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The 'women in prison' sub-genre goes back as far as the 1930s, but it wasn't until Jess Franco's 99 Women (1969) that the template changed. A formula was established that was to be followed for many years – and many films – to come. Innocent girls thrown into a depraved hell hole of a prison, often in a stifling foreign climate, only to be tortured and seduced in equal measure by both guards and fellow prisoners. Sadistic wardens (often times female) would treat their guests of the state like slaves, and many WIP films involve prostitution or trafficking sub-plots. Toss in plenty of bare/sweaty/soapy female flesh, prison riots, escape plans, and cruel injustices resolved with furious vengeance, and you've got the essentials of the genre.
The locations would change (islands, jungles, Los Angeles, East Germany, etc), and the tone would shift (action fest, sexploitation, Naziploitation etc), but common themes remained true across the board. Repetitive, perhaps, certainly sleazy, these films fought with sexual politics head-on. Simultaneously exploiting attractive women while also unleashing them to seek their bloody satisfaction; there are few good men in the WIP arena. These are the sort of movies in which, when the women do wear clothes, they might as well not have bothered as their breasts always find a way to get maximum screen time. Bombastic, low budget, sometimes shocking, occasionally grotesque, it's a wild-eyed world of hot bodies, cold steel, burning passions and animalistic insanity.
Read on to discover the delirious depravities of 99 Women, Women Behind Bars, Bare Behind Bars, Sadomania, and Amazon Jail.
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99 Women (Jess Franco, 1969)
“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.” Raven-haired dancing girl Helga (Eliza Montes, #97), red-headed unlucky drug trafficker/user Natalie (Luciana Paluzzi, #98, Thunderball), and blonde innocent victim/accidental killer Marie (Maria Rohm, #99) arrive at the 'Castle of Death' – a foreboding island prison – just as one of the former inmates is checking out in a body bag. Welcomed with a cold stare by vicious wardress Thelma (Mercedes McCambridge, the demon voice from The Exorcist), they're thrown into their bare, stone-walled cells.
“This is a place where we perform punishment for crimes, not operations for ulcers.” Run by Thelma and Governor Santos (Herbert Lom, The Dead Zone), whose cane and limp does little to slow his libido – sated every time by his pick of the inmates – #99 is in for a nasty shock. Punished for alerting the guards to the impending death of #98, Marie is chained-up in solitary until the arrival of Miss Caroll (Maria Schell, Superman). Potentially the new warden, she has arrived for a month-long observation period during which she will witness savage fights and severe punishment. Her outlook is far more liberal than the incumbent staff, but when an escape plan is hatched between some of the girls and a couple of the guys from a salt mine prison camp elsewhere on the island, everything falls apart.
“Warm flesh and blood behind cold iron bars.” Franco's film has a tight script with clearly-defined roles for the main characters, and it moves with a consistent pace, but compared to later examples of WIP films it's relatively tame. Naturally, this is to be expected as it represented the beginning of a new wave in the genre, but if you're looking for titillation you've pretty much come to the wrong place. Although it is amusing to note that quite some attention was paid to making sure the ladies' underwear matched the colour of their hair!
“Going away my darlings?” This film is important though, in that it establishes the key elements which laid out the road for the genre for the next twenty years. Brutal wardens, wronged prisoners, foreign locations, punishing heat and explosive passions. Escapes, riots, abuse, revenge – 99 Women is where it all kicked off.
Women Behind Bars (Jess Franco, 1975)
“We are delighted to take this occasion to welcome you.” Jess Franco (aka Rick Deconnink aka A. M. Frank) had three films featured on the Director of Public Prosecution's initial list of 72 'video nasties'. Along with Bloody Moon, and The Devil Hunter, Women Behind Bars was once deemed too despicable for public consumption in the British Isles. However, just shy of 40 years later, you have to wonder quite what all the fuss was about.
“This prison was reputed to be a very up-to-date institution, a model of its kind in which prisoners enjoyed very humane treatment and discipline was free of the customary severity. The real facts were very different.” Kicking off with a low budget (i.e. scant coverage) diamond heist involving a gang of crims and a Chinese boat, the deal soon goes south as not one, but two double-crosses end with Shirley (Lina Romay, Barbed Wire Dolls) gunning down her lover Perry Mendoza. There's a curious fascination with the name 'Mendoza' in these films – three movies in this Blue Underground boxed set feature characters with that surname.
“You're nothing but a filthy slut.” Banged-up for six years for a 'crime of passion', Shirley not only has cigarette-dispensing lesbian spies and grubby Wardens to deal with, but Milton Warren (Roger Darton), an insurance investigator, is snooping around too. He's convinced that she had something to do with the diamond heist and he's damn well going to find out how with the assistance of gun-toting Bill (Jess Franco in a cameo role).
