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.