Saturday 23 February 2013

Barbed Wire Dolls


‘Frauengefängnis’, ‘Jailhouse Wardress’, ‘Caged Women’, ‘El Reformatorio De Las Perdidas’, ‘Women's Penitentiary IV’.


Being a fan of a director like Jess Franco is all about learning to take the rough with the smooth, and at some point in this series we’ve got to acknowledge the fact that he made a whole pile of Women In Prison films over the course of his career, ranging from 1969’s surprisingly upmarket ‘99 Women’ to 1981’s unspeakably grimy ‘Sadomania’.

I know that the WIP genre has its fans, but, as you may have gathered from the tone of the preceding paragraph, I’m not really one of them. Probably best not dwell too much on my reasoning here, but let’s just say that more-so than their obvious legacy of cruelty and misogyny, I just find these films unspeakably dull – drab, joyless productions that offer few possibilities for visual or narrative excitement, like the slimy basement lurking beneath the grand ballrooms where all the more glamorous exploitation sub-genres go to party.

Obviously there are some noteworthy exceptions (Shunya Ito’s endlessly incredible ‘Female Prisoner: Scorpion’ trilogy springs to mind), but by and large, I find these cheaply rendered tales of confinement and degradation to be a stone drag. So the $100,000 question is: can Jess Franco bring anything to the WIP party to make us sit up and take notice?

By way of an answer, let us turn to one of the earliest fruits of Franco’s long association with ubiquitous Swiss sleaze-baron Erwin C. Deitrich, and the third highest grossing film in Germany in 1975 according to Tombs & Tohill in ‘Immoral Tales’, ‘Frauengefängnis’ aka ‘Barbed Wire Dolls’.


Communal shower scenes are inexplicably absent, and there’s not a cat-fight to be seen, but aside from that this is WIP 101 really: beautiful Lina, sentenced to a lifetime behind bars for defending herself from a paternal rape attempt, finds herself condemned to a totally context-less island penitentiary ruled over by sadistic lesbian wardess Monica Swinn. Sharing a cell with a duo of underwear-shunning, mentally-damaged nymphomaniacs (Beni Cardoso and Peggy Markhoff), our heroine proceeds to run the inevitable gamut of electro-shock torment, rape, starvation, aphrodisiac injections, cowardly, lecherous doctors (euro-horror stalwart Paul Muller) and more rape, before an ill-conceived escape attempt leads to a desperate jungle pursuit, climaxing in… well you don’t think I’m going to spoil the ending of a grand drama like this, do you?


Given that the many of the scenes in this film present the director with a visual palette of bare concrete walls, unmade beds and largely unclothed women, no prizes will be awarded for guessing where Jess’s zoom lens tends to linger. Although things remain softcore, restraint was entirely off the menu by the time Franco was working with Dietrich, meaning that viewers will be able to draw the leading ladies’ private parts from memory by the time they get to the end of this one.

Initially, most of the naked writhing is handled by Markhoff, but inevitably Lina soon gets in on the act too (I mean she’s got a reputation for this sorta thing to keep up, and hell with the fact her character’s supposed to be a naive innocent), and sitting through the film’s more dreary passages becomes easier with the knowledge that we’ll soon once more be able to enjoy the strangely soothing feeling of being smothered to death by ‘70s pussy. The assorted inter-personal sex scenes by contrast are somewhat less soothing, showcasing a teeth-grinding awkwardness more in keeping with the WIP genre as a whole, and personally I was never quite won over by the nazi-kitsch antics of Commandant Swinn and her decidedly improper hot-pants, but each to their own. 3/5


With its sunny surroundings, sexy machine gun toting guards and improbable softcore seductions around every corner, I don’t think anyone will be surprised to learn that Jess Franco’s idea of a fascistic high security prison is less a relentless hell on earth and more like some strange holiday camp for habitual masochists.

In fact, the total unreality of the film’s world immediately undercuts any attempt to convincingly convey the brutality and horror of prison life, and if the obligatory scenes of squalid, high level nastiness (Lina wetting herself as electric shocks are administered on an iron bedspread, a naked Cardoso being starved and forced to beg for food) are indeed extremely distasteful, the disgust the viewer feels is less a gut reaction to the events depicted on-screen, and more a kind of soul-sapping, second-hand revulsion at the idea that we have somehow chosen to watch these listless, poorly staged atrocities in the name of entertainment. Grim.

