The Film (5/5)
Jess Franco died a little over one year ago now in April of 2013, as one of the last remaining auteurs of early EuroCult cinema it was a tragic loss, but being in his mid-80's, and having been in declining health for sometime it was hardly unexpected. If one is to find a silver lining in the dark cloud of Franco's tragic passing it would be that over his very long and prolific career the Spanish director left us with over 200 films (more if you qualify the varying cuts of some of his films) to explore and to enjoy for decades to come. Prior to his passing his films began to trickle on to the Blu-ray format with Redemption Films releasing his classics Female Vampire and Exorcism on to the format in October of 2012. However, it would be Ascot-Elite Films with their line of Franco Blu-ray's that have been keeping the maestro's work visible, and in very beautiful Blu-ray editions since late 2013. The series is working it's way down, and we have decided to go back, and review as many of these titles as time allows as these are some of the most gorgeous cult titles on the market, and they offer a great tribute to the late Jess Franco.
Jess Franco during his career, which seemed to only end with his life, was a diverse director of exploitation cinema. The man directed films in almost every conceivable genre over his long career. During the 60's and 70's he made a good number of Women in Prison films (WiP) which were popularized by filmmakers such as Roger Corman at that time. The best of which may be his 1969 film 99 Women, however out of the other Franco WiP films I have seen his 1976 collaboration with producer Erwin C. Dietrich Barbed Wire Dolls may very well be a very close second. I have not yet seen his Ilsa variant in many years (close to 2 decades, and at the time I did not even have an inkling it was a Franco), and I have not seen Women in Cellblock 9 yet. However, of the 2 Dietrich-era WiP films I have seen Barbed Wire Dolls made the most impact.
I have read that many viewers watch this film, and see a wall to wall sleazefest, and honestly you can watch many films from Franco's 70's period onward from that perspective. The film does feature torture, forced sex, imprisonment, and violence, and yet there is a way that Franco shoots the environment of the prison in Barbed Wire Dolls, that makes the situation seem more bleak and hopeless than in similar films. He also creates an atmosphere of claustrophobia that is not as apparent in some of his other genre offerings. It doesn't quite reach the same heights, but occasionally feels as dirty and downright terrifying as Pete Walker's House of Whipcord which may be the bleakest this cinematic subgenre would ever get.
Franco, also seemed to fire on all cylinders when filming his life partner and muse Ms. Lina Romay. In the 5 films of the Dietrich series I've viewed so far, she has appeared in 2 of them, Jack the Ripper, and this, and those 2 have also been the greatest of the bunch. I am not sure if that means Franco reserved only the best material of this period for Romay, or he would just work better in her presence, but her inclusion surely indicates a better film in this series.
The performances in Barbed Wire Dolls are pretty impressive for a Franco film from the aforementioned Romay who brings her formidable screen presence to the role of Maria. We also have the excellent Monica Swinn, who plays the scarred, and monocle wearing prison warden. Swinn fully absorbs herself into her role here, and her presence is positively chilling at times. We also have Paul Muller, playing the sadistic Doctor who works in the hospital whose emotional soft spot for Romay proves to be his eventual undoing. The rest of the cast is very fitting in their respective roles, although one has to question why Franco cast himself in the role of Romay's character's Father.
Barbed Wire Dolls finds Romay playing Maria, a woman who tired of her Father's incestuous advances, and during one final rape attempt kills him. For the murder she is imprisoned in a special section of a prison, first alone where she is given naked-electroshock therapy, and then paired with two other women in a cell. Who are also tortured, and taken sexual advantage of by the lesbian warden (who in her spare time reads Nazi literature while utilizing a monocle), and other members of the jail staff. Of course, the inmates decide to rebel against their captors and attempt to escape.
Audio/Video (3.5/5 - Ascot Elite, 3/5 - Full Moon)
Ascot Elite Films presents Jess Franco's Barbed Wire Dolls in a very good 1:78:1 1080p transfer that is only limited by the nature of the source material. The transfer has strong detail, nice flesh tones, and colors (although those colors are of the drab variety, we are in a prison after all). Franco, was a frequent user of the zoom lens and there are issues with focus, here and there, so honestly aside from some soft spots this is very probably the best Barbed Wire Dolls can expect to look.
There are 3 audio options present German and English DTS-HD MA 5.1 and French Dolby Digital 2.0. There are subtitles provided in English and Japanese. I used the German track for my viewing and found that dialogue sounds strong, as did music an effects.
Full Moon began releasing 10 of the Erwin C. Dietrich/Jess Franco collaborations on DVD about a year or two back, but with the Ascot Elite Blu-ray counterparts on Blu commentating on an obsolete format was pointless. The releases must have been a success for the Charles Band-lead company, as they are now releasing them to Blu beginning with Barbed Wire Dolls. The video shares the same excellent transfer that Ascot Elite used for their Golden Goya Collection release in 2014. The only major difference is in the audio department. Full Moon eschews the 3 audio options leaving the viewer with a Dolby Digital 5.1 track. This track while not in HD audio like the Swiss Blu-ray’s is serviceable, and sounds quite decent (it is probably derived from the same audio master as the AE discs). I could detect no issues with this track.
*One small note, and this has not happened to anyone else I discussed this with. But the Full Moon intro and menu played as static (think like an old TV set), but it played fine on the other.
Ascot Elite kicks off their Barbed Wire Dolls package with interviews featuring Erwin C. Dietrich and Lina Romay. We also have an audio interview with Jess Franco, trailers, and photo galleries.
Full Moon includes an interview with Duke of Burgundy director Peter Strickland, and a vintage VHS trailer reel of Jess Franco films.
Barbed Wire Dolls is one of Franco's best offerings in the realm of WiP cinema. It is a bleak, desperate, and shocking film from the director. The A/V restoration courtesy of Ascot Elite is excellent with the only limitations being that of the source material. The Full Moon release looks solid, and has a decent audio track, but not the wealth of HD audio options available on the AE disc. Still it’s a nice budget option for those unable or unwilling to import the AE discs.