EL FRANCONOMICON / I'M IN A JESS FRANCO STATE OF MIND

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THE BLOODY JUDGE (1970)

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Directed by Jess Franco. Cast: Christopher Lee (Lord George Jeffreys), Leo Genn (Earl of Wessex), Maria Schell, Maria Rohm, Margaret Lee, Howard Vernon, Milo Quesada, Hans Hass Jr, Peter Martell, Vincente Roca. Alternate titles: NIGHT OF THE BLOOD MONSTER, IL TRONO DI FUOCO, DER HEXENTOTER VON BLACKMOOR, EL PROCESO DE LAS BRUJAS.

This luridly titled Spanish/West German/Italian co-production is one of the more fascinating, if less personal, of the films Franco helmed for the notorious writer-producer Harry Alan Towers. This review is based on the Dutch video, one of many variants which are available on VHS. It is important to note that it is now available on DVD in its proper 2.35:1 format (in PAL) from England’s Salvation company. The Dutch version runs slightly shorter than the reported 89m of Salvation’s DVD, but the crucial difference is the aspect ratio. The Dutch print is letterboxed at what looks like 1.85:1, but a lot is cropped offscreen. For instance, when Judge Jeffreys propositions the character played by Maria Rohm, only about half of her figure can be seen, the rest, including her crucial reactions to the sexual blackmail, is beyond the edge of the frame. This is one of the Franco’s most carefully composed films and really needs to be seen in its correct format.

 

A relatively lavish production (by Franco standards), the art direction (by none other than SUCCUBUS’ Jack Taylor-as George O. Brown) and cinematography maximize what were probably limited resources. Just a few paintings hanging and the right camera angles give Judge Jeffrey’s chambers the appearance of a sumptuous set. The exteriors, taken in Portugal, are convincingly “English” and, overall, we are able to suspend disbelief that this is England in 1685. This is a rather big deal in a Franco film, especially a period piece. Just consider how Towers and Franco totally bumbled the period atmosphere of the infamous EL CONDE DRACULA (also 1969).

 

This is usually reviewed as an inferior copy of Michael Reeves THE CONQUEROR WORM/WITCH-FINDER GENERAL (1968), probably because both were released by AIP (in retitled, altered versions) in the U.S.. Despite the historical setting and the consideration of the motives of the sexually obsessed Witch-finder, Franco’s version takes a little more care with historical accuracy and tries (at the very end) to give the devil his due. Matthew Hopkins dies in the midst of yet another atrocity in the Reeves film, whereas Jeffreys collapses in his cell after witnessing a brutal hanging/beheading. The implication being that he has suddenly come to an understanding of the human misery resulting from his mad campaigns. His tortured visage and haunted eyes are a lifetime away from the early scenes where he is seen in his crimson robes and white wig delivering “witches” and “traitors” to death sentences in his kangaroo court. Jeffreys did indeed die in prison, but it is unknown if he ever repented. Lee is excellent in this role, considering that it could have easily lapsed into a one-dimensional cliché. His arrogant demeanor and menacing movements are often undercut by his furtive glances at the bosoms of the women he condemns to be burned alive. As with the best actors, Lee is able to combine body language with voice to indicate a conflicted character, and it is a considerable accomplishment that he is able to make us feel a sense of pity for this monster. He obviously put considerable thought in this performance.  Leo Genn is also fine as the crafty Earl of Wessex. Some of the high points of the film occur during the subtle back and forth between Wessex and Jeffreys, where both of these veteran performers cleverly employ almost imperceptible inflections to get a point across:

JEFFREYS: “We do our best…”
WESSEX: “Then, may God save us from your worst.”

The film is at its best during the interludes involving because Lee and Genn, a formidable actor in his own right,  obviously respect the material and each other. Less successful are the frankly sexploitative torture scenes (the reason for the film), reduced in this version to tableau style depictions of stretching and flaying of scantily clad women. Franco icon Howard Vernon is not really onscreen long enough to make an impression as the black hooded executioner. Milo Quesada’s weasel (who ends up getting chewed to death by freed inmates) is a hateful villain, while Margaret Lee is wasted in the role of the doomed Alicia. Maria Rohm is very appropriately cast as the tormented heroine whom Jeffreys lusts after. She really looks the part and its one of her strongest performances in a Franco film.

In the shorter/cropped versions, the battle scenes still look well mounted but either cut short or minimized by being placed under the opening credits, for example. According to OBSESSION:THE FILMS OF JESS FRANCO, the longest version of this title is the Italian (at 98m), but Franco has claimed in interviews that his original cut ran nearly two hours. The BLUE UNDERGROUND DVD contains a 104 m version with a scene of Maria Rohm being rescued from drowning which lasts an additional 6 minutes, which brings it to about 110 minutes. Franco told me when I interviewed him in 2005 that he would make his own cut of the films he made for Towers with the producer’s editors, but that he had no subsequent control of other versions made by distributors, exhibitors or further edits by Towers.  Often, when dealing with the films of Jess Franco, the exact “director’s cut” is elusive. Nonetheless, this is corrected to 2.35:1 OAR and looks magnficent in terms of framing, color, definition, almost Blu-ray quality and doubtless a HD release is pending.

An even longer Spanish version reportedly exists but could not be screened for this review.

(C) Robert Monell, 2017

Written by Robert Monell

28 julio 2017 a 4:00 PM

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