A van races along a lonely dirt track in the jungles of a South American province which has been ravaged by political unrest. In it, a mercenary drives, while his passengers - a group of nervous female rebels - fret when they spy a roadblock up ahead.

Sure enough, the truck is inspected by a group of soldiers and the hidden women are swiftly uncovered. Without delay, they’re split into two sections: the freedom fighters that the Junta have been looking for, and the other women who are of no interest to them. The former are dragged away to the titular prison; the latter are dragged into the woods and raped by the soldiers.

In Cellblock 9, the four female protagonists – Karine (Karine Gambier), Aida (Aida Moret), Maria (Susan Hemingway) and Barbara (Esther Struder) - are crammed into a tiny cell and chained, naked, by their throats in a standing position. There they will remain until the ruthless Dr Costa (Howard Vernon) is ready to torture them in a bid to find out the whereabouts of their rebel allies for the sake of his wicked warden boss.

Costa’s torture tactics vary in degrees of extremity. One girl is encouraged to drink a glass of champagne which has been doused with lashings of salt. It hardly seems fair then that Karine is strapped to a fierce-looking vagina-penetrating contraption, before have a live rodent inserted into her. Little wonder that she gives Costa and his cohorts the information they’re after.

Having revealed her transgression to her cellmates, Karine and her friends resolve to hatch an escape plan and get to the resistance camp before their evil captors do. But will their daring attempting at seducing a guard and doing a runner into the surrounding jungle work?

Rejected by the BBFC as recently as 2004, CELLBLOCK 9 is actually one of director Jess Franco’s tamer entries in the ignoble women-in-prison cycle. When measured against 99 WOMEN and BARBED WIRE DOLLS, it could even be said that here the filmmaker is playing things ‘safe’. But that’s not to say this brisk, 78-minute shocker still isn’t full of full-frontal female nudity, the obligatory lesbian make-out scenes and the implication of some pretty sadistic violence.

The BBFC’s objection was largely connected to the involvement of Hemingway, who was under 18 when the film was shot and therefore bothered their stringent policies on contravening The Protection of Children Act. Hemingway does look disconcertingly young at times here, but all the same makes for a warm and convincing actress alongside Gambier’s brassier lead. The real star of the show, though, is Vernon – all sweaty and tense, his eyes boggling like a pervert as he revels in the thought of breaking these women.

Though clearly made for peanuts, the film manages some stylish compositions thanks to cinematographer Ruedi Kuttel, the best of which is arguably the moment where the women emerge from a serene lake, their reflections in the water mirroring their naked movements on the shore. Elsewhere, an early dinner table scene brought to mind SALO with its mixing of casual cruelty and bourgeois commentary.

CELLBLOCK 9 will best be remembered though for Gambier’s vaginal torture sequence (though it’s never explicit) and the simple-but-striking image of her running naked with a rifle in her hands. Perhaps by accident rather than design, this becomes one of the most memorable images from Franco’s entire WiP oeuvre.

Badly dubbed to the point that many characters’ mouths are obscured from view, as Franco clearly wasn’t shooting with sound, the film feels cheap and sleazy on every level. That it’s not as extreme as its skid-row production values and subject matter suggest is curious, but the film entertains regardless.

Presented as an MPEG4-AVC file in an anamorphic 1.78:1 ratio, this film looks stunning. The camera does occasionally wobble and go out of focus but, come on, this is a Jess Franco film. What's remarkable is that the print used is so clean, and the transfer is for the most part sharp, bright and colourful. Just look at the opening shot which is a close-up of Vernon's face: if you think you've seen this film before, then prepare yourself for a revelatory experience. Really, this is a textbook presentation when you consider that this is, for lack of a better appreciation, a slice of quickly shot, cheaply produced trash from almost 40 years ago. It looks lovely. Oh, it's uncut too.

Audio is provided in options of German and English 5.1 DTS-HD mixes, as well as a French 2.0 alternative. I gave cursory nods to the German and French variants, both of which sounded fine. The English option is indeed excellent, with exceptionally clean and clear audio throughout.

The only subtitle option here is an Italian track. Don't blame Ascot Elite though: these matters tend to be due to licensing issues.

Ascot Elite's blu-ray disc is region-free and opens to a salaciously animated main menu page. From there, pop-up menus include a scene-selection menu proffering access to the film via 12 chapters.

Extras are limited on this particular title, but we do get a handful of trailers (BLUE RITA, WOMEN IN CELLBLOCK 9, ILSA THE WICKED WARDEN, JACK THE RIPPER [which, bizarrely, makes no effort at selling the fact that it features a bona fide star in the form of Klaus Kinski], SEXY SISTERS and VOODOO PASSION). All of these are presented with German audio. A couple of them also have burned-in French subtitles.

There is also a nicely mounted gallery of 15 original lobby cards for the film, which are of course an excuse for more female nudity.

WOMEN IN CELLBLOCK 9 is a genuinely curious film. It works almost despite itself. One thing's for certain: it's never looked better than it does here. It therefore has to come recommended.

Review by Stuart Willis

Released by Ascot Elite Home Entertainment
Region All
Rated 18
Extras : see main review