The Bloody Judge / Night of the Blood Monster / Throne of the Blood Monster / Trial of the Witches / The Witch Killer of Broadmoor / Der Hexentöter von Blackmoor / Il Trono di Fuoco / El Juez Sangriento (1970/1972) **
England and Scotland spent pretty much the entire 17th century in the grip of piecemeal revolution. One normally rejects the notion that revolutions can proceed gradually, but there’s really no other conceptual framework that adequately describes what happened. First, the two countries wound up under the same crown, when Elizabeth I’s death in 1603 left no heirs, and no relatives closer than her cousin, James Stuart, who had been ruling Scotland since 1567 as King James VI. (There was some irony to the succession. James VI— James I to the English— was the son of Elizabeth’s vanquished rival, Mary Queen of Scots.) Then James’s efforts to rule the united kingdoms (which wouldn’t formally become the United Kingdom for another hundred years) as a Continental-style absolute monarch embroiled him in constant struggles with Parliament over taxes, religion, and foreign policy. His son, Charles I, wrestled even more fiercely with Parliament, eventually plunging the dual nations into seven years of civil war. The fighting ended when Charles was captured and beheaded (the queen took their children into exile in France, where she had been born and raised), but the tumult continued in other ways. Parliament governed directly, with no separate executive, from 1642 to 1653, after which an aggressively Puritan MP named Oliver Cromwell anointed himself Lord Protector— which is to say dictator, for all practical purposes. Cromwell’s reign of terror and enforced virtue brought him into his own conflicts with Parliament, which gained the upper hand once his much less formidable son succeeded him as Lord Protector in 1658. Next came a military coup, followed in 1660 by the restoration of monarchy at the insistence of the ascendant generals.
The elder of the slain king’s sons was summoned back from France to reign as Charles II, and at first he was popular enough. He reversed many of Cromwell’s most widely hated policies, but then got himself into trouble by being too friendly for his subjects’ taste with King Louis XIV of France. He was also deemed too friendly with the Roman Catholic Church. Still, Parliament and people alike were so sick of chaos by that point that Charles II got to finish out his reign in relative peace. It was another story, though, when his even more Frenchified brother, James II, ascended to the throne in 1685. James wasn’t just friendly with Catholics— he was one himself— and when his reign took a turn toward the high-handed style of his father and grandfather, it was widely perceived as an attempt to impose both Catholicism and Continental absolutism upon England. The result was yet another Parliamentary coup d’etat. This time, the king’s enemies offered the throne to his Dutch son-in-law, Prince William of Orange— a Protestant and a determined foe of Louis XIV. William sailed from Holland with 14,000 soldiers, and James could drum up no meaningful support in resisting him. James II fled into exile, and Parliament consolidated its victory over royal prerogative by rigging the rules of subsequent succession to eliminate any further challenge from the troubled and troublesome House of Stuart.
It’s actually just the penultimate chapter of that story that really concerns us, but the Bloody Assizes wouldn’t make any sense without the context of the century-long battle between the Stuart kings and their most privileged subjects. Mere months into his reign, James had to put down two rebellions, one in Scotland and a more serious one in the south of England, where the Duke of Monmouth challenged the legitimacy of James’s succession on religious grounds, and proclaimed himself the rightful king. Once the rebels were beaten, the king instituted a ferocious legal crackdown on opposition of every kind, and foremost among the judges who administered it was Lord Chief Justice George Jeffreys. For his role in the infamous proceedings, Jeffreys was promoted to Lord Chancellor; he also won an enduring place as one of the great villains of British history. In the trials over which he presided, Jeffreys openly favored the prosecution, mistreated defendants and witnesses alike, passed appalling sentences on the condemned, and in general inflicted all the terror and suffering that lay within his power. Inevitably, some modern historians have tried to cast doubt on whether Jeffreys really deserves his reputation, pointing to contemporary norms of judicial behavior and the letter of the laws he was charged with carrying out to suggest that the Hanging Judge was ultimately just doing what the system required of him. Nevertheless, I doubt that you need anyone to tell you which interpretation to expect in a dramatization of the Bloody Assizes from the partnership of Jesus Franco and Harry Alan Towers.
