It's funny how the pendulum swings. Earlier this week I was watching an Italian cannibal movie that I *thought* was tamer than other representatives of the subgenre, only to find upon further research that it was worse than I could have imagined. And now I find myself reviewing the SPECIAL UNCUT VERSION of a women-in-prison flick directed by infamous international sex fiend Jess Franco and starring Eurohottie Extraordinaire and top-10 Vicar Happy-Dream Subject Rosalba Neri, a confluence of awesomenesses you would think could spell nothing but Eurosleaze greatness. And what do I find? A movie that, even in its uncut version, barely earns an R-rating for either sex OR violence. What the fuck, Jess? How did you let THAT happen?
This is not to say that 99 Women doesn't have pleasures to offer--I could watch Rosalba Neri brush her teeth for half an hour, and she does much more than that here; and Jess does manage some striking visuals and coaxes at least one awesomely nuts performance out of a collaborator. It's just that for a movie whose original title is "Der Heiße Tod" (literally, "The Hot Death"), you might be expecting just a little more.
The movie opens on a dead, flybuzzed carcass on the desolate shores of a hot, rocky island. This is the ilse of Castile de la Muerte--the Castle of Death--a South American women's prison renowned for its impregnability and the cruelty of its wardress. In the distance a small boat approaches, bearing three new inmates to the prison: redheaded junkie Nathalie (Luciana Paluzzi), brunette showgirl Helga (Elisa Montés), and shell-shocked blonde Marie (Maria Rohm). Apparently justice is harsh and swift in South America--so swift that Helga was apparently tried, convicted, and transported without ever having time to change out of her can-can outfit!
We get some of the aforementioned beautiful shots of the prison as the girls approach--it's an old fortress of some kind, all sand-colored stone and sharp planes under bright blue, cloudless skies. As they disembark the girls notice a body beign carted out the prison's front door--"Suicide," one warden helpfully informs us, though not convincingly. The wardress, Thelma Diaz (a wonderfully over-the-top Mercedes McCambridge) shows up and lays down the law by getting slappy on Marie when she offers her name instead of her assigned number. "From now on you have no name, only a number. You have no future, only the past. You have no hope, only regret. You have no friends--only me." The strange, half-Spanish half-German accent McCambridge affects only gives lines like this more bite.
After the girls are issued their fetching gray prison frocks (Marie's with the stencilled number "99" over the left breast, justifying the film's title), they are shown to the Big Communal Cell, where the main reason for watching this movie awaits:
Rosalba Neri aka Number 76, is Zoe, and apparently has special dispensation from Madame Thelma to wear her sheer black stockings AT ALL TIMES--even when on work detail in the salt mines! This is the kind of Wardress's Pet privilege to which a fair-minded, progressive person can only shake his head and say "ZANG." Rosalba seems to spend most of her time lounging around in on pillows in the communal cell, fondling her harem of fellow prisoners/admirers and saying nasty things to Helga, who we learn has spent some time at the prison before. Meanwhile Marie is concerned about Nathalie's withdrawal pains and tries to convince the guards to send a doctor; Madame Thelma puts her in the Punishment Cell for her compassion (which is surprisingly light on the punishment, it must be said), and Nathalie passes on in the night, glad to be quit of such a terrible, sexy world.
The next day Wardress Diaz gets a visit from her corrupt partner in correction Governor Santos, played to shaven-headed, tan-cheeked perfection by a wonderfully oily Herbert Lom. Santos lets Diaz do whatever she wants with the female prisoners, so long as every now and then she lets him drop by to "correct" some of the hard cases--particularly if they're petite and blonde. As such he's very interested in #99. However, the recent deaths at the prison have drawn the attention of more scrupulous higher-ups, and they're sending a new wardress to take Thelma's place; in order to keep themselves supplied with all the female flesh they can whip, Santos and Diaz begin to plot the new boss's downfall.
The following afternoon Rosalba and Helga get embroiled in a work-detail catfight; when Marie steps in to help her friend, she and Rosalba are sent to the sick bay to lick their... wounds. Later that night Santos comes in to punish the girls, or more specifically Marie--Rosalba gleefully helps the Governor by slapping and undressing Marie, molesting the new girl under Santos's leering eye. Franco picks this scene to get artistic on us, filming the molestation in extreme close-ups and nearly indecipherable blurry shots, all to a strangely romantic musical score. While visually interesting, this directorial choice would also seem to subvert the conventions of the WiP genre--after all, the molestation and whipping are what put people's asses in the seats for this type of flick.
