Sunday 5 April 2015

Barbed Wire Dolls (Jess Franco, 1975) DVD Review

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“I'm the Warden of this prison, you're lucky to have been put in my care.” Teaming up with the 'European Roger Corman' Erwin C. Dietrich, on what would be the first of fifteen pairings, Jess Franco was up to his typically mucky-minded antics with the inventively titled Barbed Wire Dolls. Classed by the Catholic Church as a “most dangerous film maker”, Franco's fast and loose style pre-dated the infamous and short-lived Dogme '95 movement – a venture that the mammary-mad auteur dismissed as “a very good publicity thing for a moment”. The use of natural light, a hand-held and self-operated camera, and other things may have been cheap, but it also added a twisted sense of reality to his films, and Barbed Wire Dolls is certainly one of Franco's more warped efforts...

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“It's so nice here, like a castle by the sea, and we're all Queens.” Maria (Lina Romay, Ilsa: The Wicked Warden) is a new arrival at a formidable island prison where torture, starvation, and sleep deprivation are commonly used tools to scramble inmates' minds and promote obedience. A cosy retreat if ever there was one, surely? The prison is run by monocle-wearing Warden (Monica Swinn, Hitler's Last Train), a typically demented hellion who has a thing for Nazi literature, letting her inmates slap her around, and sporting a pair of olive shorts that beg the question – at what point do shorts become underwear?

“I'll be the belle of the ball, and I'll ball everyone!” Thrown into a cell with brother-butchering Bertha (Martine Stedil, Women Behind Bars), round-the-bend Rosario, and insatiable Ingrid, Maria soon finds herself swept up in an isolated world of electroshock treatments and conditioning to satisfy the impotent whims of the voyeuristic Governor (they usually are mucky bastards, aren't they?!) Indeed, when a letter blowing a whistle on the whole thing is intercepted, the wicked Wardress takes the opportunity to enact her perverted preoccupations – least of all burying her face as deep between a pair of arse cheeks as humanly possible.

“It's not long 'till Christmas … la la la la la … bake a fruit cake.” Toss in a hairy-backed impostor Doctor, a sympathetic guard, and the looming tide of violent political overthrow, and things start to look evermore dangerous. What will become of Maria and Bertha? Will they ever escape this prison of stone walls and iron bars? Do they have more than one pair of knickers to go around?!

“Our methods here have the approval of famous psychologists.” As if suffering from an attention deficit, Franco's camerawork acts as a forever roaming eye, zooming in and out like an impatient peeper searching for hot flesh and burning passions beneath those skimpy grey smocks. Most of it is in focus, and combined with some otherworldly elements – such as the terribly mismatched dubbed dialogue – the film grows to resemble a bizarre fever dream. One of the strangest interludes is Maria's bleary-eyed dream sequence flashback (featuring the obligatory Jess Franco cameo), which resorts to having the actors physically mimic slow motion in real time … but of course, this isn't the kind of film that's easily distracted by sense or straight-laced views of the world. Here all guards who pursue escaping prisoners do so with their tops off … well, it must be sweaty work!

“Death is too good for them.” On the varied scale of Franco's 'women in prison' films, Barbed Wire Dolls sits smack bang in the middle of his genre re-defining 99 Women and his most full-throttle crazy effort Sadomania – neither as tame as the former nor as eye-popping as the latter. Delivering plenty of what you'd expect, there's no mistaking this gleefully grubby flick for anything other than a Jess Franco production. Did someone say 'curious use of a cigarette'?

“I can make you happier than any vulgar guard.” Anchor Bay's 'Widescreen Director's Edition' DVD from 2004 features an impressively clean visual and aural presentation, and a decent handful of extra features; these include: “The Resurrection of Jess Franco's Films” – a seventeen minute German documentary on the restoration process conducted for the film Jack The Ripper – a series of production stills, twelve minutes of interviews (with Dietrich, Franco, and Romay), and biographies for six members of the cast and crew. Also known as Frauengefängnis, Women's Penitentiary IV, and Caged Women (don't confuse the latter with the Pilar Orive movie of the same name).

"Prisoners in a barbaric camp of sadistic perversions!" Do note that the 18-rated British DVD is cut by 41 seconds (to a scene of frisky finger festivities), that the description on the rear cover of the DVD gives away the entire plot, and that the credits printed beneath are in fact those for Ilsa: The Wicked Warden.

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