Wednesday, November 17, 2010

WIP Wednesday: Island of Despair (1969, Jess Franco)

AKA 99 Women.

Jess Franco made a few Women in Prison films throughout his career, and this one (from the apparently highly edited version Netflix offers) is a bit different. First, I did not see Franco in the film at all. The movie is listed as being 99 minutes long, but the streaming version on Netflix is 68 minutes. It is likely that Franco was cut from this version, as his part is uncreditted, or he is one of the male prisoners from the other camp. Either way, he typically has a decent sized part, or at least a stand-out, clownish one. Also, this one deviates in its lack of WIP staples; no nudity, no shower scene, no torture, and very little fighting amongst prisoners. The French rated this movie with an "X" when it was released, which is a hard "R" by modern standards, but it is possible the missing scenes contained some of these bits; perhaps they were too brutal or lascivious for Netflix's streaming sensibilities?

The story is pretty general for WIP. Maria (Franco regular, Maria Rohm) is sent to prison unjustly. The prison is on an island and was built by Medieval Spaniards, dubbed Castillo de Muerte ("Castle of Death"). She makes friends with a repeat offender on the way, and soon learns how strict the discipline is. She runs afoul of Superintendent Díaz (Mercedes McCambridge, voice of Pazuzu in The Exorcist) and HBIC, Zoe (the beautiful Rosalba Neri).

"I'm the only one with stockings, so I am in charge."

Aside from the discipline, it is alluded that Governor Santos (the excellent Herbert Lom) uses the prison as his personal pleasure palace, and escape from the male prison where he normally resides. He has an interest in "Number 99" (Maria). Maria and Zoe go at it in the work yard, and both are sent to solitary, of sorts. They are cloistered together, only to be met in the night by Santos.

"Damn you for hurting my wonderful legs!"

Rosalba Neri reminds us just how serious Jess Franco takes the needs of viewers with a perfectly sensible leg fixation. She is constantly stretching them and showing them off. Franco does this often. I am starting to think that legs are to Franco as breasts are to Russ Meyer.

"Hello, ladies..."

You might know Herbert Lom better as Chief Inspector Dreyfus from the Pink Panther films. He also worked with Franco on Count Dracula, portraying Dr. van Helsing.

More of Rosalba's gams.

Well, there have been three deaths at the prison, and the Ministry of Justice is getting concerned. They decide to send Leonie Caroll (Maria Schell, Voyage of the Damned) to take over operation of the women's prison. She decides to keep Superintendent Díaz around to show her the ropes. Caroll comes from the Welfare Department and has no experience with the penal system. Caroll wants to understand and rehabilitate the women, but they are too used to the hard line to appreciate her efforts. Maria and two friends plan an escape.

The trek takes them thirty miles through the jungle in hopes of reaching the sole fishing village on the island. One of their number is captured by a work gang from the men's facility. This is likely a big chunk of the edit, as she is obviously going to be gang raped, and is later shown dead. Once they find the village, they are captured.

"What? You didn't think we knew you'd head for the only boats on the island?"

Upon their return, the prisoners are fed up and begin to riot. Caroll tries to calm them down, but the women know she is either not to be trusted, or soft and easy to take advantage of. Eventually they are all returned to their cells, and Leonie Caroll resigns her post and leaves the island, saying to Governor Santos, "I suffer from a disease that does not thrive behind prison walls; humanity."

Well, the women are glad to see her go, but all that happens is that things go back to normal. Superintendent Díaz is back in the saddle, and Governor Santos is ready for some lovin'. Caroll's boat has barely left the dock before business as usual resumes.

This is not one of the better WIP films I have seen. I will blame it partly on the editing. The streaming version on Netflix could easily be shown on television. That's not to say nudity and gore are necessary for a good film, but often the WIP genre is just a tits-and-ass delivery device. This one is primarily no different, save that it was all cut. This one was produced by Harry Alan Towers, who worked with Franco on many films. He drove many of the stories Franco worked on, and he was definitely out to make some bucks rather than art. I'm not bad mouthing the guy. You want to get movies made, you have to make movies that will sell tickets, right? Watch this one if you are a genre completist, Franco fan, or want to see a WIP film with very little to offend.

Netflix / IMDb

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