Saturday, June 25, 2011

99 Women

99 Women
Directed by Jess Franco
Spain/England/Italy/
West Germany, 1968
Women In Prison, 89min
Distributed by: Njuta Films


Harry Allen Towers
, may he rest in peace whilst he rest of us enjoy his legacy. Towers is an important character for me and my introduction to the world of Jess Franco. I’ll get back to that in a moment, but first some stuff about the story of Harry Allen Towers.

He started out as a child actor, I know nothing of what movies he was in nor does anyone else when trying to find stuff our. But this probably came in handy when he started scriptwriting for radio and DJ’ing in the 30-40’s. He landed a gig at the BBC where he came up with the programme March of the Movies, a good fashioned movie show. During the 50’s he distributed radio shows to abroad and through his company Towers of London, he helped pirate radio like Radio Luxembourg. When commercial TV hit Britain, Towers was the goo to man and pretty soon he was supplying ITV with cheap programmes shot on film. After a string of generic TV theatre productions he more or less invented the English version of the TV movie. Finally – or rather the start of the career we will remember him for - came during the sixties, when he started producing movies.

Towers produced some one hundred plus movies, nine of them with Jess Franco between 1968-1970. But for me the introduction came through the satellite station Super Chanel. Super Chanel was an odd little bastard as it was a rabid mix of old TV serial re-runs, music magazines, music videos, live concerts and old movies. This is where I first saw Franco’s La Conde Dracula (Count Dracula) 1970 at the end of the eighties and damn did it leave an impression. Tracking down more Franco movies – from the UK – the titles I could get hold of where more of the Harry Allen Towers produced Franco movies. Amongst these I found several movies that laid something of a Franco foundation for me.

The quickfix for 99 Women is that a bunch of women are boated out to Castillio de Muerte – the Castle of death – where they spend time for crimes they supposedly have committed - guilty or not. The best ingredient for seedy women in prison flicks, is to fill the movie with sexual harassment, vile prison staffers and scantily clad inmates. 99 Women has it all. Superintendant Thelma Diaz [Mercedes McCambridge] runs her camp with an iron fist. Prisoners who are ill during the night do not deserve treatment and inmates who try to help end up getting punished. On the other side of the island lies an all male work camp run by Governor Santos [Herbert Lom] sinister, sleazy friend of Diaz who runs the all male camp on the other side of the island, lets him have his way with the female inmates. A second executive, Leonie Caroll [Maria Schell] comes to inspect rumours of poor prisoner conditions and strikes up an odd friendship with new inmate #99 [Maria Rohm]. No W.I.P. film is complete without a daring escape plan and 99 Women blasts into its last act with just such a moment.

Co-written by Franco and Towers – under his nom de plume Peter Welbeck99 Women sports a good solid script with several details that make it a splendid movie. Pay attention to the first fifteen minutes of this movie. These are amongst the finest establishing minutes you may ever see, and just one example of what I mean with a detailed script where threads run fluently through the narrative. The boat is on its way to the island, the three women are introduced and their archetypes are established.

They are all very determined archetypes that are all established within the first fifteen minutes. Marie [Rohm - Towers wife, hence her starring in many of his movies.] soon to be renamed #99 is concerned and almost naively asks where they are being taken already on the boat and not half as cocky as Helga [Elisa Montés]. This makes the audience understand that Helga is aware off her crime, and Marie most likely isn’t… it plant’s the thought that she may be innocent. After all this is a women in prison flick, and they ain’t never fair. Nathalie [Luciania Paluzzi] cowers in a corner of the boat and when later locked up all the signals of a claustrophobia attack are there.
Following the presentation of our leading lady #99, it’s time to establish the antagonists, head warden Thelma Diaz [McCambridge] walks in to Governor Santos who eats his roast chicken sloppily and praises Diaz for the women she has selected for him today. Although he raises a finger or warning as he tells her that the woman who died that morning had visible bruises. An issue that may get them in trouble, if officials start to ask questions about the several dead women and how Diaz goes about taking care of discipline. The scene ends with McCambridge out of focus in the background and the only thing in focus is a book in the foreground. A copy of Arnold J. Toynbee’s La Europe De Hitler is at the front, Diaz apparently holds Nazi sympathies. We are not going to like warden Diaz and pretty soon she confirms our suspicions.

