Saturday, December 24, 2016

99 WOMEN (1969) 3-Disc Unrated Director's Cut (Blu-ray Review)

99 WOMEN (1969)
3-Disc Unrated Director's Cut 

Label: Blue Underground
Region Code: Region FREE
Duration: 90 Minutes
Audio: English DTS-HD MA MA 1.0 Mono with Optional English Subtitles
Video: 1080p HD Widescreen (1.66:1) 
Director: Jess Franco 
Cast: Maria Schell, Mercedes McCambridge, Maria Rohm, Rosalba Neri, Herbert Lom

Strap yourself in for a raucous mix of eurocult sexploitation and filthy WIP action with the yet another Jess Franco/Harry Alan Towers team-up! This time around we are watching 99 Women (1969), wherein a new female inmate Marie (Maria Rohm) arrives at the infamous "Castle of Death" island women for prison, a grim place ruled with an iron fist by the wicked prison warden Thelma Diaz (Mercedes McCambridge, The Exorcist), a cruel woman who strips the women of their names and gives them a number, poor blond Maria (Rohm) becoming number "98". 

We find out that Maria was convicted and sent to the island prison for killing one of her rapists, how dare she. She arrives at the island via boat alongside a prostitute named Helga (Elisa Montes, The Girl From Rio) and a drug addict in withdrawal named Natalie (Luciana Paluzzi, Thunderball), though poor Natalie is not around long, dying within minute of the start of the movie. When nice girl Maria calls on the guards for help to assist the dying woman she is punished for her troubles by the Warden who locks her away in a secluded cell with rapey-lesbian named Zoie (a very sexy Rosalba Neri, The French Sex Murders) who forces herself on Maria. Afterward she is pimped out to the corrupt official, Governor Santos (Herbert Lom, Mark of the Devil). It turns out that the Warden has been treating Santos to a steady supply of the more attractive female inmates for his own sexual delights. It just wouldn't be a WIP movie without the rape, torture and cruelty of the women behind bars, and Franco is only too happy to oblige in all department with his usual array of kinky perversity and zoom-in auteurism. However, this arrangement in threatened when do-gooder prison administrator Leonie (Maria Schell, The Bloody Judge) arrives to investigate the recent string of inmate deaths, the most recent being the drug-addict Natalie. She is appalled by the conditions at the prison after witnessing the humiliation and abuses suffered by the women, including that of Maria whom she takes a liking too. Of course, the wicked warden and naughty governor are none happy with her idea of reformation, but it seems that the reforms have come too late, and a daring escape through the jungle is hatched by Maria and the other women who are fed up with the abuse. 

Maria Rohm (Eugenie... The Story of Her Journey Into Perversion) gives a good dramatic performance in a movie with no shortage of attractive women, all of whom are used and abused by the corrupt warden. The usual WIP tropes apply here with plenty of nude women, a bit of woman on woman love/rape, a couple of cat fights, and the tropical air is thick with jailer-corruption, but it's all in good fun. To be honest the movie is not all that brutal when compared to what would follow in the coming years, but it is a seedy slice of Franco-directed WIP that is hard to forget, particularly for the troubling sexual politics/crimes perpetrated on poor Maria, who is forcibly raped by an fellow woman inmate, only to succumb to her own lust as she begins to enjoy the rape! Peckinpah (Straw Dogs) would be proud, haha.  As a slice of WIP you sort of have to expect these sort of troubling and improbable male fantasies, right? The movie is visually pleasing on all fronts with some great set decoration and tropical locations with some nice Franco lensing, including a nightmare of the rape Maria endured, the one which sent her to prison for murder, and it has a nice arthouse voyeuristic quality to it, well done Mr. Franco. 

While this must have been some of the worst filth to find its way into the cinema in 1969 I will say that 99 Women doesn't have a whole lot of shock value these days, it seems quite tame compared to some of the '80s WIP flicks, but the draw for me is the allure of Jess Franco's brand of delirious exploitation, and this was notably his first foray behind bars, but it would certainly not be his last, or even his best. Also pushing this movie along are the performances of Lom and McCambridge as the corrupt prison officials, Lom is sort of quietly corrupt with a stately demeanor, but McCambridge really gets to camp it up here as the authoritarian jailer, she gives a wonderfully wicked performance that made the movie for me and keeps me coming back time and time again.   

Audio/Video: 99 Women (1969) arrives on Blu-ray with a fresh 4K scan from the original negative and colors are lush and nicely saturated, skin tones look natural and the black levels are decent. Unfortunately the image looks like it has been treated to a massive dose of digital noise reduction, wiping away trace amounts of grain and smearing away fine detail, leaving behind a waxy and plasticine image that takes away from the viewing experience, which for some will be a deal-breaker. Audio on the disc comes by way of a DTS-HD MA Mono 1.0 track which sounds damn good, dialogue is crisp and clean, no issues with hiss or distortion. Notably, the cool Bruno Nicolai score comes through strong with some decent depth, even that annoying pop/theme song, optional English subtitles are provided. 

Onto packaging and extras we have three discs housed within a clear Criterion-style keepcase with a sleeve of reversible artwork plus a 20-page collector's booklet with cast and crew info, CD track listing and chapter selection plus writing on the film from noted author Stephen Thrower adapted from his book  Murderous Passions: The - Delirious Cinema of Jesus Franco, which is a great read, no one writes about Franco with such intelligent passion as Thrower. 

Onto the discs, we have a DVD and Blu-ray with the same feature and extras, plus a third disc, a CD with the Bruno Nicolai score, licensed from Beat Records. Special features begin with a 2005 interview with Jess Franco who speaks about the production, cast and his collaboration with producer Harry Alan Tower, this is a carry over from the previous BU DVD release. New is a 16-minute interview with author Stephen Thrower who speaks about the film within the context of Franco's body of work, commenting the director's collaboration with the notorious producer who would apparently wine and dine the big name stars of the movies at the expense of the shooting budget! There's also a selection of three deleted scenes, including an extended rape scene and two other scenes sources from inferior VHS sources which don't add up to much. Finishing up the extras there's a poster and still gallery, the salacious original trailer, the collector's booklet and CD soundtrack.   

Special Features: 

- Jess' Women - 2005 Interview with Director Jess Franco (17 Min) HD 
- Jess, Harry and 99 WOMEN - Interview with Stephen Thrower, author of "Murderous Passions: The - Delirious Cinema of Jesus Franco" (16 Mins) HD 
- Deleted & Alternate Scenes (23 Min) 
- Theatrical Trailer (2 Min) HD 
- Poster & Still Gallery (70 Images) HD 
- Collectable Booklet includes writing by author Stephen Thrower
- 99 WOMEN Original Motion Picture Soundtrack CD by Bruno Nicolai (27 Tracks) 

A prime slice of Jess Franco WIP on Blu-ray from Blue Underground, this one slightly marred slightly by the unfortunate digital clean-up, but if you're a Franco-phile and enjoy his collaborations with the notorious producer Harry Alan Towers you're probably still gonna want to own this one. If you're a perv (aren't we all?) Blue Underground have also released a 3-Disc Limited Edition Blu-ray containing the same extras and the director's cut, plus the notorious 98-minute French Version with hardcore sex inserts not shot by Jess Franco, which doesn't interest me.