REVIEW: JESS FRANCO’S WOMEN IN CELLBLOCK 9
(C) Robert Monell, 2017 NOTE: This is a review of the version now streaming at Full Moon on Amazon!,
not the German Blu-ray released as part of Erwin C. Dietrich’s JESS FRANCO GOLDEN GOYA COLLECTION by Ascot Elite in 2014 or the Full Moon DVD recently released as part of THE JESS FRANCO COLLECTION which presents the film in SD, remastered in HD, with special features included.
Jess Franco is well known for his sexually explicit horror films like FEMALE VAMPIRE and THE EROTIC RITES OF FRANKENSTEIN as well as for such dreamlike rambles as VENUS IN FURS. Another of his favorite genres is the Women In Prison film. One of his 1970s Women In Prison features is now streaming on Full Moon’s platform on Amazon.com. It’s a good example of the prolific director’s evolving approach to the genre.
FRAUEN FUR ZELLENBLOCK 9 plays pretty much like a follow-up or remake of FRAUENGEFANGNIS (1975) aka BARBED WIRE DOLLS, Franco’s first film financed by Dietrich, following several women incarcerated in a sadistic jungle prison run by a female warden and a corrupt medical doctor, named Costa in both films. The difference is that this time Costa is portrayed by Franco’s iconic actor Howard Vernon, whereas in the former he was embodied by Paul Muller as a gentler, anxiety ridden soul. The cruel female wardress character goes all the way back to Mercedes MacCambridge in Franco’s template for all his following WIPs, 99 WOMEN (1968), one of Franco’s most financially successful films which looks very mild in comparison to his following WIPs. As we shall see Sade becomes the point of reference starting with the 1972 DEVIL’S ISLAND LOVERS. Costa himself is very much like one of the caustic torturers in Sade’s THE 120 DAYS OF SODOM (1785), leavening his lust for violence with sarcastic wit.
WOMEN IN CELLBLOCK 9 is as nihilistic as any of Franco’s previous WIPs but is even nastier in terms of detailed descriptions of the various tortures Costa inflicts on his victims. Loba, the wardress, can’t compete with Dyanne Thorne’s Greta (in GRETA, HAUS OHNE MANNER, 1977) in pure sick sadism and is played like a cheerleader to Costa by the veteran German actress Dora Doll, who appeared in over 200 films and television shows in an over 60 year career. But she’s just not as interesting as the Nazi-esque wardress played to the hilt by Monica Swinn in BARBED WIRE DOLLS.
It opens as a truck carrying a load of fruit makes its way down a jungle road, the political context is immediately established as resistance leader Karine (Karin Gambier CALL OF THE BLONDE GODDESS) converses with the driver about the dangers of transporting a group of young women toward freedom in the police state. A roadblock, organized by Loba and Costa, manned by heavily armed soldiers, stops and searches the truck, discovering the human cargo. Loba tells the men to do what they want to the other women (meaning they are free to rape them) while Karine and two others are taken to the prison for interrogation. The prison is a complex of squat concrete structures with bars on the windows, lacking any civilized accommodations. Filmed in Portugal, the dense foliage hides the government prison from the outside world and Costa has free reign to do as he wishes, egged on by the rather butch looking Loba. It’s obvious they both get sexual pleasure out of the torments they put the women through. They conduct a Sade like dialogue on the ins and outs of torture over dinner in their bungalow, the only livable place in the compound, as Karine and her friends are stripped and hung nude from the ceiling of cellblock 9, held in place by metal collars.
These scenes are very reminiscent of similar scenes in the 1972, LOS AMANTES DE LA ISLA DEL DIABLO, where Danielle Godet played a twisted figure very much like Loba, condemning the object of her desire and his lover to life sentences at hard labor in a jungle prison on trumped up charges. Both films conclude with the victims summarily executed after an attempted escape through the thick jungle.. The big difference here is the sexual torture here is directed at the women’s genitalia, making it even more uncomfortable to watch. It’s difficult to imagine anyone finding these proceedings “erotic” or in any way stimulating. There’s no aesthetic or physical distance provided in the stark, minimalist mise en scene. Like Greta, these late 20th Century fascists really believe in what they are doing and the fact that it gives them intense pleasure is the coup de grace.
The reason these sex-and-violence-in jungle-prisons epics work is the fact that they are set in isolation from “normal” everyday reality, they provide the intended male clientele a means of taking out their sexual frustration with women in a passive-aggressive activity, watching a film about the sexualized torture of attractive women.. The jungle settings are rather like the castle torture chambers in Sade’s novels. The climactic woman hunt, which was established in 99 WOMEN, the only one of Franco’s WIP actually shot in South America (Brazil), is one of the most ruthless here, and all the hunted end up shot to death by the pursuers. . Escape is hopeless in Franco’s police states unless the hunted are prepared to become as violent as their oppressors, as in the conclusions of WOMEN BEHIND BARS or SADOMANIA, or literally consume their tormentor, as in the cannibal finale of GRETA, HAUS OHNE MANNER. The woman hunt also concludes Franco’s LA COMTESSE PERVERSE, where the WIP context is absent but the power relationships are similar, the wealthy seduce, detain and finally hunt down the naked female prey in order to eat them. The cycle of consumption is shifted from a police state to an open society where socio-political inequality nonetheless undermines all relationships.
