99 Women (1969)

Director: Jess Franco

Now, even I am a little baffled, possibly even a bit dismayed, by the number of Jess Franco films I now own, and saying “but they were going for $8 each at Deep Discount, how was I supposed to resist that” really isn’t much of an excuse, even if it is true… However, if there’s one thing I don’t need, it’s a Jess Franco film with 20 minutes of hardcore inserts by Bruno Mattei, so I was content to settle for the unrated rather than the X-rated version of this one. I’m filing it under “thriller” because I’m not really sure how else a women in prison (WIP) film should be categorised… this film indeed being more or less the progenitor of the subgenre, in fact, although it’s kind of subdued, I suppose, compared to certain other examples of the genre. This isn’t Ilsa. Which is not to say that it’s not kind of dodgy; personally I’m kind of loath to say any genre is inherently “bad”, but the WIP film comes closer, probably, than anything outside of Ilsa-style Nazisploitation (which was itself an extension of the WIP film). The slashers of the 80s continue to get a bad rap for misogyny, but the WIP film might be worse, cos misogyny is kind of built into it in a way I don’t think it is with the slasher; the WIP film is really about male fantasies of women being degraded and brutalised, the catfighting, the lesbianism, all of that. To that extent I suppose it is kind of an inherently unpleasant thing, but, as I said, there’s something comparatively subdued about Franco’s first (but hardly last) venture into the form. While it’s obviously exploitation—set in a women’s prison on an unspecified island belonging to an unspecified (but kind of Hispanic?) country, all of which kind of enhances the fantasy aspect of the genre—it’s also played kind of straight; Mercedes McCambridge’s lesbian prison warder goes for ham, mostly through her accent (unsure if that’s actually her or someone dubbing her, though), but Herbert Lom is actually respectable as the island governor. The DVD presentation of 99 Women about as drab as the story—it’s not the handsomest Franco film I’ve seen from this era—and I’m not sure I enjoyed it as such, but I found something interesting about it.

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