Curiously— or perhaps not so curiously, considering how profitable The Conqueror Worm was all over Europe— The Bloody Judge begins not with political persecution, but with witchcraft. While the rest of the coven, presided over by blind conjure-woman Mother Rosa (99 Women’s Maria Schell), stick heated pins into an effigy of a scarlet-clad judge, Alicia Gray (Margaret Lee, of Venus in Furs and Dorian Gray) slips away to the relative privacy of a nearby grain field with her lover. Suddenly, a band of horsemen led by Inquisitor Matt (Werner Abrolat, from The Castle of Fu Manchu and Schoolgirls Growing Up) ride onto the scene with sabers swinging. The witches scatter as best they can, but Alicia’s boyfriend is killed and she is captured. Her trial at Old Bailey under Chief Justice Jeffreys (Christopher Lee) goes about as well as you’d expect. During a very thorough session of torture, executioner Jack Ketch (Howard Vernon, of Women in Cell Block 9 and The Perverse Countess) extracts and/or fakes up enough evidence to secure her conviction on charges of sorcery. Alicia’s sister, Mary (Maria Rohm, from Deadly Sanctuary and Eugenie: The Story of Her Journey into Perversion), pleads with Jeffreys for mercy, but to no avail. Alicia is executed by burning.
Of course, we all know that politics was a subliminal factor in many a witch trial, and that seems to be the case here. The name of Gray is not unknown to the Lord Chief Justice, you see. Two years ago, Jeffreys himself sentenced the girls’ father to hang as a conspirator in the Rye House Plot against King Charles. The judge suspects further plotting is afoot, too, for the Gray sisters are tenants of the Earl of Wessex (Leo Green, from Psycho-Circus and Lizard in a Woman’s Skin), whose son Harry (Hans Hass Jr., of The Resort Girls and Virgin Report) is a known associate of a certain Barnaby (Pietro Martellanza, from Planet on the Prowl and The French Sex Murders), believed to be a partisan of the Duke of Monmouth. And as the earl is chagrined to learn, Harry has fallen in love with— that’s right— Mary Gray. The latter fact comes to light thanks to Satchel (Milo Quesada, from House of 1000 Dolls and The Evil Eye), the earl’s conniving manservant, who incontinently blurts it out while Wessex is entertaining Chief Justice Jeffreys. The judge happily hires Satchel on the spot to do some spying for him.
He also hires Satchel to kidnap Mary, but the Monmouth rebellion prevents Jeffreys from interviewing the girl as he planned. Satchel figures he’ll just hold her captive at the Bell public house until the judge comes back, raping her whenever it strikes his fancy to do so, but Mary and Harry both have other ideas. He comes looking for her just in time to save her from the brute’s revenge after Mary deftly counters a rape attempt by rolling Satchel face-first into a fireplace. Then she hides out in the countryside while Harry and Barnaby take part in Monmouth’s uprising. Both men are present when the duke’s army is crushed at Sedgemoor, but they’re not among the 500-some prisoners taken at the battle. It falls instead to Satchel, now wholly Jeffreys’s man, to round them up, along with what looks to be every attractive young woman in the county— the latter all on bullshit witchcraft charges, naturally. A clemency plea by the Earl of Wessex accomplishes nothing but to cast the judge’s suspicion on him. Jeffreys effectively reneges on an offer to spare Harry’s life in trade for sexual favors from Mary by sentencing the lad to what’s sure to be a short life of slave labor in the Caribbean sugar islands. Mary herself fails in an attempt to assassinate the Lord Chief Justice. By that point, it’s become apparent that there’s no defeating or escaping the Bloody Judge so long as the government of which he is a part remains. Fortunately for the people languishing in Ketch’s dungeon, William of Orange happens to be on his way across the Channel even now to do something about that.
