This intriguing historical potboiler stars Christopher Lee as the notorious Judge George Jeffreys, first Baron of Wem and the Lord Chief Justice who presided over the infamous ‘Bloody Assizes’ in 1685, during the unstable reign of the openly Catholic James VII and II and during the period when the protestant Duke of Monmouth (one of the bastard sons of James’s dead brother Charles II by his mistress Lucy Walter) raised an army and attempted to usurp the throne in what became known as the Monmouth Rebellion. Back in the reign of Charles II, the real life Jeffreys had been equally ardent in punishing alleged Catholic conspirators involved in the so-called Popish Plot -- which turned out to have been completely fabricated by Titus Oates. Jeffreys was a high Tory who was utterly devoted to the Crown. So when, after the rebellion had been put down, the Catholic James sent Jeffreys’ court on a tour of the South West of England with firm orders to punish all those involved in the attempt to replace him with a more suitably protestant Stewart (illegitimacy being infinitely more preferable over Catholicism in the 17th century Whig mind), the loyal Justice proved himself just as determined in pursuit of the law when it involved killing protestant traitors as he had been in sending Catholics to the gallows. During the three months the Assizes were in session Judge Jeffreys sent hundreds to their deaths and many more were transported to the plantations in the West Indies during his tour of the region, moving from Winchester where rebels were executed in the town square, to Salisbury and Taunton and ending up in Wells. His ruthless actions were well rewarded by King James, who made Jeffreys Lord Chancellor. But ‘the hanging judge’ later died while incarcerated in the Tower of London from kidney failure, soon after William of Orange invaded from Holland with the connivance of James’s enemies in Parliament.
This film gives a rather sketchy account of the history of the period, but then one would imagine that history would be one of its more minor concerns. “The Bloody Judge” was the work of British-born producer and screenwriter Harry Alan Towers, who envisioned it as an historical adventure-romance in what director Jess Franco calls ‘the British style’. The film was one of a flurry of similar efforts to appear in the wake of Michael Reeves’ classic “Witchfinder General”, which struck a chord with moviegoers of the late-sixties in its depiction of persecution, superstition and corruption against a backdrop of the English Civil War. It was a tumultuous period, during which trials were routinely conducted in the South of England by self-styled witchfinder Mathew Hopkins, resulting in many innocent women being hanged for sorcery and witchcraft as Parliamentarians fought Royalists and families were torn apart in the conflict for control of the nation’s constitutional and religious character. With student protests and civil rights campaigns reaching their apex at about the time of the film’s release, Reeves’ earthy, uncompromisingly bleak take on the English folk horror theme, caught the imagination of young people and became a big box office success. Although restrained by today’s standards, at the time “Witchfinder General” seemed shocking in the seriousness with which it went about subverting the familiar historical romance category. The pictures that came in its wake, though, were a little less circumspect about their willingness to exploit newly liberalised censorship laws then in the process of being introduced: European producers in particular piled on the gore, torture and nudity in Michael Armstrong’s German-backed “Mark of the Devil” and in AIP’s “Cry of the Banshee”, directed by Gordon Hessler and once again starring “Witchfinder General’s” star Vincent Price.
With this context considered as its background, “The Bloody Judge” becomes a fascinating film from a number of perspectives. First of all, it was one of the last collaborations between Towers and the prolific Spanish-born director Jess Franco, and remains a curiosity in the Franco filmography – considered more an oddity because of its sheer conventionality in comparison to the rest of Franco’s work, rather than because of any quirkiness or outlandishness it might harbour. Franco’s career up to 1970 had featured a lot of genre work, but always filtered through a unique sensibility that increasingly saw him willing to abandon basic budgetary requirements in pursuit of his own agenda, occasionally producing bizarre but entrancing works of horrotica such as “Paroxismus” (Venus in Furs) and “Necronomicon” (Succubus). The 1970s were to see Franco moving more assuredly into erotic movie and pornographic terrain, but still incorporating horror and exploitation genre themes particularly as part of his on-going association with France’s Eurocine outfit. “The Bloody Judge” appears to catch him at a crossroads -- offering a tantalising glimpse of an alternative, unlikely career path for Franco, had he chosen to take it, working as a directorial ‘gun for hire’, and efficiently realising a template pre-determined by his producer. For hired gun is exactly what Franco appears to be here, and a surprisingly assured and professional one, too: the ‘British style’ of movie the film most closely imitates in appearance is the sort of colourful historical costume adventure flicks once produced by Hammer from the early-sixties onwards; films such as “The Scarlet Blade” (set at the end of the English Civil War) or “The Brigand of Kandahar”, both directed by Jon Gilling. Franco is placed at the helm of a lavishly budgeted (by his standards) melodrama which follows the usual formula of these kinds of works: telling a fictional romantic story about somewhat two-dimensional characters, but conducted against a background composed of real historical events. There are proper period costumes, glossy professional make-up, beautiful lighting and sumptuous art direction -- and decorous locations recreating 17th century South-West England with the help of picturesque Portugal and Spanish settings. The film is shot in full 2.35:1 widescreen ratio and comes with an absolutely splendid orchestrated score by Bruno Nicolai and gorgeous cinematography by Franco’s regular cameraman from this era, Manuel Merino – who was to stick with him even on his more personal, low budget projects, such as “Vampyros Lesbos” and She Killed in Ecstasy”. It also boasts an intriguing cast headed by Christopher Lee (who frequently worked with Jess Franco during the sixties, toting up a total of seven collaborations in all across the span of their association, including Franco’s version of “Dracula”) and Leo Genn, who was replacing Dennis Price after he had been initially cast but then became too ill to appear.
