JESS FRANCO MONTH: 99 Women (1969)

EDITOR’S NOTE: Way back during the week of Bruno Mattei, we covered this movie. All the way back on May 16, 2021 and now it’s back with some edits.

This movie is quite literally the Justice League — more like the Legion of Doom — of scumbag film superstars.

It was written and produced by Harry Alan Towers, who went from syndicating radio and TV shows to being arrested along with his girlfriend Mariella Novotny — who was played by Britt Eklund in Scandal — for operating a vice ring. He jumped bail and ran to Europe while his lover revealed that Towers was a Soviet agent using his girls to get info for the Russians. And Novotny, a high-class call girl, had already been linked to both John and Robert Kennedy, as well as having experience working for MI5.

Once he settled down in Europe, Towers married actress Maria Rohm — she’s in this, as well as several other Jess Franco movies — and started writing and producing movies based on the novels of Agatha Christie, the Marquis de Sade and giallo father — one of many, but a father nonetheless — Edgar Wallace.

Plus, he worked extensively with the second member of our rogue’s gallery: Jesus “Jess” Franco.  This may have been the first film that Jess and Towers worked on, but they would make The Girl from Rio, Venus in Furs, Justine, Eugenie… The Story of Her Journey into Perversion, The Bloody JudgeCount Dracula, The Blood of Fu Manchu and The Castle of Fu Manchu.

Franco made at least 173 movies and took a gradual slide from horror, Eurospy and softcore films into grimier and grimier films. He’s an acquired taste that I’ve grown to enjoy, yet for every well-made movie like Bloody Moon, you’ll find one where you wonder if Franco had even seen a film before, much less made one.

The reason for that is often the funds that Franco had at his disposal. He’s the kind of filmmaker who would make ten bad movies instead of one good one, providing that he was getting the chance to make a movie.

He reminds me a lot of the third member of our exploitation army of evil and that would be the man that edited this movie — and from all accounts directed the pornographic insert (pun intended) scenes — Bruno Mattei..

The French version of this movie features eight minutes of fully adult footage, shot with body doubles in similar settings, all to give the illusion that this movie is way more hardcore than it really is.

To be perfectly frank, this movie is an aberrant work of absolute indecency even without seeing gynecological footage of the old in and out.

New inmate Marie (Rohm, yes, the producer’s wife, yet she endures so much that you really get the idea that this is not an example of nepotism) has arrived at Castillo de la Muerte, an island prison where she’s given the number — she no longer has a name — 99.

She’s joined by Helga, now known as 97. She’s played by Elisa Montes, who had appeared in several peplum and westerns before this. And Natalie Mendoz — 98 — is played by Luciana Paluzzi, who was SPECTRE assassin Fiona Volpa in Thunderball, as well as showing up in everything from The Green Slime to A Black Veil for LisaThe Man Who Came from Hate and The Klansman.

They’re suffering under the oppressive sapphic rule of Thelma Diaz, a tough warden who is, shockingly, played by Oscar-winner Mercedes McCambridge, who won that award for All the King’s Men, was nominated for Giant and was also the voice of Pazuzu. She’s berserk in this movie, laying it all on the line, unafraid to go over the top and then keep her upward trajectory.

“From now on you have no name, only a number. You have no future, only the past. No hope, only regrets. You have no friends, only me,” she barks at them before they even get into the prison.

Eventually, Diaz takes things too far, but even the new warden Caroll (Maria Schell, who had an affair so memorable with Glenn Ford that she remembered it two decades later and gifted him with a dog named Bismarck who became his constant companion) can’t improve this hell on earth. So the women escape at the same time that several men break out from the similarly brutal rule of Governor Santos (Herbert Lom).

What happens when you have several damaged women on the run being followed by men who haven’t even seen a woman in decades? And what if that happens in a Jess Franco movie? Yeah, you can see where this is heading.

Rosalba Neri — Lady Frankenstein! — is also on hand to pretty much set the film on fire in every single frame that she shows up in.

Every Women In Prison movie that would follow in the slimy wake of this film would be based upon the path that it blazed, including Mattei’s own The Jail: Women’s Hell, which he waited nearly four decades to make and pretty much stuck pretty close to what Franco started. Well, he was also following the even more berserk template he’d established with Violence In a Women’s Prison and Women’s Prison Massacre. Man, if you want a WIP movie, call Bruno Mattei. Sadly, you can’t. He’s dead.

Or you could call Jess Franco, were he alive. He made nine WIP movies in his career, including Isla the Wicked WardenJustine, The Lovers of Devil’s IslandBarbed Wire DollsWomen Behind BarsLove CampSadomania and this movie.

This is one of the Franco films where he’s making not just a movie, but a good movie. The focus is soft, the feel is surreal and the interplay with the Bruno Nicolai score is fabulous.

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