Appellate Judge Rob Lineberger can barely handle one woman, so hats off to Jess Franco.
"You have no names, only numbers! You have no future, only the past! You have no hopes, only regret! You have no friends…only me!"—Warden Thelma Diaz
Jess Franco's Eugenie so captivated me with its artistry, spare beauty, eroticism, and beatnik vibe that I couldn't believe Jess Franco's name wasn't being hailed in the streets. What a Eurocult gem! A little investigation revealed that Jesus Franco has a filmography that stretches into the hundreds; if you do the math, you'll quickly realize that his works could not possibly all be great. In fact, Franco is often labeled a hack.
He isn't a hack in my book. Jess Franco may have a hyperactive drive of film production that doesn't allow him to spend much time on any given work, and he may work at the fringe of cinema. But he still knows how to use the camera, he knows how to coax believable performances from actors with all levels of experience, and he isn't afraid to make the movies he wants to make. 99 Women evidences all of Franco's directorial strengths. Unfortunately, it also provides a lot of fuel for the "hack" argument with its confusing structure, overreaching plot, long stretches of boredom, and laughable action scenes.
Facts of the Case
Thelma Diaz (Mercedes McCambridge, Johnny Guitar) and Governor Santos (Herbert Lom, Night and the City) oversee the women's and men's prisons, respectively, on La Isla De Muerte, or (dum dum dum DUMMMmmmm) the Island of Death. Women who end up on the forbidding island can look forward to…not looking forward to anything. Sexual predators abound, from cops and cellmates to the men on the other side of the island. Medical care is nonexistent, as is a good meal, a soft bed, and clothing that does not resemble a gray pillowcase with armholes.
Among the 99 female prisoners are Rosalie (Valentina Godoy, The Girl Watchers), Natalie (Luciana Paluzzi, Thunderball), and Zoe (Rosalba Neri, Lady Frankenstein). They are joined by Marie (Maria Rohm, Eugenie), a doe-eyed naïf who (gasp!) may be innocent. Marie shows concern for Natalie, who shivers with the D.T.'s in the next cell. Marie's touching display of humanity sparks the interest of Rosalie and Zoe. One of them has the best intentions towards Marie, while the other does not.
The government sends Leonie Caroll (Maria Schell, Superman) to observe the prison's program of discipline, and to relieve Warden Diaz if necessary. Marie's hard-luck story touches Leonie, but Warden Diaz advises her not to be sucked into the ruse. Will Marie prove the innocent or the deceptive con? Will the Warden's hard line prove necessary or inhumane? Above all, will that rubber snake in the jungle ever become an actual threat to the actors?
99 mujeres, or 99 Women depending on your native tongue, claims to be the mother of the Women in Prison genre. Google doesn't seem to think so: When I searched for "women in prison movies," neither Jess Franco nor 99 Women made it to the first page. This is either a great tragedy of overlooked film history, or a case of marketing hyperbole.
99 Women is certainly loaded with Women in Prison clichés; if it
was indeed the first film to feature these elements, then I apologize for my
99 Women has it all and more, but few of these clichés are convincingly executed. On the other hand, Franco does play with the clichés to give us unexpected outcomes, and in the process tries to convince us that he is making a "statement" film. The net effect of these vignettes is several minutes of boring fodder capped by a few seconds of twist that make you go "huh, that's kinda neat."
For its genre, 99 Women has a brainy tone and shows remarkable restraint. There is very little gratuitous nudity; no shower scenes or unnecessary disrobings occur to fuel our prurient interests. Themes of prison cruelty and psychological horror fill the vacuum, but these replacements are not compelling enough to keep Women in Prison film aficionados from noticing the lack of tacky sex and violence.
When the escape sequence arrives, the film breaks down into a morass of confusing subthemes and uncertain story arc. Between unconvincing snake attacks and wandering gangs of unsupervised male prisoners, we have plenty of time to ponder what is supposed to be happening—and find the events lacking. The finale is artfully composed and reveals the bitter inhumanity of the prisoners, but it rings hollow because no actual character development has occurred.
One of the perks of Franco's association with producer Harry Alan Towers was access to bigger names. Veteran character actor Herbert Lom brings an air of legitimacy to the administrative affairs of La Isla De Muerte, though he is upstaged by Oscar winner Mercedes McCambridge's gusto. Her heavy accent, social brusqueness, and clipped physicality paint a memorable, if somewhat overstated, picture of an entrenched warden who has forgotten social nicety. She out-acts Maria Schell, but Schell's character is more compelling because she undergoes the most development.
Cameos abound in the prison cells, from Bond girl Luciana Paluzzi to the delectable Rosalba Neri. Neri is the most watchable vixen, from the standpoints of both character development and naughty scenes. I was surprised by Maria Rohm, who I've come to regard as a bona fide actress. She was so virulent and menacing in Eugenie that it took me nearly twenty minutes to decide she was the same actress playing Marie. Rohm's palpable menace and depravity from that role are completely absent, stolen away by an innocent lamb.
These intriguing (if not uniformly solid) performances, the periodically moving camerawork, and a steady stream of "aha!" moments are the ballast to a largely uninvolving, slow-moving film. If you're a fan of the Women in Prison genre, this entry is different in the wrong ways: reduced nudity and depravity, increased conceptual themes. Ironically, that blend is not going to satisfy those looking for a sophisticated prison film, which leaves 99 Women to Franco and Eurocult fans.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Blue Underground proves once again that they are the cult cineaste's best friend. The lavish presentation almost convinces you that 99 Women is a misunderstood classic of pseudo-documentary film.
The key salesman is, of course, Franco himself. His interviews are always interesting, a paradoxical blend of self-promotion and self-deprecation. He shares a few funny stories about the production, and makes a strong case for the film's merits. I wasn't enamored with the film, but if you like it or like Franco, this interview is a keeper.
The deleted and extended scenes show the extent to which 99 Women was butchered by the international market, with sad excuses for replacement scenes and oddly incongruent hardcore splices (which are merely hinted at, not actually shown). The quality of these scenes is bad to wretched. The DVD extras are rounded out by a nondescript photo gallery and a trailer.
Blue Underground has done its usual fine job with the video transfer. Though 99 Women is among Franco's better-funded films, it betrays his low-budget roots. The print is faded and grainy, with low contrast and inconsistent levels of detail. However, the transfer is stable, clear, and clean, showing the film in its best light.
One of 99 Women's strongest elements is the soundtrack. Bruno Nicolai is a gifted composer, and his jazzy notes accent many a mediocre scene. Barbara McNair belts out the blues-meets-surf-rock anthem "The Day I Was Born," an effective, haunting tune that gives us a sense of jaded desperation. This theme is used to great effect in the opening and closing moment of the film. It is overused everywhere else, losing its impact with each repetition. The soundtrack has volume fluctuations, brown-outs, and periodic harshness, but is otherwise clear. There aren't any surround format remixes, but as an audio purist that does not bother me.
Franco is equally facile with eroticism and piercing social commentary. 99 Women de-emphasizes the erotic in favor of prison expose. Be it through cliché or frequent imitation, these themes lose some of their power and become, if not trite, at least uninteresting. Good acting and good music make up for some of this, but they aren't compelling enough to recommend the film for any but true Franco and Eurocult fans.
The court sentences 99 Women to a 20-year stint on La Isla De Muerte.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Blue Underground
• Interview with Director Jess Franco
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