Directed By: Jess Franco
Starring: Maria Schell, Luciana Paluzzi, Mercedes McCambridge
Tag line: "Whisper to your friends you saw it!"
Trivia: Italian cult horror film director Bruno Mattei was hired to shoot 20 minutes of additional hardcore footage, which was then added to a 1974 French x-rated re-release
Now this is more like it!
After being let down by his 1975 flick Women Behind Bars, Jess Franco won me over with 99 Women, a chicks in prison film with a solid cast and a story featuring enough twists and turns to keep you entertained.
Though likely innocent of any crime, Marie (Maria Rohn) is shipped off to a penal colony situated on a remote island, where she is referred to only as “Prisoner #98”. Known as “The Castle of Death”, this women’s-only penitentiary is run by Warden Thelma Diaz (Mercedes McCambridge), whose harsh approach to law and order has caused the deaths of several inmates. Things have gotten so bad, in fact, that the local Governor (Herbert Lom), who also abuses his power by making the prisoners have sex with him, has warned Diaz to tone it down a little, before the Prison Board is forced to get involved.
Alas, one of the Island’s other new arrivals, Inmate #99 (Elisa Montes), dies her first night there, and as a result psychologist Leonie Caroll (Maria Schell) is sent in to investigate Diaz and her methods. Caroll insists that the prisoners be treated with more respect, but for Marie and Natalie, aka #97 (Luciana Paluzzi), it’s too little too late. With the help of fellow convict Rosalie (Valentina Godoy), Marie and #97 manage to escape, but is there truly a way off this island, or is it only a matter of time before they’re back in their cells?
Neither 99 Women nor Women Behind Bars is heavy in the skin department (most of the nude scenes in 99 Women are shot in extreme close-up, making it difficult to see anything). What sets the two films apart is the way they approach the material; while Women Behind Bars is both complex and boring, 99 Women is always engaging, thanks in large part to its impressive cast. McCambridge is over-the-top and damned entertaining as the fanatical Diaz, while Maria Schell is more subdued but equally as effective as the sympathetic observer trying to make a difference (the animosity that develops between their characters adds yet another layer of drama to what is already a tension-heavy motion picture).
As the lone male in the main cast, Herbert Lom delivers a sleazy as hell performance as the Governor who occasionally has his way with the women prisoners; one scene in particular, where he leers at Marie and #76 (Rosalba Neri) as they get it on with each other, is downright creepy. As for the inmates, they’re also well-portrayed, especially Maria Rohn as Marie, who wins our sympathy the moment we meet her.
In addition, 99 Women offers up some exciting sequences, including a couple of fight scenes and an escape that has its share of heart-pounding moments (like when the escapees find themselves face-to-face with the horny convicts from the men’s prison on the other side of the island). More than a good Jess Franco movie, 99 Women is just plain good, and ranks alongside Count Dracula and Venus in Furs as one the director’s better outings.