Thursday, March 31, 2011

1 Nasty Pokey: "99 Women" (1969)

Jesus Franco is said to have invented the modern-day "women in prison" exploitation subgenre with this silly little mess.

Blonde bombshell Marie (Maria Rohn) is sent to an island prison run by Superintendent Thelma (a slumming Mercedes McCambridge). The prison has almost one hundred women (hence the title) and no men, with the exception of island governor Santos (a slumming Herbert Lom), who has his choice of ladies whenever he visits the prison...which seems to be often.

Yet another prisoner has died, and the ministry of justice sends wide-eyed Leonie (Maria Schell) to the island to investigate the conditions there. She immediately stops the hellish punishments and night guard duty (for reasons never made clear), and suddenly Marie and new friend Helga (Eliza Montes) decide this would be a perfect opportunity to escape.

With five writers on this thing (and only one, Harry Alan Towers, credited under a pen name) and the infamous Franco at the helm, I thought this film would have a bit more spunk. Instead, the audience must suffer through McCambridge's completely off-putting Method acting and mystery accent. We sit through a sweating Lom leering after the prisoners. We wonder just what Schell is doing in this picture, since the ending renders her character pointless. While this is a classic in the exploitation field, a bare nipple doesn't pop up until almost a third of the way through the dull story. The ladies are lovely to look at, but watch out for Franco's blurred lesbian love tryst, which might have you making sure your DVD player is firing on all cylinders.

Of course, this is garbage, but some of the scenes work, like Marie's reason for being sent to the prison. Rosalba Neri seems to be having fun as the tough Zoie, and Schell's earnest performance is easy on the eyes and ears, complementing the shrill McCambridge. Since this was an international production, many versions exist, some with an extended ending, different scenes, and hardcore pornographic inserts (so to speak).

"99 Women," also known as "Island of Despair," isn't the best film Jess Franco made (I'm still looking for that), but it eventually delivers the grindhouse goods, albeit in a bored and routine manner. (* *) out of five stars.