Women in Cellblock 9
Switzerland / 1977
Directed by Jess Franco
Howard Vernon
Karine Gambier
Susan Hemingway
Color / 78 Minutes / Not Rated
Format: DVD 
(R0 - NTSC)
VIP Entertainment
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R0/NTSC edition
(Out of Print)
    6   10 = Highest Rating  
Guest Review by Troy Howarth
In a remote South American country, a group of female freedom fighters are captured and sent to prison. There they are subjected to terrible tortures at the hands of sadistic Dr. Costa (Howard Vernon). However, four of the inmates seduce a guard and escape, and it's up to Costa and the warden to find them before their barbaric practices are revealed...
    Spanish maverick Jess Franco has made films in virtually every genre imaginable, from musicals and horror films to comedies and hardcore porn. In 1969, while working for British producer Harry Alan Towers, he made his first "women in prison" (WIP) film, 99 Women. It was a theme he would return to many times with varying results. Women in Cellblock 9 isn't one of his stronger efforts in this vein, but neither is it his worst. The usual thin story serves as a pretext for nudity, sexuality and insanely protracted torture sequences, but unlike some of the Italian filmmakers who dabbled in this field, Franco's entries never become nauseating or offensive. At their best they actually manage some sound social commentary and provide ample entertainment. Produced by Erwin C. Dietrich, the Swiss exploitation mogul, Women in Cellblock 9 isn't so powerful as Franco's earlier Ilsa the Wicked Warden or Barbed Wire Dolls (both 1975), but it is successful in its aim to provide fun sleazy thrills. In some respects the film is more successfully Sadean than Ilsa or Barbed Wire Dolls, and this is due in no small part to the participation of the great Howard Vernon, who plays the sadistic Costa to sneering, perverted perfection. Vernon, an actor whose career included collaborations with Fritz Lang and Jean-Luc Goddard, not to mention plenty of distinguished stage work, is about as close to a "male mascot" as Franco's cinema ever got. Without wanting to underestimate the wonderful performances of Franco regulars like Paul Muller or Jack Taylor, it is Vernon who inextricably comes to the minds of many Franco buffs when asked to pick their favorite Franco leading man. After all, he WAS The Awful Dr. Orlof. This film gives ample evidence of his prodigious talents, and he clearly relishes the role of "doctor of pain".
    The rest of the cast is essentially comprised of beautiful starlets and/or non-entities. Among the former, the true standout is Susan Hemingway, the star of Franco's lovely adaptation of Love Letters of a Portuguese Nun (1976). With all due respect to such stunning beauties as Janine Reynaud, Maria Rohm, Soledad Miranda and, of course, Lina Romay, Hemingway gets my personal vote as the loveliest actress to grace a Franco film. Truly beautiful and innocently sexy without ever appearing trashy, she dominates every frame she is in on the power of her looks alone. She's also a fine actress and if this film doesn't really allow her to shine, one is advised to check out Portuguese Nun or Sinfonia Erotica (1979) and see for yourself. Bleach-blonde Karine Gambier, another regular from Franco's Dietrich period, is a less interesting protagonist than Maria Rohm, Rosalba Neri or Romay in earlier Franco WIP adventures, but she does a decent job in her role and certainly doesn't put a strain on one's eyes. Few would argue that the bulk of Franco's WIP films qualify as great art though 99 Women, with its international cast and gripping situations, and Ilsa the Wicked Warden, which is amazingly, well, audacious, may well qualify but a film like Women in Cellblock 9 is refreshingly straightforward and frank in its intentions and Franco does not disappoint. And just when it all seems to be in the spirit of fun, Franco takes things to a surprising, rather depressing turn at the end. Competently lensed by Rudolf Kuttel and featuring a good score by Walter Baumgartner, it's a solid and enjoyable 78 minutes.

VIP's DVD of Women in Cellblock 9 is the latest in an ongoing Jess Franco Collection that spotlights the films he directed for Erwin Dietrich. Like previous releases (including Doriana Grey and the aforementioned Portuguese Nun) this is a painstakingly restored presentation that surely looks better than ever before. The image has been letterboxed at 1.85; compositions look balanced and correct and the image is enhanced for widescreen TVs. Print damage is minimal, speaking volumes of the care and dedication that has been lavished on these releases thus far. I'm not certain that this film was ever released in an English language version, but in any event the DVD presents the option of either a English, German or French language track. Alas, the English track (presumably newly recorded, a la Doriana Grey) leaves a lot to be desired. While Howard Vernon almost invariably recorded his own performances in English, his voice is not preserved here a pity, as his distinctive voice would surely make his diabolical dialog all the more sinister and charming. Nonetheless, his voice does seem to be present on the German track so after you see the film once in English, do yourself a treat and watch it the second time in its original language it's not a very dialog heavy movie, anyway.
Subtitles for the feature have not been provided, and one can only hope that Dietrich will include this option on his next Franco release, a sexy variation on Clouzot's Les Diaboliques titled Sexy Sisters (1978). Extras are sparse compared to prior VIP releases. You get the same featurette on the restoration of Jack The Ripper that has been included on all these releases (to be fair, one shouldn't assume that everybody will buy all the VIP discs, so it makes sense to include it on all of them), a collection of trailers (not just for this film, but for other Franco and Dietrich films as well), a poster/still gallery and cast and crew bios.
Alas, while other VIP releases (barring Voodoo Passion) included interviews with Franco and Dietrich; this extra is not included here. 12/10/03
UPDATE The R0/NTSC version of this DVD (reviewed above) went OOP circa 2008. But you watch the entire uncut film on YouTube HERE!