"Justice is a terrible thing, Palofox. But justice must be done!"
-Judge George Jeffreys
The films of Jess Franco aren't exactly regarded as high art, as much as they are exploitation. These films, from 99 Women (1969) to The Blood of Fu Manchu (1968) and The Castle of Fu Manchu (1969), while attaining a cult following, have never propelled him to the same acclaim as other directors such as Alfred Hitchcock or Steven Spielberg. This could be attributed to the fact that Franco's films are notoriously low-budget, along with the emphasis on sexually and even human depravity which runs throughout much of his filmography. Even Franco's well-intended version of Dracula (1970), while more faithful to the Bram Stoker novel than Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992), suffers from sloppy editing (that seems to be the problematic issue with film editing: It's either undeniably brilliant-like in 1975's Jaws-or it's unbelievably shoddy).
The Bloody Judge, however, illustrates what Franco can do when given a strong budget. It also has Christopher Lee (who worked with Franco numerous times, including his Fu Manchu and Dracula films) in one of his best roles as the title character. This film's obvious influence was Witchfinder General, with this movie taking place about 40-50 years afterward. Like Vincent Price's Matthew Hopkins in that film, Lee's character was a real-life figure; one George Jeffreys, who served under King James II when England was in the midst of civil war. Also like Hopkins, Jeffreys believes that his horrific acts are for a greater good. Unlike Hopkins, though, Jeffreys doesn't roam the countryside seeking witches or potential traitors to the crown. Rather, he spends much of the film holding court, condemning people to death for treason and/or sorcery. Although Lee is terrifying when pronouncing sentence, his scenes outside the courtroom are also interesting. In numerous scenes, Jeffreys has moments of discomfort brought on by kidney stones, which, in the 17th century, were untreatable. This condition eventually takes his life as he lays in prison once James II is overthrown. Jeffreys's brand of justice is delivered by his executioner Jack Ketch (played by Howard Vernon, who has the same look that Boris Karloff had in 1939's Tower of London), who brutally tortures those convicted before they are publicly executed.
Many of these victims are female, and it is these scenes of violence, nudity, and even lesbianism which have led many to treat this with the same indifference as Franco's other films (shockingly, the film got a PG rating). A friend of mine even called it The Devil's Rejects (2005) done as an historical drama. This indifference was exemplified when it was given the absurd title Night of the Blood Monster for its US release. While The Conqueror Worm gave the false impression that Witchfinder General was an Edgar Allan Poe tale, it still rightfully reflected that movie's emphasis on death. In the case of Franco's film, though, the title change made it sound like a generic monster movie, instead of the period piece it is. Another reason this film stands out in Franco's filmography is that the battle scenes are nicely done. One of Franco's first jobs was filming the second unit for Orson Welles's Chimes of Midnight (1966), which itself had memorable battle scenes, which makes his fine work in this portion of the film particularly fitting. Bruno Nicolai's musical score is another great aspect to the film, as it is appropriately dramatic without being over the top. While DVD has thankfully restored this film to its complete glory in recent years, this film, like Witchfinder General, would certainly have a better reputation had its director been more, shall we say, mainstream.