The Great Escape – Jess Franco’s ’99 Women’ (1969)

18 Oct

God Bless Jess Franco. The director of close to two hundred features, Franco walked the paths of horror and sexuality, delivering sexually charged horror films, cult exploitation features and, occasionally, some genuinely bad movies. In 1969 he directed the women in prison picture 99 Women, a co-production between the UK, Spain, Germany and Italy. A box office success in the US upon release, 99 Women benefits from having a decent budget behind it, courtesy of producer and English dialogue writer Harry Alan Towers, and genuinely tries to be a little more than its other WiP exploitation counterparts.

The film opens with a small boat full of women arriving at a picturesque island holding a beautiful castle style building. Said building is actually a women’s prison where, upon entering, inmates have ‘no name, only numbers’. Some have been there before, some are new and some appear to die there which has the Authorities sniffing around. Whilst the head of the prison, played fantastically by Mercedes McCambridge (the voice of possessed Regan in The Exorcist), thinks she’s got everything under control, the Ministry of Justice decide to send someone in to check what’s really going on.

It’s here that we really begin to see how great, and gorgeous, the cast of the film truly are. Luciana Paluzzi (The Green Slime, Thunderball) makes a striking impact as 98, the red-headed drug addict struggling to go cold turkey in her cell. Rosalba Neri (Marquis de Sade: Justine, Lady Frankenstein) is memorable as the sultry French Zoie, aka number 76, willing to show off her overt sexuality and get into fights. The token young-girl-thrust-into-an-environment-she-can’t-comprehend is played with much conviction by the angelic looking Maria Rohm (House of a Thousand Dolls, Venus in Furs), whose scenes with Neri sizzle with sexual frustration. Also notable are Valentina Godoy and Eliza Montes as Rohm’s fellow escapees.

All the characteristics and plot elements of other WiP are present in 99 Women but are here played out to less sensationalistic extreme than some other pictures released at a similar time. Alludes to lesbian sex are done somewhat subtly and there are some genuine tender moments between the girls, also during one sex scene between escapee’s of the women’s and nearby men’s prison. Hard labour for women as punishment and voyeurism from all sides is also present, with the latter providing scenes of jealously and longing that seem genuinely delivered. Franco also excels in an example of staging a gang rape that leaves more to the imagination and has more of an impact than others which would have exploited the scene far more.

A well shot, acted and directed feature, 99 Women feels more like a Women in Prison film than a sleazy exploitation picture. With beautiful locations and a gorgeous cast, is there anything more you could want from a film?

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