While Roger Corman gets most of the credit for popularizing the "Women In Prison" genre, producers as far back as the 1930s knew they had a moneymaker on their hands. But it was the end of the Production Code that allowed filmmakers to push these seedy stories to their full potential, overtly wallowing in the sexual tension and brutal torture that previous productions only hinted at. Director Jess Franco pursued this angle in several films throughout his extravagantly creepy career, beginning with 99 Women, which is actually the most polished and professional production of the bunch. Working with frequent collaborator Harry Alan Towers, the pair concoct a relatively classy story about a fortress-like mountain penitentiary lorded over by the diminutive Thelma Diaz (Mercedes McCambridge) with frequent visits from the equally corrupt Governor Santos (Herbert Lom) who runs the men's prison on the other side of the island. The script picks up with the addition of a trio of new prisoners, bringing the tally to a full 99 desperate and sexually frustrated women, each with a convenient flashback to the crimes that landed them on the "Castle of Death." For the most part Franco dodges the sloppy sex scenes and outright sadomasochism of his later films thanks to tremendous acting from McCambridge, Lom and particularly Maria Schell (The Odessa File), underplaying her role as new warden who threatens Diaz's comfortable routine of whippings and solitary confinement. Even the cast of prisoners, which includes familiar faces like Rosalba Neri and Luciana Paluzzi, bring a convincing amount of gravitas to their roles, managing to keep the situation from sliding in outright camp as the genre was poised to do with Corman's Filipino productions. In short, 99 Women actually feels like a real movie rather than a collection of exclamation points. A big reason for this is the lush score from composer Bruno Nicolai that punctuates the action masterfully, making the entire production feel like a movie twice its size. Underneath it all is the expected layer of Franco sleaze, including the required girl-on-girl action and multiple gang rapes, none of which would earn more than a R-rating today (in fact, Franco's first lesbian scene is such an out-of-focus, confusing mess, it's difficult to say who's doing what to whom!). But it's all pretty tepid titillation compared to the director's later filmography and easily digestible as a mainstream prison movie. Franco's trick is making it feel like forbidden fruit, a lesson Corman and those who followed in his footsteps learned only too well. Blue Underground revisits the title with a 3-Disc Unrated Director's Cut sporting a brand new 4K high-definition transfer, bonus DVD copy and (yes!) soundtrack CD. Franco's back catalog has been slowly seeping onto the Blu-ray format, but this is hands-down the best his work has ever looked. And the feature is supported by slate of great bonus features, including an 18-minute interview with the late director, a historical breakdown with film historian Stephen Thrower, some lengthy deleted and alternate scenes (sourced from VHS but greatly appreciated), liner notes and the aforementioned soundtrack from Bruno Nicolai.
THIS WEEK'S REVIEW

Interviews  I  Deleted Scenes  I  Trailer

Still Gallery  I  Liner Notes

Bonus Soundtrack CD

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