... aka: Der Hexentöter von Blackmoor, Der
... aka: Night of the Blood Monster
... aka: Throne of the Blood Monster
... aka: Trial of the Witches
... aka: Witch Killer of Broadmoor
... aka: Witches' Trial
"J. Frank Manera" (Jesus Franco)
"J. Frank Manera" (Jesus Franco)
With the success of WITCHFINDER GENERAL (1968) came the obligatory series of copycat films, each with a period setting and all dealing with witch hunting. This premise carries with it a chance to explore themes like religious hypocrisy, mass hysteria spreading around like disease in small communities and general abuse of power, but most of these films were actually more interest in the general abuse of women. Yep, usually completely innocent and naked or half-naked ladies being slapped with the scarlet "W" and then dragged into some dungeon where they're chained up, shackled down or thrown into a cell and await prolonged torture and sometimes death. There was Mark of the Devil (1970) and its 1972 sequel, CRY OF THE BANSHEE (1970), THE DEMONS (1973) and others, plus this one from the prolific Jesus Franco, who used the alias "J. Frank Manera" for the film. Set in 1685 England, the film follows the reign of terror orchestrated by hateful, self-serving, power-mad Judge Lord Jeffreys (Christopher Lee), who lives a lavish lifestyle, tries to get sexual favors from "witches," uses his position for wealth and political gain and does other awful things all in the name of the Lord.
As the film opens, a man suspected of being a sorcerer is murdered and his lover, Alicia Gray (Margaret Lee), is captured. She's brought to trial, found "guilty by association" of practicing witchcraft and promptly taken to a torture chamber where she's stretched on a rack, slapped, sliced with a blade and has a "W" burnt into her chest by chief torturer Jack Ketch (Howard Vernon, dressed in a tight, full-bodied one-piece black outfit with a hood!), a man who really seems to enjoy his work. Alicia's sister Mary (Maria Rohm) goes to Jeffreys and pleads for her sister's life. He propositions her for sex. She refuses, which leads to her sister being found guilty and getting burned at the stake. Now I don't know about you, but I think if I were in Mary's shoes, I'd be willing to give Mr. Lee the best five minutes of his life if he'd be willing to spare my sibling's life. Hell, I might even make him pancakes in the morning.
A devastated Mary goes to see blind psychic Mother Rosa (Maria Schell), who predicts she'll go through some turmoil but will arise triumphant in the end. Lord Wessex (Leo Genn), an adversary of Jeffreys, has a son named Harry Sefton (Hans Hass, Jr.) who's a member of a rebel army and becomes romantically involved with Mary. Sadistic bailiff Satchel (Milo Quesada) attempts to rape Mary, but she pushes his face into a fireplace before escaping. To get revenge, a now-facially scarred Satchel murders Harry's best friend Barnaby ("Peter Martell"/Pietro Martellanza) and then goes around kidnapping innocent women; including Mary and some woman named Sally (Diana Lorys), who are dragged back to Jeffreys for more torture "fun."
It's pretty elaborate for a Franco film. There's even a lengthy battlefield sequence with men on horseback fighting with lances, rifles and canons, lots of stunt work, explosions and tumbling horses. However, Franco fans aren't likely to place this very high on their list of favorites because of its anonymous, stilted direction. Lee fans are also likely to be disappointed. Despite the title and Lee's star billing, his character isn't the centerpiece of the film and the one-note role is far too rigid to be the least bit memorable. The pacing is slow, the torture scenes are tedious, the period detail is sufficient yet unimpressive and the numerous political discussions are highly confusing. Bruno Nicolai contributes a decent music score and Manuel Merino does a fair job shooting it, but otherwise there's not too much to recommend here. The art direction and set decoration are from "George O. Brown" (who is better known as actor Jack Taylor).
The version I saw was the 90 minute cut (with the on-screen title The Bloody Judge), which is missing quite a bit of footage. 13 minutes, in fact. Apparently, what I missed was more graphic full frontal nudity, a lesbian scene and a few prolonged moments of torture. In other words, nothing that would have really saved this film from mediocrity. Harry Alan Towers produced and wrote (using the alias "Peter Welbeck" for the latter), and it was a co-production between Italy, Liechtenstein, Spain and West Germany.