Friday, January 8, 2010
Der heiße Tod a.k.a. Women's Penitentiary 12, Prostitutes in Prison, Island of Despair, Isle of Lost Women, The Hot Death
The box office success of prolific Spanish director Jess Franco's 99 WOMEN ignited the golden era of women in prison films. If you have ever had to sit through one of the 190 genre films he directed, then you know what a chore it can be reaching the end credits. Franco's "hit or miss" films are often cheap, international co-productions featuring monotonous pacing, slumming actors, repetitive editing and monumental gaps in logic.
Fearing a total hatred for moving images, I once swore off Franco films, but due to his abundant output in this genre, I'm forced to fall off the wagon and once again place my sanity at risk. It wasn't an easy decision to make and, like a Republican Senator sucking cock in a bathroom stall, their will be consequences. Luckily, Jess Franco's influential first foray into women's prison is a simple story that is fairly easyto digest. We begin with innocent new fish, Marie (Maria Rohm), being brought by boat to an island penitentiary called Castillo de la Muerte or Castle of Death. Surrounded by dense jungle, the rundown cavernous prison is ruled by the screaming Warden Diaz (Mercedes McCambridge), who pimps inmates out to corrupt Governor Santos (Herbert Lom), overseer of the island's male prison. Marie is inmate number 99, although we only see about fifteen, and immediately draws the abuse of those in charge.
After being raped by her cell-mate and thrown in solitary confinement for helping a fellow locked up lass, Zoe (Rosalba Neri), Marie becomes the pet project of a newly arriving inspector, Leonie Carroll (Maria Schell), who is sent to oversee the prison after several mysterious deaths. Inspector Carroll's compassionate penal reform backfires when Marie and several other desperate prisoners escape and, after being captured in the jungle; the jailbirds stage a quickly squashed riot that convinces the Inspector to give up her reformation.
The allure of 99 WOMEN was obviously sex. While many may not find it sexy or daring, it has achieved cult status within the lesbian community. Mostly on display are out of focus extreme close ups that come across as either artfully dated or completely inept. The most erotic scene is a flashback involving Rosaba Neri performing a suggestive dance around a candelabra in a lesbian nightclub.
Excluding the wooden performance from Maria Schell, the actors are passable enough. Herbert Lom, who is best remembered as Chief Inspector Dreyfus from the Pink Panther films, adds some depth to what is essentially a stock character role.
Oscar winner Mercedes McCambridge (ALL THE KINGS MEN) who went on to voice Beelzebub in THE EXORCIST gives the most entertaining performance by portraying Diaz as one of the most stressed out wardens to ever run a slammer. Her frustrated grunts, sighs and mini tempertantrums supply the only unintentional campy laughs. Maria Rohm (JUSTINE, EUGENIE) and Rosalba Neri (LADY FRANKENSTEIN) are the only standouts amongst the inmates - giving what is required of such a role. Sadly, prominently billed Bond girl Luciana Paluzzi (THUNDERBALL) has nothing more than a cameo. Where 99 WOMEN (I can't believe I'm saying this) succeeds is in the female relationships and the despondent tone it sustains while heading towards its gloomy inevitable conclusion. It almost feels powerful and deep. It’s really not. Sorry Francophilles, but this is as far as I can go.
A feminist or patch-on-jacket-sleeve intellectual might be able to mine some nuggets for an article, but those of us “in the know” will just wipe our asses with such lofty words. Real substance and enlightenment coming from a Jess Franco film is the result of ambiguity and your over active imagination. When Franco's grubby paws aren't on the lens during sex scenes, Manuel Merino does a nice job with the cinematography andBruno Nicolai's score is excellent. The popish theme song performed by Barbara McNair, star of Franco’s VENUS IN FURS, get's lodged in your noggin' fairly easily.
I must warn potential viewers there is an unsettling scene of animal cruelty involving two of the leading ladies stabbing and slicing a live boa constrictor that most likely didn't recover from the gruesome wounds they inflicted.
99 WOMEN has been available in various edits on VHS but the Blue Underground "Directors Cut" DVD release provides the longest running transfer to date and has been digitally remastered in anamorphic widescreen. The color saturation is quite nice and the image is very sharp. Extras include a 19 minute interview with Jess Franco, poster gallery, production stills, trailer, a biography by Tim Lucas (only accessibleas a DVD-ROM bonus), some excluded scenes and an alternate ending from a Greek VHS. Blue Underground also released a separate disc containing the XXX French version with unrelated hardcore footage that wasn't shot by Jess Franco inserted into the movie. Since the scenes don't even come close to matching up and no extras are on the disc, the "Director's Cut" is my recommended purchase. Jess Franco's next Women in Prison adventure would be LOVERS OF DEVIL'S ISLAND (1974). *Sigh* Go ahead and prepare my coffin.