Despite these credentials, this is a film caught between the demands of a multitude of producers with competing market interests. Harry Alan Towers was the master of co-financed European productions and excelled himself here in finding backing from all over Europe and the U.S. to make this an Anglo-American-German-Spanish-French-Italian co-production. The most noticeable result of this most quintessential of euro-puddings is to provide the film with a cast made up of various nationalities and of diverse levels of talent. Austrian actress Maria Schell appears as a blind seer who lives on the outskirts of the action in the caves, and predicts events as they happen, commenting on them in a sort of Greek Chorus capacity and providing a hint of the supernatural in an otherwise real-world drama. German-based actor Hans Hass plays Harry Shelton, son of the Duke of Wessex (an important name in James II’s court, played by Leo Genn) but lover of Mary Gray -- the sister of a man already condemned as a traitor to the King by Jeffreys. She’s played by Maria Rohm, another Austrian actress (real name Helga Grohmann) and also the wife of Harry Alan Towers. Mary comes to the attention of the ruthless and lust crazed Jeffreys when petitioning for clemency for her sister Alicia (played by British actress Margaret Lee) who’s been captured and imprisoned for associating with rebels. Alicia is tortured in Newgate Gaol by Howard Vernon’s grotesque executioner Jack Ketch, who appears to spring from the dungeons of the Middle Ages rather than the 17th century. The Swiss-born Vernon was of course a regular in Franco’s cinema and his character was added to the screenplay by Franco in tribute to Boris Karloff’s club-footed executioner Mord from the classic Universal picture “Tower of London”, which also starred Basil Rathbone. Other cast members from Spain, France and Argentina mingle freely in this not always persuasive Spanish rendering of English locations.
The multiplication of production interests makes itself most noticeably evident in the strange, shifting tone of the picture, with the relatively simple plot performing cartwheels to try and satisfy every country with money invested in it. The Bloody Assizes had nothing to do with prosecuting witches for instance, but the popularity of such films in Germany after “Mark of the Devil” means that copious sequences are included involving young ‘wenches’ being graphically tortured and examinedd in dungeons by Jeffrey’s leering henchmen – the bizarrely cat-suited dungeon master, previously mentioned as played by Howard Vernon, and Milo Quesada as the grotesquely mutilated Satchel -- as they attempt to find evidence of their witchery. Some territories, such as the UK, required a horror film with an historical background in the same vein as “Witchfinder General”, while other European territories expected an historical film with the horrors of the Inquisition as its selling point. Franco steers a middle course through all of these incompatible requirements, filming horrific scenes of torture and eroticism for the German print and a more staid historical costume drama with alternative clothed love scenes replacing full frontal nudity for the more conservative markets. The film had varying run times and was marketed under a multitude of often absurd titles, depending on which cut and which approach had been ordered by the film’s many distributors. Thus AIP tried to sell it under the ridiculously dishonest title “Night of the Blood Monster” while Germany plumped for “Witches of Blackmoor” to cash-in on the success of a recent Edgar Wallace Krimi, “The Strangler of Blackmoor”. The version released on DVD here by Medium Rare is the composite version first put together in 2003 by Blue Underground, who also restored the movie to near pristine condition. It’s good to have this at last released in the UK, featuring all of the footage shot for various versions to make a 104 minute ultimate cut.