“As you're well aware I prefer blondes with cute little sexy asses like yours.” Filmed in the South of France, there's a nice feel to the 2.35:1 widescreen photography – even with it's obsession with the zoom lens. The coastal region where the prison is located looks beautiful, but the camera is far more interested in exploring the bodies of the female prisoners. When they're not strutting about the prison yard in high heels and black smocks, they're sleeping nude and rolling about with one another to smooth jazz. Nothing out of the ordinary here then!
“Men are all rotten.” Saucier than 99 Women, Franco hadn't quite geared-up for his ultimate WIP boob-fest that was Sadomania, and indeed, compared to some of the other films in this set, Women Behind Bars feels relatively restrained. It's a full 24 minutes before the clothes start coming off (as opposed to minute one), but busty blonde murderess Martine (Martine Stedil) aims to please as soon as she arrives on-screen.
“He's such a pig that once he gets his hands on a pair of tits he doesn't know what to do.” In spite of being the second-softest film in this quintet, there are still moments that shock – such as a rather grim method of electro-torture. The plot is decent, albeit somewhat plodding over the course of the 80 minute run time, but the location photography and main female duo help move things along. A somewhat middling effort from Franco – not his best, not his worst – but moments of alluring intrigue still pop up.
Bare Behind Bars (Oswaldo De Oliveira, 1980)
“If this continues the cemetery will run out of space.” There's barely a buttoned shirt in-sight in this sleaze-driven Brazilian skin flick, which focuses far more on the constant – and I mean absolutely unending – parade of female flesh than any semblance of plot. Another sun-drenched, rat-infested prison pit where electro-torture and prisoner-on-guard inter-relations are the order of the day.
“My lovely pet, I have a surprise for you.” A ball game explodes into an execution as #170 is stabbed to death with a rusty nail, and then the guards hose down the barely-clad inmates. Warden Sylvia (Maria Stella Splendore) likes her prisoners, a little too much as it quickly transpires, and has no qualms about selling her 'Grade A' girls to her rich bitch 'regular customer' (Meiry Vieira). However, her second-in-command Sandra (Neide Ribeiro) has had enough of her superior's doped-up, sex-mad, torture-crazed ways, and pleads for mercy on the girls' behalf to little effect.
“I just adore raspberry pudding!” On the other hand, ether-addict Nurse Barbara (Marth Anderson, Massacre In Dinosaur Valley) is very fond of her criminal patients, helping them protect themselves with confiscated weapons when she's not indulging in kinky games that sometimes involve pineapples fashioned into lewd toys!
“We're not running a hotel here.” The main girls are Cynthia #341, Inez #578, and Betty #514, the latter of whom becomes the personal slave to the 'regular customer' whose fondness for the finer things in life know no bounds. Meanwhile, back at the sadistic prison, the inmates are treated like meat, afforded numbers instead of names, and get little more than bread and slop to eat. At least they manage to keep themselves entertained … in the obvious way. Then, shoe-horned in-between the countless shower scenes, bitch fights, nude aerobics, bubble baths, and sex sessions (some of them un-simulated), an escape plan presents itself.
“Turn around and let me get a good look.” As if De Oliveira's film (shot, written, and directed by him) wasn't out-there enough, it tosses in severed todgers (yes, plural), and home invasions for good measure. Hell, one of the dismembered members even gets fed to a dog! The vague plot and scattered editing make for a somewhat disorienting experience; there's essentially no story to speak of, but the film does fill every single gap with bare flesh and feverish bonking. Otherwise known as “The Prison”, and formerly banned in the United Kingdom, it is one of the raunchiest sexploitation movies of the era. In addition, by boasting documentary-style coverage of a carnival, and scenes shot in amongst real-life shanty towns, Bare Behind Bars is afforded a sense of scale that evaded other similar productions. Eventually, perhaps incredibly, the unstoppable procession of smut becomes wearisome and there's little else to support it, but it absolutely delivers on its grindhouse intentions in every other way.
Sadomania (Jess Franco, 1981)
“Let's be adventurous and see what mysteries lie ahead.” If Franco's genre-redefining 99 Women was light on the saucy stuff, he soon pulled a one-eighty and gleefully marched off into the opposite direction. Olga (Uta Koepke) and Michael (Ángel Caballero) are a pair of randy newly-weds who make a poor decision by trespassing on 'Hacienda Blanca' prison grounds. Captured by the topless guards, and with no concern for police or courts of law, Michael is set free and Olga is imprisoned. A slight transgression and she's found herself with the rest of the near-indiscernible blondes in cut-off denim shorts doing hard time and getting eyed-up by – who else – Governor Mendoza (Antonio Mayans, Zombie Lake, credited as Robert Foster).
“She's a beautiful creature though, look at the way she trembles.” To say that Sadomania, otherwise known as “Hellhole Women”, is full of tits would be an understatement – the understatement of all understatements, in fact. What's more, it's got plenty of arse and bush in it as well … and numerous lesbian fantasies. Watching this film is like tapping into Franco's fever dreams and projecting them onto a wall to obliterate the audience. Anyway, trapped and waiting for rescue/revenge, Olga befriends Tara (Ursula Buchfellner, Devil Hunter) and Mercedes/Conchita (Andrea Guzon), who help her desires run wild behind locked cell doors.