Back to the ladies… During the first night Zoie #76 [Rosalba Neri] wakes #99 from a bad dream only to be disturbed by Natalie, #98 writhing and moaning in pain. #99 tries to get help by calling for the guards. Instead she get’s Warden Diaz who screams that she’s up for punishment as she’s interfering and creating a disturbance. The next morning #99 gets involved in a fight where she’s caged in isolation for her further provocations. The night before her isolation she’s raped by #76 as the Governor drooling watches on.

Through showing her sympathetic sides – caring for others, wanting to do right, putting her in situations she has no control over - the audience feels empathy for 99 - or should we call her Marie, and as soon as we feel empathy we start to bond with the character. We wan Marie go have hell in the next hour and a half, but we want her to break out and live a better life too.

Two “alarming”, or rather “helper” characters are also introduced early on. Characters that help the audience invest in the plot. Also characters that will drive it forth and generate a disturbance in the ordinary world of Thelma Diaz hell camp for women.

One is presented after the death of #98 in the shape of the Doctor [José María Blanco]. As he leaves the island he complains that the women are always dead by the time he arrives… and that’s about to change. This external force obviously contacts officials hence the arrival of the second challenger to Thelma Diaz corrections facility.

The second is Superintendant Leonie Caroll [Maria Schell] who poses a threat to Warden Diaz when she arrives on the island and demands to inspect the prison. This threat stretches past Diaz and towards Governor Santos too. The two try to set her up by reporting to the officials that she pays attention to the young female inmates in the wrong fashion… anything to avoid a rupture of the good thing they have going.

Two things come out of this introduction of Superintendant Caroll. The positive tension between #99 as Caroll somewhat acts as a “parent/Helper” to her as she suggests to help her clear her case and possibly clear her name. Then there’s the harsh tension between Caroll and Diaz. The provocation of being scrutinised by external parts drives Diaz round the bend and frequently lands in her screaming out brilliant dialogue along the lines of “Purpose of a prison is punishment for crime, it is not meant a happy place! To which Caroll calmly replies, “In that case you efforts here can be extremely successful!”

Storylines are somewhat linear with the odd flashback now and again as the girls explain why they are incarcerated, some fair - some not. But by delivering their raison d’être in this way Towers and Franco keep the movie interesting, as I want to know what situation had the women end up in the prison to start with. The flashbacks see cinematographer Manuel Merino’s best moments in the movie, and are highlights for the movie where the typical Franco nightclub act and minimalistic sets, suggestive lighting are used. This is the sort of imagery and compositions I associate with Franco. Merino worked with Franco and Towers on almost all the films produced under the Towers of London period, and on approximately twenty something Franco movies in all.

Propelling the movie into it’s final act, #76 rallies a disappointed 99 – who by now has been lead on by Superintended Caroll with a promise to look into her case. But after a rejection, #99 looses all faith and is left disillusioned. She needs something new to latch onto, which makes #76’s timing perfect. #76 and Rosalie #81 suggest that #99 come in on their cunning plan to escape from the otherwise inescapable prison.

They make it into the surrounding jungles where they meet “Buster” one of the male interns from Governor Santos all male prison on the other side of the island A previous subplot concerning # 81 and her lover who used to sneak back to forth between the male and female prison comes to an end. Instead of finding him, it’s buster who tells her of her partners’ untimely death during their own escape. But after taking a few minutes to grieving she snuggles up and gets it off with Buster… who had a sinister plan to steal his cellmates girlfriend all the time.
The jungle scenes are claustrophobic – even more than the prison – as the women are chased deeper and deeper into the green web of bush and leaves. Dogs chase them and escape seems almost impossible. Although the peril of the jungle is nowhere near as hazardous as the next obstacle in their way. The men of the all male prison are out on a chain gang, Buster and the women daringly approach them begging for food, but instead the men become so overwhelmed by the sight of the scantily clad beauties that their primal instincts take the upper hand and they chase the women into the jungle like a pack of hungry wolves. Rosalie falls and now she pays the ultimate price for her insatiable lust – the chain gang tear off her clothes and use her for their own means. It’s a harsh moment and not to unlike the climactic death scenes found in the cannibal and zombie movies to follow a decade later. Pawing, clawing tearing hands ripping their victims to shreds.

