Review: Rasputin, the Mad Monk / Cert: 15 / Director: Don Sharp / Screenplay: Anthony Hinds / Starring: Christopher Lee, Barbara Shelley, Francis Matthews, Dinsdale Landen, Richard Pasco / Release Date: October 22nd
Hammer have been a bit busy of late knocking out their classics on Blu-ray and DVD and the latest batch includes this rather curious slice of Hammer Horror: Rasputin, the Mad Monk (1966). Sorry, did I say ‘horror’? Well, on paper, you could argue that this is historical melodrama but ultimately we’ll always be filing this under Hammer’s horror output. Not only was it made at the height of their horror period (in fact, back to back with Dracula: Prince of Darkness with whom it shares some of its cast and most of its sets – Castle Dracula becomes Saint Petersburg’s Winter Palace) but it is very much in the same style. After all, this is a telling of the Rasputin myth rather than any serious attempt at history, which is fair enough when you consider Rasputin was still a fairly mythical character in 1966. The film’s plot is largely based on Felix Yusupov’s 1927 book in which, among other things, he explained his involvement in the murder of the Russian mystic, Grigori Rasputin. However, his account is now pretty much regarded as a load of politically expedient tosh to cover up British Intelligence’s role in discrediting and disposing of a man at the heart of Russian power who wanted his country to pull out of World War I. Fascinating, I’m sure, but you’re quite right, I’ll get back to the film (in which Yusupov is substituted by Ivan as a central character).
There’s everything you’d expect from a mid-‘60s Hammer here; from the luxurious colours to the pretty good, if occasionally hammy, acting. In fact the cast of Hammer regulars are all in fine fettle with some excellent performances from Francis Matthews, Barbara Shelley, Dinsdale Landen and Richard Pasco. But the real attraction of Rasputin is a magnificent piece of scenery chewing from Christopher Lee; he’s obviously having a ball and clearly pleased not to be doing Dracula for a change. To be fair, if you’re casting Rasputin and Christopher Lee is available, you’re unlikely to be doing any other auditions; he was born for this one. Looking like a young Saruman (back in the days when he was at Hatfield Polytechnic and formed his own, unsuccessful, prog rock band), Lee is 6’ 3” of licentious intensity with mad staring eyes and a voice that is utterly convincing as a sexual dominant who can get a posh girl like Barbara Shelley to do anything he likes. You can believe that this is a man who wants to give God ‘sins worth forgiving’, as writer Anthony Hinds so eloquently puts it for him. It’s just such a pity that they obviously got a stunt dancer in; what would we give to see Big Chris do the Barynya?
There are some minor criticisms here though. On at least one occasion Lee makes an entrance with a stance and a fanfare that just makes you think he’s Dracula in a wig; under the circumstances director Don Sharp should have been a bit more careful. Despite the best of intentions, you never get that feeling of ‘epic’ with a Hammer budget and the trappings of horror are also a bit too incongruous: There is an early fight that results in a very rubber-looking severed hand that gets bandied about in a distinctly non-historical manner when Rasputin is admonished by his abbot back at the monastery. In typical Hammer fashion, they paid for that hand and they’re damn well going to get their money’s worth out of it. The studio’s habits had obviously been hard to shed. But then this works to the film’s advantage in a tremendous scene in Rasputin’s darkened house with Peter (Landen) and Rasputin stalking each other among bottles of acid in the pitch black. This would be the highlight of the film if it wasn’t for a particularly delicious confrontation between Rasputin and the foppish Ivan (Matthews) as the latter uses his sister as bait to lure the dastardly monk to a trap. Shame that the big fight at the end was edited to leave Ivan’s later dishevelment a bit of a puzzle.
All in all it’s an enjoyable romp and a must for any fan of Christopher Lee. But if you’re a real fan of Hammer there’s another point of interest. Michael Ripper may appear to be absent but listen carefully to Bartlett Mullins as ‘Little Father’. Yep, for reasons best known to Hammer, they got Michael to overdub his lines. Perhaps they knew that, one day, some of us would be waiting to ‘chug a beer’ whenever he made his inevitable Hammer appearances and, as far as I’m concerned, voice-overs count. Oh, and did you know that, as a young boy, Christopher Lee met Felix Yusupov? Of course he did. I expect Yusupov talked about it until his dying day.
Extras: Among the usual fare there are also two excellent documentaries – Tall Stories: The Making of Rasputin, the Mad Monk and the surprisingly interesting Brought to Book: Hammer Novelisations.