“She's being wined and dined by the Governor, and eaten by his lovely wife.” The Governor is perverse to say the least. Getting his kicks from winning bets on games of 'run & get shot' with Warden Magda (Ajita Wilson, Contraband), he takes his bounty home to his randy wife Loba (Gina Janssen) who is desperate to have his child. Unfortunately, he's impotent, so she just has to settle for getting her rocks off before selling the latest svelte blonde to sex trafficker Mario. Lovely people to invite to a dinner party, I'm sure.
“You mean they can get anything they want as long as they pay for it?!” Written by Franco and Gunter Ebert, Sadomania aims to shock and titillate equally, and it accomplishes its sweaty-skinned goal utterly and completely. Fights to the death, rubber crocs eating gunned-down escapees, and white slavery not enough? How about a whacked-out scene involving the Governor, his wife, their latest winnings, and their dog. Yeah, chew on that for a while. It's the most warped, bizarre, grindhouse moment of the entire movie.
“The dragon only likes men when they're defenceless.” Featuring a cameo by Jess Franco himself (as a brothel owner), this film is pretty much the antithesis of political correctness. Quite literally, there is barely a single shot in the entire flick that doesn't feature boobs. In its own strange way, that's quite impressive. Indeed, this version is the unexpurgated Spanish edition, as opposed to the 84 minute 'International Version' which had loads of plot and sex hacked out. You have to wonder what was left in the 67 minute cut that once toured America!
“I'll soon tame you my pretty beast.” As if imported from a world where clothes don't exist, Sadomania is one of the craziest, raunchiest, weirdest examples of the 'women in prison' genre. Iconic and unapologetically sex-mad.
Amazon Jail (Oswaldo De Oliveira, 1982)
“We're not merchandise to be bought and sold!” Sex trafficker Edgar (a wild-eyed, moustachioed Sérgio Hingst) and his partner/lover Helena (Elizabeth Hartmann) keep a gang of women locked in a wooden coral in their garden. Lured in with promises of jobs and rich men to meet, these unfortunate ladies find themselves involved in the white slavery 'business'. Paraded about at orgies with a 'pile on' mentality to proceedings, they're gradually sold off to the highest bidders, all of them goggle-eyed sweaty scumbags.
“I don't like a man who insults my integrity.” Lead girl Betty (Sandra Graffi) however, has other plans, and is setting up a daring escape with the help of Edgar's nephew (also her between-the-bars lover). Annoyingly for her, new gal Liz (Elys Cardoso) has her own plans and a spiky attitude, seeking escape through seduction of both Edgar and Helena.
“I've got plans for you, prospects beyond your wildest dreams, I'm gonna turn you into a rich little girl.” Things take a chaotic turn when, against in-house guidelines, Edgar's guards kidnap three local women – an action which brings down a search party upon their crumbling enterprise. After a fair amount of showering, cat fights, butt-jiggling, and other carnal activities, the ladies stage a fiery breakout and run for the hills, but soon find themselves in even more trouble. Contending with snake bites, in-fighting, and a crazed holy man who runs a gold mine staffed by sex-starved men, the green inferno reveals itself to be no place for vulnerable people.
“When you're nervous you're so much more sensual.” Using sex as a bargaining chip, or a tool in their arsenal of distractions to outwit moronic men, Betty and her cohorts are tough, but are pitted against cruel lust and brutal consequences. Featuring a steady stream of sex and nudity, there's a semi-anarchic air to Amazon Jail with it's cheap and manic style. There's far more plot in De Oliveira's film than in his earlier effort Bare Behind Bars, although even at 93 minutes this is over-long (enough with the plane shots!) and becomes somewhat repetitive come the final act.
“If and when they catch us it won't be to spank us.” The ending is rushed and roughly cobbled together, and – obviously – it's far from politically correct (like all of the films in this DVD collection), but there are moments of bizarre humour from the outset. Technically, it could be argued that this isn't really a 'women in prison' film (most of the movie is spent running around the Brazilian jungle), but even still, Amazon Jail sits comfortably alongside the other grotty offerings in this set. There are many better WIP films than this, such as The Big Doll House or Chained Heat, but fans of this kind of niche market cinema should nonetheless be well catered for.
“Hot! Sweaty! Naked! 5 totally depraved movies!” These films are reviewed as part of the “Bad Girls Behind Bars” five-movie DVD boxed set release by Blue Underground from 2013. Each film is presented uncut and in widescreen, and with original theatrical trailers as the bonus content. The five films are spread across two discs and, considering their low budget niche market roots, the visual and aural presentation is pretty good. If you're a fan of low budget sleaze cinema and WIP, you're in for a hell of a ride.