Color, 1968, 89m.
Directed by Jess Franco
Starring Maria Schell, Luciana Paluzzi, Mercedes McCambridge, Herbert Lom, Maria Rohm, Rosalba Neri
Blue Underground (Blu-ray & DVD) (US R0 HD/NTSC), Mediumrare (DVD) (UK R2 PAL) / WS (1.66:1) (16:9)
Color, 1968, 89m.
Though women-in-prison movies certainly existed before this one (see I Want to Live!), this exploitation classic from the unbeatable team of Jess Franco and Harry Alan Towers is really the first modern "babes behind bars" titles and established the template which many copied during the 1970s. From Roger Corman favorites like Caged Heat and The Big Doll House to Linda Blair '80s favorites to many future Franco titles like Barbed Wire Dolls, everything traces back to this one.
The storyline is quite familiar by now, as sweet young blonde Marie (Rohm) arrives at a desolate prison run by a browbeating, vicious warden (Oscar winner McCambridge) who admonishes the girls, "From now on, you have no name, only a number. There is no future, only the past. No hope, only regret. You have no friends, only me." Each women is assigned a number (with the current tally hitting 99, natch), and local politico Governor Santos (Lom) sees no problem with abusing the girls for his own amusement. However, trouble arrives in the form of administrator Lenoie (Schell), a do-gooder who shakes things up for the female commandant and her conspirator; meanwhile, after the girls share each other's sob stories that led to their incarceration, an escape plan begins to hatch.
Though quite mild by today's standards (a couple of mild lesbian caresses and some quick flashes of topless skin), 99 Women was considered hot stuff in the late '60s thanks to an effective ad campaign and the prospect of seeing known Hollywood faces getting down and dirty with female inmates. While the Nazi and nunsploitation subgenres were beginning to flourish around the same time, this was regarded as a few cuts above its ilk thanks to competent lensing and the fact that female criminals being punished was a bit more acceptable than sisters of the cloth or concentration camp inmates. Of course, compared to subsequent entries the ordeals here are fairly minor - heck, Rohm never even smudges her lipstick - but the drama is still engaging thanks to some committed performances, particularly from the expressive Schell. That theme song is awfully catchy, too, for better or worse.
Blue Underground's first "unrated" DVD from 2005 presents the 1968 X-rated cut of the film (an alternate French cut with eight additional minutes of hardcore solo female inserts is available separately and worth a look if you're a die hard completist, but it's pretty rocky viewing). The picture quality is quite a substantial improvement over prior versions, which were usually drenched in an ugly shade of brown and all but incomprehensible during darker scenes. Though only one flashback sequence reminiscent of the nightclub acts in Succubus really shows off the visual flair of which Franco is capable, the film is still one of the director's slicker achievements. The earthy color scheme achieves an appropriately despairing ambience, and the moody cell lighting works just fine. Interestingly, this film also marked Franco's first collaboration with Swiss producer Erwin C. Dietrich, who oversaw some of the director's more noteworthy '70s titles like Doriana Gray and Love Letters of a Portuguese Nun. (In fact, the jungle-heavy third act of 99 Women feels like a dry run for Franco and Dietrich's Women in Cellblock 9). Franco appears for another solid video interview, the 19-minute "Jess' Women," in which he fondly recalls working with all of the notable actresses (including Thunderball's Paluzzi in a surprisingly minor role). Also included are three deleted scenes: an alternate longer version of Marie's flashback sequence, a softer alternate cut of the backstory for Zoie (played by future Eurocult starlet Rosalba Neri), and the alternate, longer Spanish ending (which looks oddly squished). Also included are a DVD-Rom Franco bio and comments by Tim Lucas, poster and still galleries, and a fun theatrical trailer: "First, The Fox! Then, Therese and Isabelle! And now, 99 Women! - without men! Forced to perform degrading acts which strip them of all humanity!... Whisper to your friends that you saw it!")
Needless to say, this was a prime title for a Blu-ray upgrade, and Blue Underground delivered it as a three-disc set in 2016 featuring a Blu-ray, a DVD (identical extras), and a CD soundtrack featuring the full Bruno Nicolai score (same as the discontinued Digitmovies release). Billed as the "unrated director's cut" (the 89min 34sec version), it's been assembled from mostly prime film material and looks great, though the opening and closing English credits have been pulled from a darker, softer 35mm print. English SDH, French, and Spanish subtitles are offered for the DTS-HD MA English mono soundtrack. The "Jess' Women" featurette is carried over along with the three deleted scenes and an upgraded poster and still gallery, while Stephen Thrower (author of the essential Murderous Passions Franco study) contributes a new 16-minute appraisal of the film ("Jess, Harry & 99 Women") about its place in the nine-film Franco/Towers partnership after their Fu Manchu films and The Girl from Rio. He covers the possible basis of the film's title in Spanish pop culture, the two men's sympatico movie sensibilities, and the effect Towers' ability to procure big stars had on Franco's career. Thrower also pens a very illuminating set of liner notes, sketching out the basics of the film's undeniable status as a key Franco film (and its De Sade influences) and carefully detailing the differences between the various editions released in Spain, France, the United States, and Greece. For an extra ten bucks, you can also get the same set with the "notorious French version" included as well in all its seedy glory.