The Bloody Judge confronted me with two things I never thought I’d see. On the one hand, it’s a 1970’s exploitation movie— a Harry Alan Towers-Jesus Franco exploitation movie, no less— that plays fairly on the whole with the historical record. And on the other, it’s a Franco film that for most of its length can best be described as stodgy! The first time I watched The Bloody Judge, I remembered almost nothing about Britain’s century of revolution beyond that there was a civil war, that a king got deposed, and that Oliver Cromwell was an asshole. Hey, tenth grade was a long time ago. Without that background, the movie seemed severely misshapen, with too much action squeezed into the first act, the climax (which is to say, the Battle of Sedgemoor) in completely the wrong place, and loose ends dangling everywhere. Those complaints are valid as far as they go, but they seemed less important when I re-watched the film after refreshing my memory on the relevant history. It turns out that things happen the way they do in this movie because that’s basically the way they happened in real life, at least as regards the political side of the story. Sedgemoor has to come early in the film because it’s where the tale of the Bloody Assizes begins— yet it can’t come too early, or the audience would have no idea what the fighting was about. The Bloody Judge has two totally unconnected rebel invasions from bases in the Netherlands (first Monmouth’s, then William of Orange’s) because so did the actual course of events. Characters who initially seem important wander out of the story to be replaced by people we’ve never heard of before because The Bloody Judge is trying to be historical, and history is untidy that way. I can spot only three obvious concessions to commercial cinema’s inherent drive toward fiction. First, the timeline has been drastically compressed, so that the arrival of the Orangemen occurs in time to save convicts who should have been executed or transported four years earlier. Second, Jeffreys suffers a rather more dramatic and indeed poetic end than the complications from kidney stones that most likely did him in for real. And finally, there’s the obsession with witches, which sits uncomfortably beside the political intrigue that drives most of the plot.
I’m glad all that witch-burning stuff is in here, though, because damn would this movie be dreary without it! Truth be told, it’s fairly dreary even so, as if a latter-day Cecil B. DeMille picture had its budget and shooting schedule slashed beyond recognition at the last minute, leaving no money for grandeur and no time for getting things right. Outside of that one shabby battle scene, there’s basically nothing to see for the whole first hour except some of the best scowling of Christopher Lee’s long and storied career. Now I love a good, committed Lee performance, and this is definitely one of those (perhaps because The Bloody Judge could at least be spun as something other than a horror film), but even the greats need something to work with beyond scene after scene of being shitty to people from behind a judge’s bench. The only times when Lee doesn’t seem simply marooned in this picture are his confrontations with Leo Green’s Earl of Wessex and, curiously enough, the solo bit that finds Jeffreys in his prison cell after the tables are turned on him. Otherwise, Lee might as well be acting into the empty air for all the movie responds to his efforts.
Let’s go back to the witch-burning, though, because The Bloody Judge becomes rather more enjoyably Franconian when the focus shifts to the dungeons in the final act. I wouldn’t be surprised if Lee never learned that this stuff was even in the film until the premiere, because he isn’t present on the set for any of it. Instead, the scenes of torture and judicial murder are dominated by Howard Vernon as Jack Ketch. Basically, Ketch is a cheap copy of Boris Karloff’s character from Tower of London. He’s got the same costume, the same foot-dragging gait, the same corrupt enthusiasm for his job. But because he’s Howard Vernon instead of Boris Karloff, what he really looks like is a handsome version of Young Frankenstein’s Igor. Apparently how much of him and his works we see varies from one cut of the film to another. The American theatrical version, misleadingly entitled Night of the Blood Monster, was rated PG; it must have left practically all the dungeon footage on the cutting room floor. The version I saw— apparently a composite cut filling out the British edit with material from various Continental prints— goes madly to the other extreme. It also includes a magnificently silly sex scene depicting Mary’s payment for her lover’s life, but of course Christopher Lee never did sex scenes. So while Maria Rohm is there, Judge Jeffreys is represented solely by a pair of hands much too small and dainty to be Lee’s, together with a voiceover (in German, suggesting the source for this footage) gurgling things that it’s flatly impossible to imagine Lee ever saying. “Better” still is the most inexplicable lesbian scene I’ve ever encountered (again from a German-language source— like Stan said, what the hell is wrong with German people?), in which Mary literally licks the wounds of a fellow prisoner who has been tortured to death and left hanging in her shackles. None of this material belongs in the same film as the rest of the movie, but I can’t imagine how I would have stood it if it hadn’t been there.
This month’s B-Masters Cabal roundtable is a wake of sorts. We had a completely different project all cued up when we heard the news that no less a B-movie personage than Christopher Lee had died. So obviously we put our prior plans on hold to pay our respects. Click the banner below to see what my colleagues came up with by way of fond farewells.