99 WOMEN (1969)
Director: Jess Franco
Blue Underground

In cult director Jess Franco’s initial stab at a “women in prison” epic, three sentenced females arrive by boat to the island where they will imprisoned – “The Castle of Death.” The main girl is a pretty blond named Marie (Maria Rohm), but since these prisoners are only called by their numbers, she becomes branded “98.” Marie makes the mistake of informing the butchy warden (Oscar winner Mercedes McCambridge) of an ill patient in the next cell. After the expected punishment, she finds herself at the wandering hands of a feisty lesbian (Rosalba Neri), as well as the shady Governor (Herbert Lom) who apparently reaps the benefits of having sex with the prettier inmates that the warden delivers to him. Later, a sympathetic investigator (Maria Schell) arrives on the scene to witness firsthand how badly these girls have been abused and mistreated, but it may be too late…

A multi-country production made during Franco’s fruitful tenure with producer Harry Alan Towers, 99 WOMEN is an ok scenic drama with a few sensational scenes that are considered tame by today’s standards. Franco would go on to make much nastier, sexually explicit “women in prison” exploiters (BARBED WIRED DOLLS, ILSA THE WICKED WARDEN, SADOMANIA, etc.), but 99 WOMAN was one of the first of the genre to cater to the grindhouse crowds, and no doubt inspired the onslaught of similar jailbird celluloid that came out of the U.S. and Europe over the next decade. The film includes catfights, soft lesbian make-out scenes (shot in extreme close-ups), prisoner flashbacks as to why they’re in the slammer (Maria Rohm’s is especially laughable), an attempted escape in the jungle followed by an off-camera gang rape, and an uneventful riot. Lom plays his sleazy part cool and low-key, while McCambridge overacts with every twitch and inflection. The Euro cult actresses are nicely on display here, with Neri and Rohm doing a fair share of undressing, but prominently-billed Luciana Paluzzi (THUNDERBALL, THE GREEN SLIME) has nothing more than a cameo and is killed off within the first few minutes. The score by Bruno Nicolai really sets a stark mood, and the pop theme song is performed by Barbara McNair, star of Franco’s VENUS IN FURS.

There are many different versions of 99 WOMEN with various running times (the U.K. cut reportedly runs only 70 minutes!), but Blue Underground’s excellent DVD release represents the most common version, which is considered the “unrated director’s cut” (the company has also released a separate X-rated French version, which features sex inserts not directed by Franco). Letterboxed at 1.66:1 with anamorphic enhancement, the transfer looks very pleasing to the eyes, with bright colors and sharp detail. There are only slight hints of grain and print damage. The mono English track is very clear, with some minor background hiss in spots.

Extras include an informative 19-minute interview with Jess Franco entitled “Jess’ Women.” Among the topics covered are some fun anecdotes about McCambridge, how the director convinced Lom to shave his head for the part, and the reaction he got from Deke Hayward when AIP released the film in the States. There’s also a section of deleted/alternate scenes. The first is an extended scene of Maria Rohm’s flashback (in German), complete with a kinky faux court trial and Franco himself donned in a Boler hat and holding an umbrella. Next is a longer, alternate version of Rosalba Neri's flashback (culled from a Greek VHS release) which removes some choice sexy stuff in favor of a boring tragic love triangle between her character’s sister and her man. The lurid footage was not done by Franco and looks to be shot in the U.S. Last is a happier, alternative ending (taken from the “soft” Spanish version), showing a concerned doctor and some officials turning up by boat to save the day for the doomed prisoners. The American trailer is included (First… THE FOX, then THERESE AND ISABELLE… and NOW… ‘99 Women’ – Without Men!”), as well as a still and poster gallery and a Franco bio written by Tim Lucas which is accessible as a DVD-ROM option. (George R. Reis)