Director: Jesús Franco
Screenplay: Enrico Colombo, Jesús Franco, Michael Haller, Harry Alan Towers, Anthony Scott Veitch
Starring: Christopher Lee, Maria Schell, Leo Genn, Maria Rohm, Howard Vernon, Hans Hass Jr.
Producers: Arturo Marcos, Harry Alan Towers
Country: Liechtenstein/Italy/Spain/West Germany
Running Time: 102 min
BBFC Certificate: 18
The Bloody Judge is a relatively early film from the career of Jesús Franco, better known as Jess Franco. Thought of these days as a sort of Godfather of the smutty film genre, he's directed almost 200 films in his lifetime and is still going strong. Ever since the mid-to-late 70's he has been mainly stuck directing 'adult' films and although quite well known in film circles, he is rarely given any respect as a filmmaker. In the late 60's and early 70's however, he was making a bit of a name for himself making low budget horror movies (which also often had a lot of flesh in them). None of these were exactly classics, but titles like Dracula vs Frankenstein and Vampyros Lesbos had their fans and towards the end of this 'peak' he made The Bloody Judge (ridiculously titled Night of the Blood Monster on its original US release) which starred the Godfather of horror actors, Christopher Lee.
A cash-in on the success of Witchfinder General, The Bloody Judge is set in the late 1600's, a couple of decades after the civil war, in a period when King James II was battling with rebels in the country who wanted him off the throne. Christopher Lee plays a famous historical character from the era, Judge George Jeffreys. He had risen to the ranks of Lord Chancellor and was in charge of sentencing rebels across the country. Under the instructions of the king he dished out ridiculously harsh judgement, putting hundreds to death and exiling even more to try and rid England of those against its king (which didn't work – James was eventually driven out).
The film follows Mary (Maria Rohm), the sister of one woman wrongly put to death, and Harry (Hans Hass Jr.), the son of Lord Wessex, who is the Earl of the region in which Jeffreys is currently issuing his judgement. Harry has joined with the rebels and Jeffreys catches wind of this, so does his best to capture and 'put him to court' as well as the 'wench' Mary that he suspects is following in her sister's footsteps, although he takes a shine to her, despite her treachery.
So it's quite a serious and vaguely historically accurate story for a director like Franco, known for directing films like The Erotic Rites of Frankenstein. That's not to say it doesn't have his stamp on it though. In between the historical and political elements of the plot there are a handful of unnecessary torture scenes and a bit of gratuitous sex, including a scene that combines the two, with Mary licking the wounds on the naked body of a tortured woman. These serve little to the plot of course and degrade the quality of the film, but to be fair to Franco, in the short documentary included with the DVD he states how the various producers involved in the film each wanted something else in the film. Some wanted history, some violence, others sex, so his hand was a little forced.
When it isn't spoiling things with unnecessary sleaze, the film is reasonably good though. OK, so it has the odd ropey supporting performance, the politics are simplistic and it's a little slow, but overall it's a lot more interesting and engaging than the typical trash from the era. Christopher Lee is, as expected, great in the title role and brings his usual gravitas to the hated judge. His character keeps away from the really nasty and sordid work though, leaving that up to the repellant Satchel (Milo Quesada), who makes for an effective 'henchman'.
The film is fairly well shot too, in a classy, professional fashion with fairly authentic-looking costumes and sets adding to the visual quality. Franco makes great use of some handsome locations too, although some of these don't look particularly English (the film was shot in Portugal). Also, one of the few action set pieces, when the rebels take on the king's soldiers, is nicely handled and quite exciting with a barrage of cannon fire and plenty of horse-based stunts.
I must admit, before now I haven't actually watched any Jess Franco films, so making comparisons to his previous work is rather presumptuous of me, but in terms of his reputation, The Bloody Judge seems like a tamer, classier and all together stronger addition to his epic oeuvre, but don't expect a masterpiece. With the ropey tacked on gore and sleaze, plus the fact that, as strong as the subject matter occasionally is, the premise and narrative borrow heavily from a stronger film released only two years previously, it's hard to give The Bloody Judge more than an average overall rating.
The Bloody Judge is out now on DVD in the UK, released by Medium Rare. The picture quality is pretty good. There are a few lines on the print here and there and the picture seems slightly cropped and squashed perhaps, but generally the print has clear detail and strong colours. The audio track is decent too.
There is one very peculiar aspect to this DVD release though. In a couple of scenes in the last third of the film, it randomly switches to the German language version! This happens largely in some of the more violent or sleazy moments, so I'm assuming these are scenes that weren't available in the UK cut and were added to give the most full version of the film possible to a UK audience. So, assuming this is the case, it's actually commendable, even if it is rather distracting.
For such a relatively obscure film there are a surprising amount of extras included in the release. You get a handful of extended scenes and a deleted one too, a slideshow, trailer and a 25 minute documentary on the film called 'Bloody Jess'. This is pretty decent. Including interviews with Christopher Lee and Jess Franco, it's a surprisingly honest and informative look at the production of The Bloody Judge in which Lee describes how he's never seen the film as he's not interested in exploitative, nasty, violent films and wasn't happy with all the brutality added in after he worked on it. You also hear about the meddlesome producers wanting different things from the film and the butchering and title-changing imposed on the film as it was shown around the world.