‘Men are all rotten.’
‘True, but you still miss ‘em’.
Well this was a surprise. I honestly wasn’t looking forward to watching any of the Women In Prison/Nazisploitation movies on the list, and this one has a particularly poor reputation. And yet it turned out to be a good ‘un!
The start is not promising. We learn in voiceover of a tremendous jewellery heist, and then watch it play out. Except, we don’t really. We see three masked robbers run out of their car and onto a boat. The camera stays outside. There are gunshots, and the three run back into their car. Oh well, I guess that was the heist then. Would have been nice to have actually seen it, but whatever…
The bulk of the film concerns Franco’s regular muse (and eventual wife) Lina Romay, who has been incarcerated after killing her boyfriend, the head jewel thief. She goes to a small jail dressed in skintight flares and a top that is pushing the buttons to breaking point. Sadly, this does not turn out to be the regulation prison outfit, though I wouldn’t have been surprised if it had.
By this point, I’m expecting the worst. Like Love Camp 7 before it, it is surely only a matter of time before the poorly lit, grotty softcore fumblings begin. Instead, we are given a mystery. Everyone wants to know what Lina did with the missing diamonds from the robbery, and will do anything to find out. Lina, carrying the film effortlessly with a cool and sexy performance, plays innocent so well, but we know she’s hiding something.
It’s a stronger than usual script for Franco to be working from, one part noir crime film (a genre he would dabble in from time to time) and one part prison movie. Despite this, there are the usual Franco touches, guaranteed to fascinate and irritate in equal measure. His penchant for zooms is very apparent. I think the problem people have with the zooms is that he doesn’t just zoom in, but nearly always loses focus, before zooming back out and this time losing the framing, then zooming back in again. It’s ugly to look at, but in general the film is pretty good looking.
Franco’s usual eye for great locations rarely lets him down, and he gets good mileage out of the sunny coastline (an unusual setting for a prison movie!) and a long tunnel that characters seem to endlessly walk up and down.
Franco films often have a melancholy air about them, and Women Behind Bars is no different. Scenes in the prison of Romay gazing through the bars, while a fellow inmate sings over a demented version of Bach’s Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring are quintessential Franco, while the murder of a fellow inmate while she sleeps is handled brilliantly, another stunning combination of sound and vision.
Look, I know Franco has directed some garbage in his career. Hell, when you’ve made over 200 films, there’s bound to be some stinkers in there. But I honestly believe that when he’s at his best, in films such as A Virgin Among the Living Dead or Vampyros Lesbos, he’s untouchable for fascinating dreamlike imagery. I wonder how much of his poor reputation in this country stems from the films of his that appeared on the Nasty list? Bloody Moon, Devil Hunter, even this film are not anywhere near Franco at his best, and yet these were a lot of people’s first (and often last) taste of Uncle Jess. Argento gets represented on the list by Inferno and Tenebrae, while Fulci gets no less than three masterpieces. All I’m saying is, don’t dismiss this film out of hand, it’s got some surprises up it’s sleeve.
It’s pretty apparent why the film was banned. Despite there being only one sex scene, well over halfway into the film, there are two torture sequences that no doubt set the DPP’s pulse racing. A whipping scene followed by a pretty nasty bit where Lina has electrodes fitted to her genitals are enough to mean the film will probably never get an uncut release in the UK.
If you’re new to Franco, then please skip this one for now and go straight to something more mainstream, perhaps Faceless or Eugenie: The Story of Her Journey Into Perversion. But otherwise, this is a cautious recommend for me.