Saturday, April 16, 2016

#229: Barbed Wire Dolls (Jess Franco, 1976)

Barbed Wire Dolls, a pretty insane and pretty terrible women-in-prison movie with one gloriously stupid scene that makes it all worthwhile (more on that later), appeared near the end of the first third of notorious and prolific Spanish writer/director Jesus "Jess" Franco's career. Franco, primarily working in the sexploitation and sex-filled horror genres, directed 203 films between 1957 and 2013, the year of his death. (For those keeping tabs, that last film was called Revenge of the Alligator Ladies.)
Franco was famous for cranking out films quickly, on time, and under budget, and he was also famous for not really learning much about how to make films even as he made hundreds of them. Franco reportedly despised his own work and is quoted as saying he wished he could have made films like Citizen Kane and The Grapes of Wrath. On the evidence of Barbed Wire Dolls, two major steps he could have taken to put him closer to the cinema of Orson Welles and John Ford would be to refrain from taking so many closeup shots of vaginas and also to hire a cameraman who knew about things like focus, shot composition, and general camera placement.
Barbed Wire Dolls is basically softcore pornography, so to fault it for gratuitous nudity is a bit like faulting the ocean for having gratuitous water. That's the whole point. The film is a bizarre fantasy vehicle for Franco's particular fetishes, and it doesn't make a whole lot of sense outside of that framework. The plot is primarily an excuse for Franco to fixate on his cast's legs and vaginas (including his wife, Lina Romay). Breasts seem incidental to Franco, with the exception of two buxom women who look like they stepped out of a Russ Meyer film. The vagina closeups are very clinical and not sexy at all, and the repetition gets pretty boring. Any gynecologists watching this movie will feel like they're still at work. Like a lot of simple-minded and single-minded sexploitation filmmakers, Franco makes the audience tired of nudity. Even a room full of heterosexual 13-year-old boys would probably check out about halfway through. Fortunately, the weirdness and unintentional humor helped me get through it.
Speaking of weird, this is a truly strange prison. Located on a beautiful island (filmed in Honduras, financed by the Swiss) and surrounded by clear blue ocean water, the prison itself is a drab, gray, dreary place.  The regulation uniform is a bluish-gray button-up shirt with no other clothes, though only one of the women wears underwear, for some reason. The prison is run as a fascist S&M torture camp, with the women being punished by the evil warden and her henchmen and women and drugged by a fake doctor who murdered the real doctor. That warden is played by Monica Swinn, who bears a strong resemblance to Fritz Lang. Franco has her wear a monocle just like Lang's. Is this a film buff inside joke about Lang's reputation for being a tyrant and sadist on his sets, or just an odd coincidence? The resemblance to Fritz Lang ends at the neck, however, as Swinn's warden wears an unbuttoned shirt and booty shorts, an odd combination for professional attire but par for the course in Franco's world. She's also fond of wearing see-through gowns in her private apartment and reading Nazi literature.
The usual women-in-prison cliches are trotted out, and much S&M, lesbian sex, mild torture, and copious nudity ensue. Moving this into the realm of the unusual, however, is Franco's incredibly bizarre, stilted, and goofy dialogue. When one prisoner mentions that her brother was killed, another prisoner (the resident nymphomaniac) says how lucky he is to be dead because you can make love to anyone you want in the afterlife. "He's probably made love to the bride of Frankenstein," she says. "I love Frankenstein!" As the kids type, WTF? There are also a lot of stupidly vague conversations about "revolutionists" and "bleeding-heart liberal journalists." Things carry on like this for an hour and a half, a prison break is attempted, and the whole thing goes out on a surprisingly downbeat ending.
Which brings me to the one amazing reason this otherwise painfully stupid film deserves to be seen -- the "slow motion" scene. Lina Romay's character, Maria, is in the prison for murdering her father, and in a flashback sequence, we see how this happened. Maria is sleeping totally nude on top of the sheets, instead of under them. Her father (played by Franco himself) comes into her room, sits on her bed, and wakes her up. She seems cool with this instead of embarrassed that her dad is looking at her naked, but things get even more disgusting when he starts fondling her and demanding sex. She gets up to run away, and her father chases her through the house. She shoves him away, he hits his head on the mantelpiece, and is knocked unconscious. We find out how he died a few scenes later. Most of this action takes place in slow motion.
This doesn't sound so great, I know, but wait. For absolutely mystifying reasons, instead of changing the frame rate to create the slow motion, Franco and Romay instead pretend to be moving in slow motion like kids on a playground goofing around. This is howlingly funny. My wife and I could barely breathe we were laughing so hard, and it made the endurance of the rest of this godawful film worthwhile. Because I'm a public servant, a man of the people, I have included a link to this scene here. You can skip the rest. This is the only thing about the movie that is pure gold. Oh yeah, this clip is totally NSFW. Enjoy. (The fake slow motion starts at about 1:30.)

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