One of the most fascinating aspects of the film centres on the working relationship at the time between Christopher Lee and Jess Franco. Given the director’s penchant for boundary-pushing eroticism, often involving sadistic elements of horror and torture, it has always seemed odd that the two worked together so many times in light of Lee’s very vocal disdain for such material. But Lee came back to Franco repeatedly across a great many years and was to do so again even after this film, despite apparent difficulties between the two that were caused on this shoot by Franco’s need to placate all these different distributors and producers, who demanded copious sex and bloody violence to be added to the historical-adventure mix. Lee was drawn to the project out of historical interest in the life of George Jeffreys, who in reality appeared to be a Jekyll and Hyde figure – a respected judge who’s interpretation of the law was never in doubt but who’s ruthless execution of it and the malicious glee with which he handed out death sentences, made him a hated figure across the land. The film’s need to satisfy so many markets leads to its simplified depiction of Jeffreys becoming rather one note – he’s a malicious, hypocritical and lustful scoundrel who abuses his position for sexual kicks, procuring sex from Maria Rohm’s character in exchange for the life of her lover after he's been caught up in the Duke of Monmouth’s failed rebellion. Lee attempts to give a muted, accurate performance of a historical figure, making his Jeffreys statue-like and immobile because of the constant pain he suffered as a result of his kidney stones, while emphasising his total and committed belief in the justness of his actions in support of his king. Lee is perhaps at his best in the film in his scenes with Leo Genn as the Duke of Wessex. Wessex is ostensibly a King James man but is secretly hoping for William to come across the Channel and replace him and end the campaign of terror being waged in his district. Jeffreys clearly knows Wessex can’t be trusted, but can’t prove anything, and is on the look out for a means of entrapping the wily Duke, chiefly through exploiting the ill-advised association between his son Harry and his friend Barnaby, who has links to Prince William. The two actors work well together, each of their characters forced to play up a subtle cat-and-mouse display of mutual mistrust and suspicion, masked by a surface layer of polite formality and friendliness.
At the same time, Franco shot other scenes of Jeffreys sexually using Mary, that were filmed for the more explicit German cut (and which are included in the composite we have here with a German soundtrack where necessary) and that would appear to be incompatible with Lee’s portrayal of a man in constant agonising pain! Of course, Lee was not involved in filming these sequences. As always, he simply point blank refused to do them. Franco shot the scene with the camera taking Jeffreys point-of-view while only the Judge's hands caressing the body of Mary are visible, which are provided by a double. Despite the compromising nature of the film in regard to its undermining of Lee’s attempt to give a nuanced performance (and on a similar subject, the plot makes nonsense of the history too, by conflating the events of the Monmouth Rebellion of 1685 with those of the Glorious Revolution of 1688, for the purposes of producing a conventional happy ending), Lee continues to speak highly of Franco in interviews. In the excellent documentary interview that’s conducted with Christopher Lee and Jess Franco for the 2003 Blue Underground release, his anguish over how the film turned out is palpable: he frequently emphasises, whenever talking about any aspect of the film’s content, that he’s never seen it because of its: ‘hideous scenes of torture and mutilation’. ‘I can’t bring myself to look at things like that!’ Nevertheless, he goes on to praise Franco as ‘an intelligent man’ claiming ‘I always thought he was very under-rated,’ before adding, ‘I know he’s done some very strange things on film!’ Franco is equally effusive in his praise of Lee, emphasising that the two of them remain good friends and generally had a good relationship throughout their working careers, “The Bloody Judge” being the only partnership between the two in which their competing thoughts about what ‘the rhythm of the film’ should be and how closely history should be respected made things a little strained.
Despite this ‘conflict’ in approach, there are very few moments where this actually feels like a proper Jess Franco film. The director’s assumed style largely takes the laid back guise of a typical British historical costume drama of the period: scenes are symmetrically arranged as a series of sumptuous widescreen tableaux, highlighting the scenic landscapes and the historically accurate nature of the interiors (almost all of the film was shot in real settings as opposed to studio sets), with bodies arranged within the frame like figures in a painting. The design aesthetic of the film indicated by its resulting general appearance, when combined with the rich faux-classical score of Nicolai (one of his best), is that of a PG-rated adventure period drama rather than a salacious euro-exploitation piece soaked in fake blood and torture -- which makes the sudden display of full frontal nudity by Maria Rohm, in an otherwise romantically scored love scene in a hay barn between her and Hans Hass, all the more jarring when it suddenly occurs out of the blue in this cut. Franco acquits himself in this mostly staid, perfunctory ‘British’ style adequately if unspectacularly. There are some deft battle scenes included here, depicting the battle of Sedgemoor -- which was the end point of the Monmouth Rebellion as well as the point in the film which leads to Mary and Wessex’s son Harry being captured by the duplicitous and corrupt (and oddly named) Satchel. These relatively tightly edited battle scenes -- with cannons blazing and horses falling -- were shot and edited with an efficiency and skill that is rarely associated with the cinema of Jess Franco. The only big give away (besides its need for frequent post synch dubbing of the many foreign supporting actors) that this isn’t some British-made attempt to mimic the Hammer formula, is Franco’s extensive use of the zoom lens as a cheap means of generating dynamics during such scenes -- a rather frowned-upon technique in British and American film-making, but often employed, for example, by such otherwise revered names as Mario Bava.