Soon the new wardress, Leonie Carroll (Maria Schell) arrives, and sets about making changes to the way things are run at the Castile. Preferring compassion to the lash, she abolishes the Punishment Cell and cuts back on the nighttime guard details, much to the demoted Diaz's strenuous objections. The juxtaposition of Schell's smiling, soft-voiced administator and McCambridge's overblown Frau Hitler impression is amusing, particularly in a later scene where Diaz derides her new superior's methods while flailing her arms dramatically. In fact, McCambridge's whole acting method in this flick is pretty amazing in its gasket-blowing intensity--it's almost expressionistic in a way, hyper-real, and I agree with Franco when he says in the accompanying interview that whenever McCambridge is onscreen, you can't take your eyes off her. A commanding presence, and one of the highlights of the film.
Unfortunately the other highlights are few and far between. Franco hits the required notes here--the girls plan an escape into the island jungle, hoping to make it to the harbor and hitch a ride to the mainland, they meet up with a male prisoner who had the same plan for some cave-bound nookie, and arrive at their destination only to find Lom and his goons waiting for them--but it's all done slowly and with a strange reticence to focus in on the sexual and violent elements of the story; all the stranger because this is Jess Franco we're talking about.
For instance, after their correction by Santos, Rosalba and Marie wind up in the same cell again, only this time they decide to get friendly. Rosalba shares the story of how she came to the prison, and we get a groovy flashback to her days as a stripper for an audience of public school lesbians and how her jealous female boss killed Rosalba's boyfriend, which led Rosalba to murder the boss in return. Rosalba's striptease in this scene is done with colored lights and candles that recall Soledad Miranda's nightclub act in the far superior Vampyros Lesbos, and the whole thing is done in a dreamy, psychedelic style that's quite appealing. Inspired to compassion by the sob story, Marie decides to comfort Rosalba with lesbian sex--willingly this time--and again Franco breaks out the blurry shots and extreme closeups, as if unwilling to show what's actually going on. Some might find this a laudable choice, but again, given the milieu here, I couldn't help but feel it was (ahem) anticlimactic.
Probably the best sequence in the movie is Marie's flashback to the events that landed her in prison, told to the compassionate Wardress Carroll. Her story of her abduction by a motorcycle gang, subsequent rape, and murder of one of her attackers in order to escape is done with a surreal tone--the bikers all wear white hoods during the attack, and the leader uses lipstick to paint a mouth on his, which is a disturbing image. The rape itself is shown in silhouette, which works in this case, as Franco's closeups and moody lighting give the story the horrifying unreality of a nightmare.
But apart from this, the movie comes across as reticent, tame, and (most criminally) kind of boring. The story moves along sluggishly and predictably, there's hardly any tension to speak of, and the one scene of whipping--again, a staple of the WiP genre--is just as reticent as the sex scenes. If not for the periodic visual flourishes and the presence of Ms. Neri (who later shows up in an amazing piece of lingerie that is definitely NOT up to the prison dress code), there would be little here to hold one's interest at all.
The DVD also includes an interview with Franco himself discussing the production, and he's as enthusiastic and interesting as always. His anecdotes about Mercedes McCambridge, his tales of the movie's distribution and unexpected success, and other tidbits are fun to listen to. As often happens, listening to Franco talk about his work almost convinced me that the movie was much, much better than what I had actually just seen.
However, much as I admire Jess's enthusiasm and passion, The Hot Death left me rather cold. It may seem strange that I fault his movie for NOT being as ugly and violent as WiP flicks usually are, but in this case the flick could have used a little more of that, if only to make the viewer concerned about the protagonists' safety and nervous about their chances of getting away. Lacking such, 99 Women unfortunately falls flat. 1.5 thumbs, with an added quarter for Rosalba's stunning gorgeosity, for a total of 1.75. Serious Franco fans might find something here, but others might want to stay on the straight and narrow.