99 Women Blu-ray Review (originally published 2016)
On an exotic island prison, luscious young women are abused by sadistic wardens (Mercedes McCambridge and Herbert Lom) and surrender to their own depraved desires. (From Blue Underground’s official synopsis)
The Women in Prison genre, known colloquially as “WIP,” has existed in one way or another since at least the 1930s. As the practice matured, it tended to be encapsulated within the more acceptable confines of pulpy noir (John Cromwell’s Caged, 1950) and B-grade melodrama (Lewis Seiler’s Women's Prison, 1955). Strict censorship rules kept the salaciousness of lesbianism and sadomasochistic violence to a minimum, but the ruthless girl-on-girl fights and subtextual perversions were certainly established. WIP really broke out during the late ‘60s/early ‘70s, when decency restrictions were lifted and a number of other exploitation genres were free to flood the grindhouse and drive-in markets. This new standard was set internationally by the likes of Lee Frost’s Love Camp 7 (the first in a long line of WIP Nazisploitation movies, 1969) and Chih-Hung Kuei’s House of Bamboo Dolls (Chinese: Nu ji zhong ying, 1973). The genre exploded in the ‘70s, thanks in large part to Roger Corman’s New World Pictures, which produced writer/director Jack Hill’s Filipino-set jungle WIP movies, The Big Doll House (1971) and The Big Bird Cage (1972). Eventually, the concept entered the popular culture zeitgeist in the form of spoofs (SCTV and Saturday Night Live both ran satirical sketches on the subject) and made-for-TV movies (specifically Donald Wrye’s hyper-controversial Born Innocent, 1974).
Jess Franco’s 99 Women (German: Der heiße Tod; French: Les Brulantes; aka: Prostitutes in Prison, The Hot Death, and Island of Despair [edited US version], 1969) was a key movie that helped set the standard for WIP’s ‘golden era’ with its oft-used formula. Though it isn’t as debaucherous and perverse as his later WIP flicks, this more credulous rendition is arguably more entertaining in the ways it skirts around pure vulgarity. There is a French-language X-rated cut, but Franco appears to have nothing to do with its construction. It was released several years later with explicit inserts shot by future prince of Italian sleaze, Bruno Mattei, who was working with body-doubles, rather than the original cast. Besides the charm of Franco avoiding censors with abstractly out of focus sex scenes and Technicolor strip-teases, the lack of explicit material forces him to concentrate more on stuff like story, performance, and visually interesting compositions. While the screenplay (devised by Peter Welbeck with uncredited rewrites by Franco, Carlo Fadda, and Milo G. Cuccia) rarely sustains interest on its own merits (there are some boring stretches), it was ‘innovative’ in its own way. Specifically, it helped to develop some of the genre’s enduring character archetypes and used flashbacks to portray the prisoners’ tragic back-stories – a narrative device still employed by the popular mainstream WIP television drama, Orange is the New Black.
The late ‘60s/early ‘70s were arguably the peak of Franco’s career, which took a particularly surrealistic turn after he hooked up with producer Harry Alan Towers. The deal with Towers gave him access to much better talent than he would in the latter ‘70s and ‘80s. Mercedes McCambridge and Herbert Lom may seem to fit the typical ‘down on their luck’ Hollywood types, desperately taking any job they can to remain relevant and pay the bills, but they both seem to be having fun – especially McCambridge, who is basically playing an older, more exploitation-friendly version of her character from Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar (1954). The other ‘prestige’ appearance comes from Austrian actress Maria Schell, who brings real compassion to the anti-McCambridge role, which could be the most boring character in the movie in lesser hands. Franco favorite Maria Rohn, on the other hand, is sort of smothered by the sheer screen presence of other ‘eye-candy’ actresses, like spaghetti western queens Rosalba Neri and Elisa Montés. It’s okay, though, because she steals the show in other Franco films, such as The Girl from Rio (1968) and Venus in Furs (1969).
Blue Underground’s first DVD release (from 2005) of 99 Women featured an unrated cut, followed later by a X-rated cut DVD. Most other DVDs appear to only feature the unrated cut with the exception of Another World Entertainment’s Scandinavian R2 disc (according to Stephen Thrower notes in this BD’s booklet, there are actually four known cuts of the film in existence). For the film’s Blu-ray debut, Blue Underground has used a 4K remaster of the original materials and presents the film in 1080p and its appropriate 1.66:1 aspect ratio. While a substantial upgrade, the transfer has some problems. These appear to be a mix of controllable and uncontrollable issues. On the uncontrollable side of the equation is the age and condition of the original material. A title card explains that negatives were culled from several sources and assembled, graded, and restored (the one piece missing was the English opening/closing credits, so inferior print sources were used for them) to create this new Director’s Cut version.
Details are a bit fuzzy, because that’s the way the film was shot (you can sometimes see the chromatic aberration on some edges) and, if anything, Blue Underground’s remaster goes a long way to separate the elements, especially during the darker scenes, where DVD’s struggled to delineate shapes due to shadows and compression artifacts. The color consistency is also much stronger than yellowed SD versions. On the more controllable side of things is the transfer’s DNR problem, which smothers textures (including a lot of the film grain) and flattens some of the wide-angle sequences. The problem isn’t as obvious in-motion as it is in still frame, but is still clear enough that I’m unable to hold this transfer in the same regard as the company’s pristine Marquis de Sade’s Justine (1968) Blu-ray. It is, however, on-par with their Eugenie....The Story of Her Journey into Perversion (1970) disc.
99 Women is presented in uncompressed DTS-HD Master Audio and its original mono sound. Like many/most of the Franco/Towers movies, it was shot with the actors speaking English, but most (all?) of it was shot without sound, so most (all?) of the dialogue is dubbed, regardless of the language track. The mix is flat and a bit tinny, of course, but volume and clarity remain persistent. The minimal effects work includes ambient ocean waves crashing, which I suppose could be confused with fuzz or other track damage. The soundtrack was composed by Bruno Nicolai, who scored many of the Franco/Towers movies, as well as a number of giallo and spaghetti western compositions (sometimes in collaboration with Ennio Morricone). The music has a smoother sound quality than the dialogue/effects tracks and features very little distortion at high volume levels.
Jess' Women (17:32, SD) – This interview with Franco was originally included with Blue Underground’s unrated DVD release. The director discusses his relationship with Towers, casting, and shooting on location.
Jess, Harry & 99 Women (16:26. HD) – The only brand new video extra is an interview with Franco expert and author of Murderous Passions: The Delirious Cinema of Jesus Franco, Stephen Thrower. Thrower contextualizes the Franco/Towers relationship, expands upon the story that Franco tells about filming 99 Women’s during off-days while shooting The Girl from Rio, the history of the prison location in Franco’s other films, Tower’s ability to wine & dine talented actors, and the history of Franco’s obsession with making WIP movies.
Three extended/alternate scenes (22:57, SD) – These sequences do not include the Matei hardcore inserts; rather, they were meant to fill time on the most censored releases of the movie.
Poster & still gallery
Original motion picture soundtrack by Bruno Nicolai (on CD)
The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray image quality.