“You haven’t seen one Franco film until you’ve seen them all” is a common phrase amongst Jess Franco fanatics. While I must say Franco has utilized almost every possible subgenre in his exploitation films, I’d feel sorry for the bastard that sat down and watched all of his movies. Franco has 187 film to his directing credit alone, and some of them are pretty atrocious.
Franco did however make some of the finest and most memorable films in exploitation history, 1969’s 99 Women being one of them. It was Franco’s highest grossing movie in the U.S., and has the notoriety for spawning the women in prison movement that took over in the 70’s. And while the movie’s subject matter may seem somewhat archaic and overdone by now, it was certainly shocking in it’s time and has beautifully shot moments that rank with some of Franco’s best work.
A group of three women are taken to a prison island for women , for what seem to be pretty trivial crimes (prostitution, heroin) and are forced to do intense manual labor and share cells with hungry lesbians. The island is run by the incredibly butch Superintendent Diaz who cohobates with Governor Santos who runs a prison island for men nearby. After one of the 3 women dies from withdrawals (and is the 3rd woman to die that year), the state sends in Miss Carol to investigate the treatment of the prisoners. Carol finds women being beaten and tortured in isolation cells where the women hang from their wrists.
The movie then makes a U-Turn and becomes a “jungle terror” movie, when a few of the girls escape using bed sheets as a rope and escape into the tropical wilderness of the island. There they meet up with inmates of the men’s island and try to escape, but as things go in the world of Jess Franco, it’s not so easy and life becomes a lot harder for all those involved. To keep it to the point, there’s a lot of whippin.’
Like many of Franco’s other films, the images are much better than the script. Shot in Rio De Janeiro, the sets are gorgeous and look authentic. One of the greatest Franco visual moments is in this film, in a flashback scene where one of the girl’s tells how she came to be on the island. She tells of how she was picked up by a sadistic, satanic looking gang who rape her during a ceremony; she kills one of the gang members and is falsely imprisoned for murder. The scene is highlighted by Franco’s intense use of a zoom on everyone’s faces and bizarre masks and costumes.
The movie does suffer like his other films with tediously long stripping and soft core sex scenes that are not only out of date, but just plain boring. There is also a particularly gross and unneeded scene when the girls encounter a boa constrictor in the jungle, scream a lot, actually stab the snake in the neck and then watch the snake writhe away in pain. And like Franco’s other films you have to have a keen use of suspension of disbelief, as the story has more holes in it than Swiss cheese.
99 Women was made in a particularly good year for Franco, as he made two of his greatest movies Justine and Venus In Furs around the same time. He made 99 Women movie while under contract with AIP, and they threatened to lose him when they saw the finished product. However the movie did so well at the box office, they apologized to Franco, and the movie went on to play double and triple bills right through the 70’s. The film did well in Europe as well, and there was even a French version made with added XXX footage, made without Franco’s knowledge. Franco went on to direct a slew of women in prison films including Barbed Wire Dolls (1975), Sadomania (1981) and Ilsa the Wicked Warden (1977).
The Blue Underground re-release has an amazing transfer and great sound, using the director’s cut for a print. It also has an exhaustive amount of added features including a nearly 20 minute interview with Franco, added and deleted scenes, and a biography about Franco by Video Watchdog’s Tim Lucas. Blue Underground also released the XXX version, but don’t bother as it’s just spliced in footage that has nothing to do with the original. Also worth picking up is the DigitMovies CD of Bruno Nicolai’s score for the movie including the song “The Day I Was Born,” which will get stuck in your head for weeks.