It should probably be noted that the UK 18 rated version of the film I’m watching runs to 77 minutes of what IMDB claims is a potential 93, but given the strength and duration of what’s been left in, I can’t honestly imagine much of the missing footage was cut for reasons of explicitness (unless there’s a hardcore version out there somewhere, in which case god help us all). 1/5

Pulp Thrills:

I suppose if you were to consider the ‘70s WIP film as a valid pulp aesthetic in its own right, ‘Barbed Wire Dolls’ would be an absolute hoot, ticking pretty much all of the relevant boxes for full scale camp enjoyment. As outlined above though, that’s not really my preferred bowl of gruel, and I found precious little escapist fun here, in spite of the complete detachment from reality. 1/5

Altered States:

Well quite a lot of the film is out of focus, so there’s that.

A brief rape scene in the prison governor’s office has some strikingly good disorientating, baroque compositions, but this stands out as an exception, and on the whole the technique here is unashamedly slap-dash, with erratic focus errors, wobbly, improvised zooming and awkwardly cropped framing all suggestive of a film whose makers spent more time looking at the clock than the viewfinder.

In the extras included on this Anchor Bay DVD, the supremely weasel-like Mr Dietrich expresses his belief that the film’s technical shortcomings were not merely the result of laziness and directorial apathy, but a deliberate statement of cinematic primitivism that directly prefigured the innovations of the Dogme 95 movement. And, indulgent though I am toward Jess Franco’s erratic artistic whims, even I feel I must pause here to suggest that this mind-bogglingly self-important claim is, how you say? A load of bollocks.

Probably the weirdest moment in ‘Barbed Wire Dolls’ is a creepy, vaseline-fogged incest flashback in which Franco makes an appearance as Lina’s father, both parties seemingly carrying out their movements at half speed in a baffling and rather laughable attempt to mimic the effect of slow motion. Well, you win some and you lose some I suppose – at least they were *trying* for something a bit different. 2/5


Filmed entirely in Honduras, ‘Barbed Wire Dolls’ fits in nicely with the whole swathe of jungle-set films Franco made through the Dietrich era and into the early ‘80s (‘Doriana Gray’, ‘Sexy Sisters’, ‘Voodoo Passion’, ‘Diamonds of Kilimanjaro’, to name but a few), all of which feel like they could have been shot next door to each other, despite utilising a wide variety of ‘exotic’ (and no doubt affordable) locales.

Anyway, we get some jungle, a fairly impressive coastal fort, a few colonial looking houses. It’s ok I suppose, but not really much more eye-opening than the kind of terrain you’d see in one of those Filipino Vietnam movies. 2/5


Y’know, in truth, ‘Barbed Wire Dolls’ isn’t really that bad. It isn’t that good either… in fact, who am I kidding, by any reasonable standard it’s bloody awful. But if nothing else, the performances given by Lina Romay and Beni Cardosso feel genuine, managing to connect on a vague, emotional level that helps us empathise with their characters’ hopeless plight to an extent that is rarely encountered in the ultra-cynical realm of the WIP film.

And maybe I’m just saying this because I’m a fan, but despite its numerous crimes against social and cinematic decency, ‘Barbed Wire Dolls’ doesn't leave one with the impression that Jess Franco is a bad man or a misogynist – more just a down-at-heel technician going through the contractually obligated motions, throwing in some personal touches as and when he can; a feeling that would sadly predominate through the majority of his subsequent collaborations with the Dietrich empire.


Elliot James said...

Never a fan of Jess' boring self-indulgent WIP films but I agree that there has to be a shower scene and cat fight in all of these films. This genre is so politically incorrect that few are produced now.

docvoltage said...

Since this film was restored from Dietrich's negative, I would say the running length is probably correct. The Swiss DVD is barely a minute longer (bbfc states it cut "digital penetration").

99 WOMEN is a fine film, as WIPs go, with very good acting, beautiful cinematography, interesting sets and a downbeat but appropriate ending. By the time Franco made DOLLS, he was simply recycling that same story over and over and over again. He did make some very "good" films for Dietrich (PORTUGUESE NUN, JACK THE RIPPER, DORIANA GRAY, BLUE RITA). This isn't one of them.

I also agree that Dietrich is full of baloney, especially as his biography describes this being purely exploitation to put rumps in seats.