99 Women is not only Jess Franco's first women in prison film, but it's also his first collaboration with Erwin Dietrich, the Swedish producer who would go on to bank roll many of his better known (and considerably more explicit) films like Love Letters Of A Portuguese Nun and Doriana Grey. So for that reason, it is of some historical significance for Euro-cult fans and Franco buffs, even if it very much sits on the milder side of the genre compared to the films that it would later inspire and compared to the films that Franco himself would later make.
Maria Rohm (of Franco's Venus In Furs) plays Marie, a woman who is sent off to a remote island prison where she's stripped of her name, and her dignity. When she arrives and begins to 'mingle' with the other inmates, they soon learn that the warden, Thelma Diza (played by Mercedes McCambridge of The Exorcist!), is in cahoots with the local governor, Santos (Herbert Lom, best known as Chief Inspector Dreyfus from the Pink Panther films) and she allows him to have his way with the inmates whenever he sees fit.
When a local prison system administrator named Leonie Carroll (Maria Schell of The Bloody Judge) shows up in hopes of reforming the system and making improvements to the way that things are done in the prison, Thelma and Santos realize that this may be the end of the good thing they've got going.
As the girls get to know each other a little better, in the literal sense and the biblical sense… yowza!… the decide that if they all work together that they can make their escape out of the prison and into the surrounding jungle.
99 Women is a surprisingly tame and toned down drama. It doesn't have the seediness that so many other films in the WIP genre do, and it even handles its story with a hint of sadness. Those looking for the utter nastiness of later era entries in the genre from Franco like Sadomania and Barbed Wire Dolls will likely walk away disappointed. The film has a great cast though. Maria Rohm is gorgeous and pretty competent in the lead role. Likewise, Rosalba Neri simply exudes sex appeal from the very moment she appears on screen, and thankfully she's on screen a lot. Herbert Lom is fantastic as the nasty governor, and McCambridge is just as good as the sadistic warden who derives some sick thrills out of degrading the inmates, as all good wardens do in WIP films. Luciana Paluzzi, best known for her role as Fiona Volpe really only has a cameo role in the film, but hey, she's a Bond Girl and you can never have too many of them running around in your movies, even if it's really quite brief.
Franco's direction is surprisingly subdued here as well. The camera always remains in focus, the angles are pretty standard, and there's a surprising lack of psychadelia and incessant zooming going on. While he doesn't appear in this cut of the film, you will see him in a small role in one of the deleted scenes which appears in the extra features section of the disc.
The anamorphic 1.66.1 widescreen transfer on this DVD looks great. The color scheme for the film is pretty drab, which makes sense considering so much of it takes place in a prison. There are a lot of browns and grays used throughout, and this transfer brings them all to life quite nicely. When the action heads outside for the last third of the film, the greens of the vegetation look lifelike and bright and vibrant. Flesh tones are dead on, never too pink or two orange, and the black levels remain strong and consistent throughout. Print damage is minor, just the odd speck here ad there, and there aren't any mpeg compression problems, just the odd instance of minor edge enhancement.
99 Women is presented in a pretty clean sounding Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono English language dub. The film's score by Bruno Nicolai sounds nice and lively (the theme song is bound to get stuck in your head if you're not careful) and the dialogue is never difficult to understand for a second. At times things sound a tad on the flat side but overall, for an older low budget film, this mono track sounds surprisingly good.
The biggest of the supplements on the DVD is a nineteen minute interview with Jess Franco himself entitled Jess' Women - an apt title considering a big part of the focus of the interview, at least the first half of it, are the women who were cast in the film. He also covers some of the censorship issues that the film ran into, as well as the rather odd post production history of it, and how it was marketed once the finish product was turned in for editing.
Blue Underground also turns in three deleted scenes – a longer version of Maria Rohm's back story flashback, a different version of Rosalba Neri's segment that doesn't contain as much explicit material as the version seen in the film, and the alternate ending used for Spanish theaters. Now, this isn't all of the alternate footage available for this film. A German VHS tape is rumored to contain more material than what was supplied here, and Blue Underground themselves have released an alternate version of the film that contains hardcore XXX inserts for the movie that Jess Franco had nothing to do with.
Rounding out the extra features are five different still galleries, liner notes by Tim Lucas in DVD-Rom format, and the films gloriously trashy promotional trailer.
While fans will debate about which cut of the film is the correct one, what can't be argued with is the great quality of this release from Blue Underground. 99 Women isn't a half bad film and would make a nice introduction to the women in prison genre as it doesn't go too far like a lot of the other entries do. The disc looks and sounds great, the extras are interesting, and the disc comes highly recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.