The demented mother of all women-in-prison movies!
As its opening credits began to roll, I started to think that the 1969 women in prison drama 99 Women would be the first movie from iconic Eurosleaze director Jess Franco that I genuinely liked. Barbara McNair’s title song, “Day I Was Born,” has an energy and urgency more befitting a Pam Grier/Jack Hill collaboration than a Jess Franco movie, which can hardly ever be accused of having any urgency. Maybe, I thought to myself, this film was made early enough in Franco’s long career of exploitation that he hadn’t yet developed his signature style nor developed his bad habits. My high hopes lasted for about the first 15 minutes of the movie’s 90-minute running time, at which point 99 Women settled into being another softcore in softcore lesbianism from a filmmaker who has covered that territory more than Scorsese has covered Italian Catholics.
The plot of 99 Women is the same as just about every “women in prison” movie ever produced: a new inmate (played here by Maria Rohm) is sent to a remote prison where she encounters sadistic guards, a corrupt warden (Mercedes McCambridge) and maybe/definitely gets freaky with some of her fellow female prisoners. Maybe the only real difference here is the inclusion of Maria Schell as a new administrator, who shows up to play one of the few instances of a well-meaning bureaucrat in the history of the subgenre. That changes the politics of the movie somewhat, as it’s no longer the traditional “prisoners v. authority figures” model exploited in these kinds of films; instead, the case is made that there are those few people in positions of power willing to fight corruption, though it is ultimately up to the oppressed class to rise up and seize control of their own fate.
While 99 Women didn’t invent the “women in prison” genre (that one dates back to the 1950s), it did help to codify most of the tropes that could be found in most of the entries within the genre after its popularity exploded in the 1970s, when exploitation and drive-in movies really took off. Almost all of the hallmarks of later women in prison movies can be found here, though Franco isn’t interested in most of them. Despite some political subtext and a fair amount of energy as the movie begins, 99 Women is missing the righteous anger of the best the genre has to offer. What it’s missing more than anything, though, are distinct characters; the appeal of these kinds of movies is usually in getting to know the women who are locked up together, in understanding the power structure inside and, ultimately, to see how those tensions are either resolved or explode in the process of trying to escape. Franco being Franco, though, is mostly interested in the sexuality. Even the expository scenes feel like he’s just waiting around and killing time until he can get to of his actors naked again. This is a theme that would run through the majority of his work, and a big part of why I find myself unable to really get into Jess Franco.
There are two separate releases of 99 Women being put out by Blue Underground, both as three-disc special editions. There is the “unrated director’s cut,” which is the version I viewed for this review, and then a separate three-disc edition that also contains the 98-minute French version of the film that includes hardcore sex sequences shot by Bruno Mattei. I cannot speak to that edition (which runs $10 more MSRP), but the “unrated” cut I watched boasts a 1.66:1 widescreen transfer in a full 4K 1080p restoration that looks incredible. While the colors are on the bland side for most of the movie, there is a great amount of detail and texture to the image and the palette does come to life once the girls are out in the jungle. Don’t be fooled by the roughness of the opening credits; there’s a disclaimer at the start of the movie explaining that an inferior 35mm print had to be used for the beginning and ending credits. It’s hard to believe that an almost 50-year old Jess Franco women in prison movie can get this kind of loving treatment, but here we are — the best time to be a fan of exploitation movies since the heyday of 42nd Street. A lossless mono track is the only audio option offered, but it mixes the elements well enough to get the job done.
As far as bonus features, there’s an interview with Franco, a really good piece with author/Jess Franco scholar Stephen Thrower on the movie and Franco’s career, a collection of deleted and alternate scenes (taken from a variety of sources and leading to major inconsistencies in the quality), the theatrical trailer and a still gallery of production photos, marketing materials and promotional art. Also included in this three-disc collection is a standard definition DVD copy of the movie and, as the third disc, a CD soundtrack of the complete score by Bruno Nicolai.
With its over reliance on softcore sex and nudity, 99 Women is not especially high on my list of favorite women in prison movies. It is, however, one of the better Jess Franco movies I’ve seen — the performances are a little strong, the locations a bit more beautiful and the pacing a good deal peppier than his usual fare. Fans of the genre or of Franco will surely be impressed by just how good Blue Underground’s restoration looks, while the uninitiated would be better off sticking to Caged Heat or The Big Doll House.