Our Rating: ★★★★☆
L Factor: Major lesbian content
Short Take: Women in prison
Alternate Titles: Island of Despair
Year: 1969
Duration: 90 min
Language: Liechtenstein, Spain, Italy, West Germany, UK/English
MPAA: Not Rated
Director: Jess Franco
Writer: Jess Franco, Anya Corvin
Starring: Maria Schell, Herbert Lom, Mercedes McCambridge, Maria Rohm, Rosalba Neri, Luciana Paluzzi

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99 Women

This 1969 movie is the first women in prison (WiP) project by prolific Spanish exploitation director, Jess Franco, and it could be considered the stepping-stone of the genre, connecting cautionary, code-era WiP films like So Young, So Bad (1950) and later more exploitive (fantasy) films of the 1970s, like Caged Heat.

99 Women opens with three new prisoners being ferried to the island prison, Castillo de la Muerte (Castle of Death), into the hands of the sadistic matron (Mercedes McCambridge, Johnny Guitar). The matron, of course, is in league with the island’s governor (Herbert Lom, of the Pink Panther Films), who uses the prisoners for his own pleasure.

Once inside, blonde prison newbie Marie (Maria Rohm, Venus in Furs) is at the same time abused and comforted by another inmate, and becomes privy to a flashback  story where the inmate recounts her tenure as a dancer (against her will) in a lesbian nightclub.

Meanwhile, at the urging of a benevolent doctor concerned about the number of deaths at the prison, the Ministry of Justice sends in a new matron (Maria Schell, The Odessa File). However,  the current matron and the governor cook up a rumor that the new woman is a lesbian, causing her to be dispatched from the island to the jeers of inmates.

Director Franco still had some restraint in his films at this point, and 99 Women actually has a reasonable plot and mainstream actors. It does droop into faux-art, though, with low-lit, soft-focus close ups, especially during the lesbian nightclub scene where the dancer writhes on the floor next to a candelabra.

This review refers to the unrated director’s cut, but various versions of this film exist, including an X-rated French version with hardcore sex scenes intercut into the original (without the blessing of Franco).  The director’s cut disc also includes a gallery of stills, a (more satisfying) alternative ending, and an interview with Franco, highlighting casting and filming decisions, and having to deal with censorship in Europe at the time. (CJ)