The success of Michael Reeves’ Witchfinder General (or The Conqueror Worm as it’s also known) inspired a host of witch-hunter films, including the excellent Blood on Satan’s Claw, and also Jess Franco’s The Bloody Judge. Franco’s film is a little different since the is not primarily on witchcraft – Judge Jeffries, the bloody judge of the title, earned his notoriety during the 1680s for his condemnation of hundreds of alleged conspirators and traitors against the unpopular Catholic king of England, James II. Witchcraft was merely a convenient charge to use against the king’s perceived enemies when there was insufficient evidence of treason, although in fact Jeffries required very little evidence indeed in order to sentence an unfortunate prisoner to death for treason. The Bloody Judge is more of a historical adventure with elements of fairly grisly horror added to the mix. It follows the fortunes of the young son of one of Jeffries’ political opponents, a young man who is involved with the sister of a woman condemned as a witch by Jeffries. The great strength of this movie is Christopher Lee as Judge Jeffries. It was a role that Lee was very keen to play, and it’s a performance of which he is justly proud. Lee gives a restrained but chilling performance, portraying Jeffries as a man whose behaviour is a combination of genuine zeal for his profession and for the service of the king and an overwhelming ambition for power. Lee plays him as a man who has just about convinced himself that his actions really are both necessary and just, but also as a man who is intelligent enough to have some disagreeable twinges of conscience. He is also a man who is able to dispense brutal and summary justice because he makes sure he never actually sees the unpleasant results.
With a moderately generous budget and some great locations in Portugal this is a rather slick and glossy production from Franco, with a couple of surprisingly convincing battle scenes as the Duke of Monmouth’s rebellion against King James comes to a disastrous end. Howard Vernon contributes an outrageously sadistic performance as the king’s executioner, Leo Genn is very good as Jeffries’ enemy Lord Wessex, and Maria Schell and Maria Rohm are quite adequate in supporting roles. But it’s Christopher Lee’s picture, and his performance is the main reason to see this film. It’s also a highly entertaining movie, and the Blue Underground DVD is, as usual with that company, immaculate. The interviews with Franco and Lee are the highlights of the extras.