Dir. Jess Franco
17th Century England is in the grip of Satanic Panic, and amongst those seeking to rid the land of traitors to the throne and anyone 'in league with the devil’, is Judge George Jeffreys, whose unreasonable sentences and excessively violent tortures are dished out with puritanical abandon. He soon becomes obsessed with Mary, a young women whose sister he accused of witchcraft and whose lover is a rebel against King James II. When the rebels are defeated, Mary tries to save her beau by surrendering herself to the Judge’s cruel lust. Betrayal, bloody torture and murder ensue.
Believe it or not, The Bloody Judge marks the first time I’ve reviewed a Jess Franco film for this here blog. I know. For shame! Despite his insanely prolific career - spanning decades and genres alike - this humble scribbler has seen but a mere scrap of the kinky-exploitationer’s films, which, not including my recent indulgence in The Bloody Judge, includes his kitsch classic Vampyros Lesbos and his more recent not-classic, Vampire Killer Barbies; both of which I enjoyed immensely and loved for entirely different reasons. With Vampyros Lesbos Franco demonstrated his ability to conjure the most Sadean imagery imaginable, and managed to tread a fine line between trashy exploitation and kitschy art-house. Much like, say, Dario Argento, Jess Franco’s reputation precedes him, and my hopes where high for The Bloody Judge - a film boasting not only the dubious talents of Franco, but the steely gravitas of horror icon Sir Christopher Lee!
Despite this film being touted as Franco’s Sado-erotic take on Witchfinder General - which was released the previous year and spawned myriad imitators seeking to cash in on witchcraft, torture and sadism-oh my; said hopes were sadly dashed. In its attempts to be too many things, The Bloody Judge falls way short of the grandly epic sweep it so desperately strives for; while its more exploitative aspects never plunge the depths of Sadean depravity Franco is revered for - even the inclusion of scantily glad wenches being tortured by a man in a proto-gimp suit is more ‘guffaw’ than ‘ghastly.’ The somewhat stilted pacing is not helped by the uneven tone which shifts epileptically between historical epic, soft core skin-flick, and gratuitous torture romp. Too many characters are all given too little to do, and while their presence initially ups the scope of the film, it soon drags everything down into a mire of awkward plotting and haphazard narrative.
Franco’s admittedly admirable attempts to craft a serious period piece/historical drama include several well-staged battle sequences, dark political shenanigans ever-afoot and snatches of the driest humour. The Bloody Judge also boosts a budget more sizable than most Franco films, and there’s plenty of grim detail to the filthy authenticity of the period, which is handsomely evoked. Also worth mentioning is the beautiful cinematography by Franco regular Manuel Merino, and the emotive score courtesy of Behind the Couch favourite, Bruno Nicolai. Despite these positive aspects, events are too often bogged down in dusty scenes of badly dubbed dialogue that go on a little too long; and regardless of some surprisingly effective performances, none of the characters ever really garner any sympathy. Maria Rohm (who also starred in House of 1,000 Dolls and was married to producer Harry Alan Towers), is rather good as Mary Gray; the damsel in distress who seems prepared to do whatever it takes to protect her lover. Sir Christopher Lee, as usual, delivers the kind of stately performance he is now renowned for as the merciless judge.
Flaws aside, this will no doubt appeal to hardcore admirers of Franco, Lee and Rohm. Though given the chance, I think I’d just prefer to re-watch Witchfinder General and Vampyros Lesbos.
The Bloody Judge was released on DVD - for the first time ever in the UK - in January, by Mediumrare Entertainment. Extras include interviews with Jess Franco and Christopher Lee, deleted scenes, stills gallery and a trailer.