A look at Jess Franco’s trailblazing 1969 women-in-prison film

Though we cannot fully credit director Jess Franco and his frequent producer Harry Alan Towers with inventing the horror/exploitation film subgenre known as the “women in prison” movie (or WIP for short), we can certainly credit them for defining the parameters of what people now expect from it. Since the dawn of cinema, Hollyweird has reveled in stories of lovely lasses crammed into confined spaces and confronted with dehumanization and worse (my favorite proto-WIP flick is 1950s tawdry and charming Caged), but Franco blended that barbarity with the sort of salaciousness audiences were hungering for in their downmarket cinema; the resulting opus was 1969’s 99 Women, a rough and tough and super-sexual trash classic that kicked into high gear our obsession with girls getting sent upstate and, despite the indignities they are subjected to, always finding time for a bit of sweaty, illicit same-sex coupling. Simply put, no 99 Women, no Orange Is the New Black.

I remember seeing 99 Women on late night television under the title Island of Desire and I was delighted to finally stumble upon a film by the then obscure Jess Franco. Of course, the Island of Desire cut is shorn of any and all sex and nudity so I was tad let down. But after I licked my wounds, I was still enamored with the look and feel of the film. From the opening moments, where Barbara McNair’s exotic song “Day I Was Born” congas across the soundtrack and a bevy of lovelies led by Towers’ muse and wife Maria Rohm drift into the port of a monolithic stone-age castle that will be their new prison home, there is a palpable feeling of obsession and invention here. And that’s exactly what was happening off screen. Franco and Towers had to pause production of their sexy thriller The Girl from Rio for a week and, instead of letting their cast and crew (who they had to keep paying anyway) languish, they opted to cobble together a film to shoot quick and dirty on the same locations. This was that film.

At this point, Franco was working almost exclusively with the savvy Towers and its well known that their collaborations during this fecund period were among Franco’s most opulent and expensive. They just looked great, with international casts, dreamy sex and violence, gorgeous soundtracks and lush locations. 99 Women is no exception. Shot in Rio and Spain, 99 Women is far cry from the cheap and leering films (not that this is a bad thing, however, especially in terms of Franco’s work) the director would make for French producers Eurocine and Swiss producer Erwin C. Dietrich; this film is delicious to look at and listen to, with a typically emotional, complex and grandiose Bruno Nicolai soundtrack that elevates the already handsome production values to epic heights. And then there’s the cast, which includes the great Mercedes McCambridge (four years away from voicing Pazuzu in The Exorcist) who stalks and glowers around the island prison like some sort of monster, and the amazing Herbert Lom (who would star in the equally-classic Eurotrash gem Mark of the Devil that same year) as the evil Warden, who here looks like a cross between Kim Jong-il and a Bond villain. And like many Towers productions of the time, 99 Women got a sizable U.S.release and was a modest hit.

There is plenty of sexuality and nudity on display but, as this was ground zero for the sleazy WIP wave, it’s comparatively restrained. There are other cuts including a different Spanish version (99 Mujeres) that is shorn of much sex and and an Italian cut that spotlights star Luciana Paluzzi. There’s also a hardcore porn version that Franco had nothing whatsoever to do with and, though he himself would direct his share of porn, the director disowns any of the cuts save for this one.

Though Franco would make his most personal and interesting work later on, when he was operating without any money, 99 Women stands as a highlight of the colorful and eccentric collaboration between the director and Towers. It was a golden time for both men in their careers and that spirit is alive and thriving in this joyously oppressive film.

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