Nevertheless, there are moments when Franco’s involvement in generating the screenplay (which is also credited to four others, including Towers, using his penname Peter Wellbeck) possibly makes itself felt in unnecessary but characteristics details of the macabre which serve to remind one who’s actually at the helm. Lee’s desire to highlight through his manner of performance Jeffreys’ chronic pain from the infection caused by his kidney stones, is given an extra twist by the opening scene of the film, depicting the peasant folk of the Wessex countryside performing a pagan ritual in the lilac fields that involves nursery rhyme-like chanting and a effigy of Judge Jeffreys being displayed hanging by its neck, while another peasant sticks pins in a figurine. This simultaneously casts a whole different light on the Judge’s affliction and satisfies the requirement to incorporate witchcraft into the storyline, while acting as a clever supernatural foreshadowing of Lee’s death scene in the tower in the very last moments of the movie. This brings a satisfying circularity to proceedings. The film’s various versions make use altogether of three different death scenes for the Judge, depending on the cut in question; but Franco also incorporated all three of them into one, edited together to produce his preferred ending, and resulting in a poetic conclusion that sees Jeffrey’s gazing out of the small window that looks out from his prison tower to an executioner’s block below, where he witnesses his own apparent death by hanging and beheading at the hands of the same Jack Ketch who’s been carrying out his orders all the way through the film, just before finally succumbing to infection, and dying in the Duke of Wessex’s arms in the final shot.
It’s a poignant way of enabling Franco to use all of the footage from the multiple endings, and yet also to convey in an original and artistic manner Jeffrey’s last minute acknowledgment of and repentance for the suffering and pain his actions have inflicted upon his many victims. In the film, Franco sets the simple pagan rites of the powerless country folk in opposition to a depiction of formal state church ceremony that's embodied in the sombre, stiff and unyielding figure of the officious Jeffreys. The people of the countryside are the victims of the politics that results from the urban London elite’s promotion of religious conflicts founded in organised religion and its sectarian factions. The country folk are depicted as beyond politics through their rejection of such organised religious practices and beliefs (Mary rejects the political manoeuvrings of both the state, as represented by Jeffreys ,and of her dead brother, who’s involvement in the earlier Rye House plot to topple the Stewarts makes her a target for those anxious to discredit Wessex’s son), and are credited with an unspecified worship of the natural environment instead. This is depicted as being somehow purer, and closer to some form of supernatural transcendence embodied in the form of Maria Schell’s blinded beggar-woman seer. Much more so than a corrupted scriptural liturgy and the state sanctioned violence and cruelty it unleashes and promotes.
Mary, as portrayed by the undeniably pretty Maria Rohm, is the emblem of the association Franco makes between innocence and the pastoral idyll, and its opposition to the state’s corruption and vice; the juxtaposition comes fully into focus during a scene which serves a double function – in the context of the film’s already discussed attempts to strike a compromise between the competing production demands of numerous distributors/financial backers -- when a naked Mary is seen tenderly licking blood from the wounds of a chained and also naked victim of Jeffreys’ gaolers in the torture dungeons of Newgate. On one level, the sequence serves its surface function as prurient titillation well enough, and Franco includes plenty of cutaways of Ketch and Satchel leering over the spectacle to make it clear that, indeed, that is exactly how they also respond to it. At the same time, though, the powerfully poignant cue from Nicoladi’s score which accompanies the sequence seems to suggest another transgressive interpretation of the sene, that associates erotic bondage and degradation with religious notions of purity and grace, charging the scene with a subversive element that brings to mind Pasolini’s “Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom”.“The Bloody Judge” is the flawed result of many irreconcilable needs on the part of too many competing factions, but this uncensored and complete version, sourced from a number of European vault elements, reveals that the eccentric Jess Franco could produce wonderful-looking work that stood up comparably well against anyone else making films at the time, if he was given enough resources and a proper budget to work with. It’s a wonderfully skewed Euro-based variation on a deceptively straightforward sub-genre of historical epic, given a whole new resonance by the addition of often incongruous scenes of deviant sadism and what Lee terms ‘scenes of extraordinary depravity’ – which look a little tame in these days of so-called torture porn, but bring a uniqueness and an offbeat quality to the picture that continue to make the film stand out as a piece of work still worth paying attention to, even if its title star will never see it.
This UK disc from Medium Rare features the same excellent restored transfer used by Blue Underground in 2003 and all the same extras, consisting of an excellent 25 minute interview with Jess Franco and Christopher Lee, deleted and alternative scenes, a trailer and a lengthy poster and stills art gallery. "The Bloody Judge" is an intriguing and very worthwhile cult oddity.
Read more from Black Gloves at his blog, Nothing but the Night!