99 Women + DVD extras (1969)
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Genre: Action, Drama, Horror
Here it is, Jesus Franco's classic Women In Prison epic 99 Women, which includes the Unrated Director's Cut of the film, and all the extra footage from the R1 DVD on Blue Underground! The chicks are all hot as hell, the story is well done and somewhat emotional, and the acting (especially from Mercedes McCambridge and Herbert Lom) is stellar across the board. The extras include a short documentary about Franco (with soft VobSub or .srt subs to choose from), two deleted scenes, the original US trailer, and an alternate ending from the Spanish cut of the film (which also includes both soft VobSub or .srt subs).The story concerns Marie (Maria Rohm), a pretty young woman whom we meet as she’s being incarcerated in an island prison named the Castillo de la Muerte. Immediately upon her arrival, Marie is stripped of her clothes and issued a ratty prison uniform and a number: 99. After her arrival, Marie quickly learns that the prison is in a rather poor state: it is lorded over by a harsh warden (Mercedes McCambridge ), who sells the girls to a corrupt governor (Herbert Lom) who also heads the island’s male prison. One night, as Marie lies in her cell, she hears a fellow inmate’s moans of pain and quickly discerns that the girl is sick. Thinking fast, she calls out for help but finds no sympathy from the guards or the warden; the girl dies, and Marie is sentenced to confinement for her “disruptive behavior” and is basically raped by her cellmate, Zoie (Rosalba Neri), who is being pressured by the governor to do so.
Thankfully, the inordinate number of inmate fatalities has alerted the government to potential trouble at the prison, which leads to the arrival of an inspector (Maria Schell, who goes through the whole movie with a Mad-TV-Vancome-Lady sneer), to oversee the prison. In a rather shocking turn (though we must remember that 99 Women preceeded most WIP movies, so it doesn’t have to play by any set of rules), the inspector actually seems genuinely interested in the prisoners’ treatment; she makes sure they are fed decently, treated humanely, and punished fairly. Still, Marie doesn’t think it fair that she is here at all. Killing a rapist in self-defense, she asserts, led to her imprisonment, as no one seems to believe her story and simply considers her a prostitute who killed a john. Fed up with their incarceration, Marie, and two other prisoners devise a daring plan to escape the prison and the island. Indeed, the three do make it into the surrounding jungle, but its vicious wildlife, the prison’s guards, and some escaped inmates from the nearby male prison all conspire to make their escape from the island a very difficult task.
Considering the genre and Franco’s track record, I had prepared myself for quite a brutal little experience on my way in to 99 Women—indeed, I may have been a little too prepared. To be sure, there are a couple of rough scenes to be found here, but the Castillo de la Muetre isn’t going to be giving Abu Ghraib a run for its money any time soon, and Ajita Wilson makes Mercedes McCambridge look about as vicious as Mother Theresa. Still, it can’t all be about extreme sadism, can it? Indeed, this is where 99 Women really shines—not as a gross-out cavalcade of Sadean tortures and perversions but as an actual, honest-to-god good movie.
For starters, Franco’s sense of the visual is at its best here. The film drifts with ease from very classy, classic professional cinematographic set-ups to “typically-Franco” scenes of delirious, poetic beauty, like soft-focus, over-zoomed sex scenes and a gorgeous striptease sequence with the equally gorgeous Rosalba Neri that’s reminiscent of Argento in its use of sumptuous colored lighting. All in all, from the bedroom to the prison cell to the jungle, this is one gorgeously photographed film that is definitely worth a look for anyone who likes his visuals sumptuous.
Similarly, the whole film is pervaded by an attitude that just makes it strangely appealing. Indeed, even if it’s nowhere near as trash as some might expect (or like), 99 Women is just plain compelling for some reason. One reason for this might be the mystery behind Rohm’s character (in addition to the fact that she’s so damn pretty it’s basically impossible to wrench your eyes off her), for, in having her tell her own story, Franco makes it impossible for us to tell whether or not she is guilty; Marie certainly makes herself out to be innocent, but we can never be completely sure, and, after all, why would she be convicted by a system that (for once) isn’t being portrayed as particularly unjust?
Finally, in addition to all this, there’s the fact that the film is, over-all, just undeniably fun. From the campy jungle scenes with the rather unexciting “snake-attack” to the earliest incarnations of cinematic jailhouse cat-fights to the film’s catchy-as-hell theme song, 99 Women is just a lot of fun.
Extras are similarly, and expectedly, well-handled. Starting things off is the requisite theatrical trailer that is just as delightfully sensationalistic as you would expect.
Next up is an 18-minute interview with Jess Franco titled “Jess’ Women,” which counts as yet another well-done Blue Underground documentary. In this, Franco discusses working with his international cast and the various versions of the film that have been released around the world, and he even takes time to decry the French version with XXX inserts that Blue Underground itself looks to have finally released about a month-and-a-half late.
Finally, the disk concludes with a collection of three deleted / alternate scenes from various versions of the film. The first, running about 5 minutes, is an extended version of Marie’s flashback that really doesn’t contribute anything more than the shorter version in the body of the film. Over-all, it looks good and probably wasn’t included in this presentation due to some parts’ missing sound. Next up is a massive 16-minute flashback sourced from a fuzzy old Greek VHS (in English, with Greek subtitles). This segment provides a different flashback for Marie’s cellmate, Zoie, which eliminates Franco’s beautifully shot striptease sequence and replaces it with awful soap-opera-level histrionics posing as a back-story. A preface before the segment makes sure to point out that it was shot separately, without anyone from the film’s participation, and that’s a good thing because it would really speak poorly of them. I can’t imagine the ruinous effect grinding the film to a halt for this tripe would have had; watching the segment is like watching a whole different movie (though, literally, I guess I was...). Finally, a two-minute Spanish extended ending (in Spanish with removable English subtitles), also sourced from VHS, has been included as well. Again, this is a welcome omission, as it ruins the film’s hard-hitting twist ending by putting a ridiculous sunny face on things that makes no sense considering what has just happened. In his interview, Franco expresses a similar sentiment, saying that this conclusion was shot for the toned-down Spanish version and that he, too, is unhappy with it. While these scenes themselves are, generally, quite infuriating, it was great of Blue Underground to go to the trouble of including them on this release, as it shows us what people around the world have had to put up with when viewing this film.
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