99 Women was Jess Franco’s first attempt at a women-in-prison movie. It‘s a genre that he revisited on many occasions. Released in 1969, 99 Women is rather tame by the standards of later movies of this type but it’s still an entertaining and very effective movie. The film opens as a new batch of women prisoners arrive at a notoriously tough and brutal island prison, a sort of Devil’s Island for women. Among the new inmates is Marie, convicted of murder although (as we find out later) she actually killed in self-defence. The prison supervisor is a particularly vicious and sadistic woman, played with relish by Mercedes McCambridge. Just as unpleasant is the island’s governor, the corrupt Santos, who regards the sexual favours (whether given willingly or more usually unwillingly) of the women prisoners as being one of the perquisites of his office. Their rule may be about to come to an end, as a new supervisor (played by Maria Schell) is about to take over, although events are already moving towards a crisis that no change of policy will be able to avert.
The movie benefits from a rather strong cast. Maria Schell gives a solid performance. McCambridge overacts, but it’s a role that really demands that type of approach and she’s certainly entertaining. Herbert Lom is delightfully sleazy as Governor Santos. Maria Rohm is adequate as Marie. Rosalba Neri is outstanding in a part that could easily have become a mere stereotype, the evil lesbian predator. Instead she makes the character believable, complex and rather sympathetic. Franco’s approach is quite restrained, and the film is surprisingly lacking in sleaze or tackiness (at least by the standards of a women-in-prison movies). There’s no explicit sex, and very little nudity, and the violence is fairly muted as well. Franco nonetheless manages to convey the cruelty and viciousness of the prison quite convincingly. There is of course the escape through jungles and swamps, without which no women-in-prison movie would be complete. The DVD includes a couple of alternate scenes and a trailer, and a 17-minute interview with Franco. He is, as always, interesting and enthusiastic. In general 99 Women delivers the goods, and the Region 4 DVD release looks reasonably good if just a little grainy.