Released by: Full Moon Entertainment
Released on: February 21, 2017
Directed by: Jess Franco
Cast: Karine Gambler, Howard Vernon, Susan Hemingway, Aida Gouveia, Esther Studer, Dora Doll, Cesar Anahory
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An unnamed South American jungle is beset by a revolution. Deep in the jungles of this ‘tropical inferno’ is a camp where prisoners of war and revolutionaries are sent to be deprogrammed, punished, or executed. As the story begins, six women suspected of being rebels are brought to the facility, where three of them—Karine (Karine Gambier), Barbara (Esther Studer), and Aida (Aida Gouveia)—are stripped naked and shackled in cellblock 9, where they are subjected to various sexual degradations and tortures in an interrogation to learn the names of their leaders. After, in essence, being raped, Karine gives up information. Meanwhile, Maria (Susan Hemingway), a young student allegedly found possessing pro-revolution propaganda, is also brought to cellblock 9. After being stripped and starved, she too is raped and tortured, and when she begs for something to drink, is given salted champagne.
Back in their cells, the four women devise a plan to escape. They pull a naked, penetrationless train on each other, which entices the guard (Cesar Anahory) into joining them. Once he’s inside the cell, however, they attack him, knock him unconscious, and flee with his weapon. Aida is killed in the following melee, and the other women flee into the jungle, where they face various perils, including an African crocodile (!). In an old temple, Barbara is killed, and Karine and Aida are trailed deeper into the jungle, where things couldn’t possibly get any worse for them.
By the time he made Women in Cellblock 9, Jess Franco had been directing films all over Europe for years. Considered either an unorthodox genius or an unapologetic hack (depending on who is making the assessment), Franco was certainly prolific, and it’s difficult to pigeonhole his work given the sheer amount of it. It’s true that he generally worked with abysmally small budgets, forcing him to cut every corner necessary, yet greatness can be found if one cares to look for it. Not everyone’s cup of tea, Franco’s films ranged from artsy Gothic melodramas to tawdry sexploitation features. Often he achieved art and exploitation within the same film. Alas, Women in Cellblock 9 is not an example of such an accomplishment.
Despite some surprisingly good—and a few absolutely terrible—performances (Dora Doll falls in the former, Howard Vernon in the latter), the film is nothing more than a tasteless rip-off of the Ilsa movies, without someone of Dyanne Thorne’s caliber to focus what barely passes as a story. Perhaps part of the problem is the dead seriousness with which Franco treats the subject. Clearly the film is designed to titillate viewers who find the fantasy torture of naked young women erotic. Unfortunately, the film’s nasty edge and general lack of humor makes it all a little too risible, a pale imitation of the films it seeks to emulate. Occasional horror asides are not enough to save what ultimately is a dull, plodding affair, albeit one that at least Franco’s most ardent fans should seek out and see, if solely for completion’s sake.
For a standard-definition DVD, Full Moon Feature’s release of Women in Cellblock 9 looks fantastic. In fact, it’s so sharp you could probably invite friends and family over, pretend it’s a Blu-ray, and show off the wonders of the format (that is, if your friends and family enjoy movies with naked women getting tortured for their enjoyment… oh, never mind). Full Moon has clearly utilized the high-definition transfer that provides the basis for European Blu-ray releases. While the colors tend to be naturalistic (Franco shot the film on real locations with mostly natural light sources), the detail is phenomenal, particularly in outdoor scenes where the jungle foliage is so clear that the leaves on trees can be counted. Other examples of extreme detail come in the lines on Howard Vernon’s face and the hairs in Dora Doll’s nose. The only time the image is less than pristine is when Franco uses stock footage—such as the case of a crocodile swimming not-so-threateningly in the waters traversed by our abused heroines—for unintended comic effect.
Full Moon presents the film with two audio options. The first is an English Dolby Digital 5.1 track, which is quite good in terms of sound quality. There are no hisses or pops, the music sounds dynamic enough, and music and dialogue do not clash. Unfortunately, the dubbing is pretty risible (which has nothing to do with the sound option). The second option is a French Dolby Digital 2.0 track, which is slightly less dynamic but otherwise fairly good, though the dubbing is poor here as well. (In other words, just watch it in English if you’re an English-language speaker.) There are no subtitle options.
Before the menu screen appears, a promo for Full Moon Features’ streaming channel on Amazon automatically plays. The first extra is a foreign-language trailer for the original feature, which lasts just shy of three minutes. As with the film itself, it obviously comes from a source remastered in hi-def and, other than a minor bit of dirt and debris, looks terrific. The trailer features full female nudity.
“Franco, Bloody Franco: An Interview with Jess Franco” is, as the title suggests, an audio interview with the late director, first recorded in 1976. It runs over 40 minutes and is conducted in Spanish. Subtitles are provided. It’s a fascinating window into one of Franco’s most prolific and creative periods, with much of the discussion centering on the filming of Jack the Ripper (1976). That film’s star, Klaus Kinski, is also discussed, as are the shooting locations, the director’s earlier work, Edgar Wallace, his hatred of the Hammer school of horror filmmaking (and Terence Fisher in particular), and so much more. All of this is set to images of press materials and from the film (which repeat as the audio presentation goes on). The interview is divided into eight chapters.
Rounding out the extras is a vintage VHS trailer reel (6:44) for Franco’s films, including The Oasis of the Living Dead (1982), Demoniac (1974), A Virgin Among the Living Dead (1971), The Screaming Dead (1972), Erotikill (1973), and The Invisible Dead (1970). Most of these films are known under other, more familiar titles today.
The Final Word:
Women in Cellblock 9 is lesser Franco, a violent sexploitation feature with minor horror asides, lots of nudity, and no story. Regardless, Francofiles will want it in their collections, and short of having it on Blu-ray, this is the best the film has ever looked (thanks to a remastered hi-def source). While most of the extras have been ported over from other Full Moon Franco releases, they’re still worthy of note, and given the price, this can be had for a bargain.
Christopher Workman is a freelance writer, film critic, and co-author (with Troy Howarth) of the Tome of Terror horror film review series. Horror Films of the Silent Era and Horror Films of the 1930s are currently available, with Horror Films of the 1940s due out later this year.