There’s some brilliant detail in the escape, as they refer to places and locations that already have been pointed out as traps and perilous territory by Warden Diaz in earlier scenes between prison staff. We the audience know that there is going to be trouble if they take this path of that path. Moments of insight like this work wonders for the movie, and bring a deep cynicism to the final moments of this masterpiece of Women in Prison classic.

Overall the tone is seedy, but never really goes to far, there’s always a safe, almost artistic approach to the physical moments. 99 Women is undoubtedly an exploitation masterpiece, with moments of degradation and sensuality. If you want to see the movie as it was intended make sure to watch the shorter 89min version as this is the better movie. This is also the way Franco & Towers wanted you to see the film and you don’t really need the graphic inserts. At the same time the harder version obliterates several great moments such as the entire flashback that explains why Rohm is in prison. This is a classic Franco moment – much like Neri’s burlesque show flashback earlier – where a lot of the style and minimalism work in his advantage. I would go as far as saying it’s one of his most poetic conceptions of a rape and revenge, because it looks fantastic, plays with your imagination and rings back to early experimental black and white movies. It’s a scene, which elevates the movie a thousand miles higher than the pale smutty beach rape that replaces it in the adult version

But if you are looking for dirt then I guess you will want to watch the longer harder french version assembled by Bruno Mattei some years later. The golden age of the adult movie was just around the corner and more than one low budget sexploitation movie was re-edited with new footage to cash in on the new fascination and new French laws concerning film and pornographic material.

If you where to watch the old Redemption release, you would find that to be cut too, as there are pieces of the quite unsettling stabbing of an anaconda snake in the jungle snipped away. Why they didn’t use that penknife earlier I will never know. Escape had been so much easier.

99 Women, is really nowhere near the sleaziness of the Franco W.I.P. movies that where to follow, but this is a great place to start if you want to see just how easy one Franco template could be re-edited into something completely different with a few minutes of extra footage here and there – and believe me, Mattei took every opportunity available to get some triple X action into the movie. It’s also a template in the way that it’s a theme that Franco returned to on several occasions too. The unjustly condemned woman either sentenced to prison or by society, as she knows it. The main drive, to prove one’s innocence and settle the score isn’t too far away from punishing those who have done her wrong and settling the score. And as mentioned, this is really at the other end of the spectrum compared to the W.I.P. flicks to come, but at the same time proof that Franco could put together a really artistic flick.

Soundtrack by frequent Franco collaborator Bruno Nicolai is a gem. I challenge you to listen to the lead track “The Day I Was Born” and not hum it to yourself. It’s addictive just like Jess Franco’s movies.
There used to be an odd rumour that Towers of London where to make a 3-D remake of 99 Women after an announcement in 1983. Although that never happened, it boggles the mind to imagine a Jess Franco movie in three dimensions.

Jess Franco and Harry Allen Towers worked on nine movies together. If you still haven’t seen them I suggest that you go find them now. If you are a fan of Franco already they you perhaps should revisit them, if you are a newcomer, then they definitely want to go to the top of your list. These movies see Franco at what may be his most mainstream, but at the same time they are some damn fine movies that stand the test of time.

Image:
Colour, Anamorphic Widescreen 1.66:1

Audio:
Dolby Digital Stereo, English dialogue (French Dub on longer version) Swedish, Finnish, Danish or Norwegian subtitles are optional.


Extras:
For some odd reason the original softer version is enclosed as an extra and the french version as the main feature. Again, this is the one you want to watch. The main version is the French dialogue, hardcore-insert version clocking in at almost 98min. There’s biographies, Franco trailers and trailers for other Njutafilm releases.


2 comments:

Real Queen of Horror said...

I haven't seen this movie but I always wanted to check it out. From the trailers I seen, it seemed like it was filmed awesomely. From the bits & pieces that I did see it reminded me of the Grindhouse movies but that may just be! But I can see how the Grindhouse movies were inspired.

CiNEZiLLA said...

You should check it out imediately Queenie. It's a gem. Just make sure you go for the softer version, which is the closest to the original vision..

Certainly a movie that inspired a lot of w.i.p grindhouse flicks.

Enjoy!