. Recommended for Euro-cult aficionados and WIP enthusiasts.