Director: Jess Franco
Blue Underground

Upon seeing Severin Films’ discs of two quite lesser Jess Franco films (INCONFESSABLE ORGIES OF EMANUELLE and SEXUAL STORY OF O), who could be blamed for wondering if the bottom of the Franco barrel had been scraped for the DVD market? With the release of Franco’s WOMEN BEHIND BARS, an obscure Eurocine women-in-prison, fans may see some light at the end of the tunnel. While this isn’t one of Franco’s best, it’s a light, entertaining diversion that manages to remain interesting while forgoing most of the sleazy excess that permeated most of Franco’s WIP films from this period.

Hard-boiled femme fatale Shirley Fields is thrown into prison for six years after shooting her boyfriend, a “crime of passion.” However, when it is learned that the murder took place shortly after her boyfriend double-crossed his partners in a daring diamond heist, the hunt is on for the jewels, with Shirley as the only key to their whereabouts. Coming from all sides are the slimy warden; his buxom blonde prisoner-cum-lover; a mysterious insurance investigator (who narrates); and a violent gangster thirsty for treasure.

Viewers familiar with Franco’s WIP films from this same era (namely the Erwin C. Dietrich-produced BARBED WIRE DOLLS, LOVE CAMP, and WOMEN IN CELL BLOCK 9) will be pleasantly surprised at how restrained and downright innocent WOMEN BEHIND BARS is! Other than a brief lesbian scene (with loving zoom-in close-ups of Lina Romay’s culo), a whipping scene, and a show-stopping set piece featuring Lina receiving electric shock treatment to her vagina (Franco remembers to zoom in on Romay’s jiggling breasts as she screams for mercy), this is WIP lite. In fact, the script focuses more on the diamond heist and crime story, using the women’s prison as a backdrop more than anything else. Don’t be dissuaded, though, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. While the pacing is a little slow at times, the ludicrous dubbing more than makes up for it (including such nuggets as “Stoolies make me puke!” and “Turn around! I’m tired of looking at your ugly face!”). Rather than throw in endless lesbian and torture scenes, Franco takes a different approach to the genre, more interested in a throwback to the film noir genre than pushing the envelope; as a matter of fact, similarities to Roger Corman’s gritty SWAMP DIAMONDS, another crime tale masquerading as a WIP film, are too clear to ignore.

As a leading lady, Lina Romay more often than not left a lot to be desired in the acting department, but she seems up to the challenge of playing a bad girl (she even gets to kill three characters and figures well into the surprise ending) and she, as usual, appears in several eye-catching nude scenes. Jess Franco appears in a supporting role as the tough gangster after the diamonds, and roughs up real-life long-time girlfriend Lina Romay in a stand-out scene; in another odd casting clash with reality, the actor playing Lina’s murdered boyfriend was in fact Lina’s real-life boyfriend at the time, Ramon Ardid! And like many of Franco’s films from this time, blonde Martine Stedil, this writer’s choice for most underrated Franco starlet, adds allure and charm to the cast. Go into WOMEN BEHIND BARS with an open mind; its tongue-in-cheek focus on the crime thriller aspect of the script is refreshing and as long as you don’t expect wall-to-wall lesbianism and sleaze, you should have a good time with this one.

The anamorphic 2.35:1 scope transfer of WOMEN BEHIND BARS is spectacular, with clear colors and a bright image; there are no signs of print damage or debris, indicating this is probably from the original negative from the Eurocine vaults! The mono English audio is a little rough in the dialogue department, requiring some volume cranking during some scenes, though the wonderful musical score (by frequent Franco composer Daniel White) is brought to life beautifully. It’s too bad a French language option with English subtitles isn’t included, but it’s not really required to appreciate and enjoy the film.

Director Jess Franco, who has never given a bad interview, appears in another illuminating featurette, and even reveals that of all his women-in-prison films, WOMEN BEHIND BARS is his favorite (this writer’s tastes tend to lean towards SADOMANIA). In 17 minutes, Franco muses about working with Lina Romay (the two are still together after all these years), his introduction to women-in-prison films, the cast members of the film (including Martine Stedil), shooting in Nice, France (with contemporary shots of the same locations), his theories on sexuality and pornography, and the ridiculous notion that the film utilized stolen footage from BARBED WIRE DOLLS. Helpful English subtitles are included. A French trailer (with welcome English subtitles) plays up the action angle, barely touching on the women’s prison of the title. (Casey Scott)