The torture scenes in GRETA, HAUS OHNE MANNER and the later SADOMANIA(1981) take on an almost cartoon quality, with larger than life sadists gleefully dreaming up ever new ways to inflict extreme pain on often naked female victims. One might actually find those films crude entertainment, and they have relatively happy endings, with Greta eaten alive by her inmates and the escape and revenge visited on Ajita Wilson by the main victims in SADOMANIA. There’s nothing entertaining here, outside of the enthusiasm the disheveled Costa evidences while administering various torments. It plays like a clinically staged and photographed entry into an efficiently run Hell, which allows no mercy or escape. When Karine has the chance to kill Loba near the end, she hesitates and the guards mow her down while the wardress sneers and walks away as Franco’s telezoom trails slowly up a gnarled jungle tree and goes into one of the director’s trademark rack-focus interludes, ending on a blurred, despairing note as Walter Baumgartner’s bilious score underlines the sordid brutality of it all. Susan Hemingway has a few moments as an incarcerated student who is abused and forced to drink heavily salter champagne by Loba and Costa before she joins the other detainees in futile escape. Hemingway would play the title to great effect in another, more elegantly mounted and resonant Dietrich-Franco project, LOVE LETTERS OF A PORTUGUESE NUN (1976), one of the very best of their collaborations and a sterling example of a related sub-genre, Nunsploitation.
What makes this worth maybe one watch are Vernon’s dryly humorous presence, some creative cinematography, the well defined oppressive atmosphere of the jungle (despite some outrageous stock footage involving various tropical denizens, a “funny” monkey, menacing alligator/crocodiles whom would recur in SADOMANIA as instruments of doom), and the mastery of a specific, albeit very unpleasant tone which is achieved in spite of the enforced stylistic minimalism.
Not the worst of the Franco-Dietrich WIPs, that would be the last of them, the completely meretricious FRAUEN IM LIEBESLAGER (1977), featuring that fair haired German hunk, Waldemar Wohlfaart (THE HORRIBLE SEXY VAMPIRE himself), the totally bland Adela Tauler (CALL OF THE BLONDE GODDESS) and Nanda Van Bergen as the least interesting of all Franco wardresses.
Franco would return to the WIP genre as late as the mid 1980s with the somewhat more compelling FURIA EN EL TROPICO (MUJERES ACORRALADAS/OUTLAW WOMEN, 1983/1986), which illustrate the absolute importance of the available acting skills of Lina Romay, crucial in maintaining an emotional focal point in this debased genre. Karin Gambier is not quite believable in the central role as the dedicated revolutionary who is the focus of Costa’s torture, and was better cast as the disturbed abuse victim in Franco’s inheritance thriller DIE TEWFLISCHEN SCHWESTER aka SEXY SISTERS, also made in 1977, she also gives the only credible performance in the director’s color remake of I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE, the appallingly witless CALL OF THE BLONDE GODDESS. The focus of the film shifts from the victims to the victimizers, especially Costa, whose Sadean presence “narrates” the film and directs attention much in the same way as the structure of THE 120 DAYS OF SODOM breaks down into a lengthy series of lists and depraved calendar entries, detailing each sexual-violent transgression in journalistic detail, or like a documentary film script, always in the present tense, complete with close-ups, medium and long shots transposed into literary syntax, given burning ire, acid sarcasm and philosophical stings.
The HD version over at Full Moon on Amazon presents a sharp, detailed image with lush colors enhancing the tropical atmosphere. You can see each individual drop of sweat during the torture sequences. It’s perfectly framed, luminous and the HD remastering results in an always crisp image. Unfortunately, Full Moon only offers the risible English dub track on this platform, which contains much absurd English language scripting, grating voice casting and robs Howard Vernon of his unique, commanding, nuanced delivery, considerably undermining his spot-on performance defining a memorably sleazy character.
WOMEN IN CELLBLOCK 9 isn’t the best of Jess Franco’s Women In Prison films but it is very much worth seeing for another outstanding performance by Howard Vernon and seeing how the director injects his fascination with the writings of the Marquis de Sade into the genre. After watching it via blurred video dubs for years it’s good to see it streaming in HD with English subtitles.
Robert Monell is a filmmaker, writer, critic and blogger. He is the creator and editor of I’M IN A JESS FRANCO STATE OF MIND and CINEMADROME www.cinemadrome.yuku.com. His films include the screenplays for the web series RETURN OF THE BLOODSUCKING NAZI ZOMBIES, the short feature ZOMBIE 2024