Saturday, June 15, 2024

#2,960. The Bloody Judge (1970) - The Films of Jess Franco


As with Vincent Price’s character in The Witchfinder General, Christopher Lee portrays an historical figure in Jess Franco’s 1970 film The Bloody Judge. Judge George Jeffreys, who was fiercely loyal to James II, was named Lord Chancellor of England in 1685, and used his power against the king’s enemies. He became known as “The Hanging Judge”, and his punishments were harsh.

During the Monmouth Rebellion, when William of Orange attempted to seize control of the English throne, it is rumored that Jeffreys put several hundred men on trial, all of whom were eventually executed. When James II fled the country in 1688, paving the way for the reign of William III, Jeffreys remained behind and was captured. He died of kidney failure while a prisoner in the Tower of London.

Though not quite the movie that The Witchfinder General is, The Bloody Judge nonetheless does a good job bringing this story to the screen, with Christopher Lee delivering a deliciously sinister performance as the judge whose loyalties often interfere with his dispensing of justice.

As the movie opens, troops loyal to Judge Jeffries (not sure why the filmmakers changed the spelling of his name) have arrested Alicia Gray (Margaret Lee) and charged her with witchcraft. Her sister Mary (Maria Rohm), who caught the eye of Judge Jeffries during the trial, pleads for Alicia’s life. When she refuses to sleep with Jeffries in return for Alicia’s freedom, Alicia is executed.

With William of Orange threatening to invade England, Judge Jeffries steps up his efforts to root out the rebels. He meets with Lord Wessex (Leo Genn), who he suspects of conspiring with the rebels, and warns Wessex to keep an eye on his son Henry (Hans Haas Jr.), who has taken Mary Gray, the sister of a convicted witch, as his lover.

Henry is, indeed, sympathetic to the rebel cause, and intends to make Mary his wife then flee England that very night.

To keep young Henry in line, Judge Jeffries, with the help of Wessex’s traitorous servant Satchel (Milo Quesada), takes Mary into custody, all as news arrives that William of Orange’s troops are about to land on English soil.

With the tide of public opinion turning against King James, Jeffries knows he has to step up his efforts, and begins arresting everyone even remotely connected to the rebellion. But how long can the man known as the Bloody Judge hold back an uprising that is growing stronger with each passing day?

Aside from the opening scene with Alicia Gray, The Bloody Judge deals more with history than it does witchcraft. Lee bellows and huffs his way through the courtroom scenes, his anger and insults showing, quite clearly, he is anything but an impartial judge. During Alicia’s trial, Jeffries chastises the prosecutor for not “properly examining” the body of the accused. He calls a recess, at which point Alicia is tied to a rack and tortured.

Jess Franco, whose gargantuan body of work contains more misfires than it does triumphs, does a fine job recreating the time period throughout The Bloody Judge. As with most of the director’s output in the ‘70s and ‘80s, the film has its share of exploitative moments; in the uncut version, there’s lots of nudity, and a bizarre scene in which Mary Gray “cleans” the naked body of a fellow prisoner by licking the blood off of her. But along with the sleaze, we’re also treated to some well-staged battle scenes between the rebels and the King’s troops, and the story of Henry’s and Mary’s attempts to avoid capture has its moments as well.

Franco, who this same year released Count Dracula, which he claimed was the most accurate version of Bram Stoker’s novel ever committed to film (it was for a while, then drifted off the rails towards the end), continued his push for authenticity with The Bloody Judge, which is as much a history of a moment in time as it is a horror movie. And it works on both counts. Franco himself remembered The Bloody Judge fondly, saying in a 2003 interview that it is a movie he “still enjoys”. It’s easy to see why.
Rating: 8 out of 10

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