England, 1668. King James’s hold on the throne is precarious, and is threatened by the efforts of rebels in the nobility to overthrow him, replacing him with the Dutch prince William of Orange. Amidst this chaos Judge Jeffries, known as “the Bloody Judge,” uses all the powers at his disposal to root out suspected traitors and witches and ruthlessly bring them to justice. But politics become personal when the sister of a woman he executed for witchcraft falls in love with the rebellious son of one of the king’s (and Jeffries’s) loyal allies…
As with Mark Of The Devil, The Bloody Judge has a premise that just begs for comparison with the masterpiece of 17th-century witchcraft horror, 1968’s Witchfinder General.
I was actually a bit surprised to discover that the witchcraft angle doesn’t actually play all that much of a role in the plot. Sure, it’s there, but more focus is placed on the rebels who are, in a historical sense, about to enact the pending Glorious Revolution; in fact, there are points where the film (almost) feels like a political thriller, and there’s a remarkable (for a film like this) fidelity to historical detail on display. (Although the issue of exactly why certain powerful British nobles and politicians wanted James out of the way is never directly addressed–the implication is that it’s because he employs bloodthirsty bastards like Jeffries, and the religious reasons are never even mentioned.)
There are a couple of other tropes conspicuous by their absence–Jeffries never manifests a lust for the beautiful Mary Gray that’s at odds with his purist devotion to duty, for example–and the result is a plot that, while remaining largely predictable, has enough variation to keep it from seeming like a total ripoff of its predecessor. Christopher Lee, as Jeffries, navigates the material with expert precision; it’s not one of his best performances even if you eliminate his late-career renaissance, but he still cuts an imposing and threatening figure. Another standout of the cast is Leo Genn as Lord Wessex, who’s torn between loyalty to the Crown and loyalty to his son. The rest of the ensemble (mostly continental actors, including Diana Lorys as the least believable Englishwoman ever) is competent without being particularly memorable.
Director Jess Franco does a fairly good job with the material. His style isn’t particularly distinct here–if you come into the film midway through, you might have a hard time distinguishing it from any other historical horror of this period–but he keeps proceedings moving at an effective pace, and he makes good use of his locations (although he’s never entirely able to pass central Europe off as the west of England).
The exploitation elements of the production are fairly tame in comparison to Franco’s reputation. The nudity is restrained; this film is more about heaving bosoms popping out from underneath corsets. Which doesn’t mean that the film is entirely bowdlerized; there’s a lesbian sequence that was probably very shocking for the standards of the time. The torture and violence is also suitably nasty, although it doesn’t compare with Mark Of The Devil in terms of pure nausea-inducing disgust. (Again, in comparison to its contemporaries. This isn’t a “PG-13” film by any stretch but mainstream “R” films can get away with a lot more these days.)
Overall, The Bloody Judge is a fine if not essential product of its time, and is highly recommended to fans of the era and subgenre.
My rating: 6 of 10.
102 minutes; in English, with some dubbed dialog, with three scenes in German with English subtitles*. Directed by Jess Franco. Starring Christopher Lee, Maria Schell, Leo Genn, Hans Hass Jr., Maria Rohm.
* Note on language in the version reviewed: I haven’t been able to confirm, but my suspicion is that these scenes were cut from the English-language version (it probably isn’t coincidental that two of the three cut scenes are sex scenes) and any English-language footage of these scenes has since been lost.