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New inmate Marie arrives at an island prison in the women's sector and receives the number 99. The inmates are controlled by the sadistic lesbian warden Thelma Diaz and Governor Santos and submitted to torture, rape and lesbianism. When the Minister of Justice replaces Diaz by Leonie Caroll, Marie believes that her life will improve and her case will be reopened. However, Marie is disappointed with the new warden and decides to escape with two other inmates. But their runaway scheme fails and the three women are chased not only by the guards, but also by male prisoners that have not seen women for many years. Written by
Claudio Carvalho, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Italian censorship visa # 53649 delivered on 10-4-1969. See more »
Where are they taking us?
To the island, over there.
What's eating you? Looking forward to your holidays? Three years the judge said, didn't he? I know the medicine you need, and they don't stock it over there. Home sweet home for all three of us. The Spaniards built it and christened it, Castillo de la Muerte.
"Castle of Death".
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From Eurotrash Emperor Jess Franco's comparatively respectable period comes this timid precursor to the WIP wave that was to engulf exploitation cinema of the upcoming decade, including of course many of Franco's own far more graphic ruminations on the subject. British-born producer Harry Alan Towers was still testing the waters as to how much sex and violence he could get away with at this pivotal moment in time for pictorial permissiveness, which accounts for the restraint in the representation of both. His past successes with a string of profitable Fu Manchu flicks based on the Sax Rohmer potboilers gave him the commercial clout to attract a "name" cast of mostly has-beens in desperate need of a paycheck, supplemented with a slew of sexy starlets prepared to pull down their panties. First among equals in the latter department was Towers' lovely young bride Maria Rohm a/k/a former Austrian stage actress Helga Grohmann who would shine most brightly in VENUS IN FURS and EUGENIE, both made by Franco for her husband. Playing Marie, the obligatory framed innocent, she's predictably overshadowed by the unrepentant bad girls headed by the ravishing Rosalba Neri's cynical Zoe.
Taken to a South American prison island (actually Alicante) where she's to be incarcerated in a magnificent fortress named El Castillo Della Muerte (the Castle of Death) for stabbing one of her rapists, shown in superbly stylized flashback, Marie (or number 99 as she will now be referred to) soon learns the ropes foolishly going up against head warden Thelma Diaz (Mercedes McCambridge hamming her way out of a mid-career slump) when another new arrival (ex-Bond girl Luciana Paluzzi) goes into cold turkey jitters. Like any other act of rebellion, this immediately lands her in solitary. An impromptu cat fight with dyed in the wool dyke Neri on account of her harassing Marie's friend Helga (Elisa Montés from Mel Welles' ISLAND OF THE DOOMED) risks making her a permanent resident there were it not for the unexpected appearance of social worker Leonie Carroll (revered German actress Maria Schell) come to inspect the prison's conditions following a number of recent deaths. This doesn't sit well with Thelma who not altogether wrongly suspects the intruder has come to take her place so she calls on the help of corrupt Governor Santos (a stoic Herbert Lom) whom she regularly supplies with inmates for intimacy.
Ticking off all the boxes (nudity, check ! whippings, check ! lesbian comforting, check !), the plot moves along as cheerfully as the grim proceedings will allow with hilariously hard-boiled dialog to keep fans grinning. McCambridge spits 'n growls her way through another turn for Towers and Franco that makes the one she gave in their JUSTINE look positively demure by comparison. Her once flourishing career might have gone down the drain but she was sure to kick up a stink. Half the fun's in watching her co-stars' perplexed looks on their faces as they attempt to keep from being blown off the screen by this one woman whirlwind.
By contrast, Schell seems all too aware she's slumming it, content to simper sympathetically and deliver the flattest line readings imaginable. Apart from Rohm and Neri, whose exploitation career would kick off in earnest with Ferdinando Di Leo's 1971 SLAUGHTER HOTEL, none of the top-popping floozies register very strongly, certainly not Paluzzi who - regardless of prominent billing - expires ten minutes into the movie and doesn't bare squat. A few years later, she would go proudly topless in Nello Rossati's entertaining THE SENSUOUS NURSE. Short-bobbed Brazilian bombshell Valentina Godoy (from Franco's THE GIRL FROM RIO) makes the most of the unfortunate Rosalie, cruelly ambushed during the botched prison break.
In light of the excesses this exploitation sub-genre was about to engender, 99 WOMEN appears almost innocent in its beat around the bush coyness. This approach forces Franco into ingenuity when it comes to boobs 'n beatings, displaying both with far more style than was his habit. Case in point being Rohm and Neri's then daring same-sex dalliance, spectacularly shot in a series of dissolves and close-ups of "non-vital" body parts by Franco regular Manuel Merino (who also photographed his COUNT Dracula) who achieves the scene's erotic effect through sheer suggestion. Bruno Nicolai's haunting theme song, The Day I Was Born (warbled by the incomparable Barbara McNair which suggests this was a recorded but unused track from VENUS IN FURS), appears in a number of starkly varying arrangements going from a jubilatory gospel rendition to a softly murmured version with minimal orchestration.
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