Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Christopher Lee as Rasputin, the Mad Monk

Christopher Lee as Rasputin.
Hammer Films and historical drama may sound like strange bedfellows. And yet, the British studio produced much more than just horror films, especially in the 1950s and 1960s. Its output also included suspense pictures, costume swashbucklers, comedies, and science fiction films. Still, even by Hammer's standards, Rasputin, the Mad Monk is something of an oddity.

The film opens with Rasputin (Christopher Lee) using his healing powers to cure the critically-ill wife of a tavern owner. In the ensuing celebration, Rasputin tries to rape the innkeeper's daughter and chops off the hand of her boyfriend--though the latter act was in self-defense. The monk leaves the monastery and shows up in St. Petersburg, where he pairs up with a drunken physician.

He also makes the acquaintance of Sonia (Barbara Shelley), a lady-in-waiting to the Tsarina. Though he's far from handsome (except for those Dracula-like eyes), she cannot resist Rasputin and becomes his lover. He later hypnotizes Sonia and compels her to injure the young prince, so Rasputin can heal the boy and became a member of the royal family's inner circle.

The real Rasputin.
This plot is loosely based on real-life events involving the faith healer Grigori Rasputin, who became an influential friend to Tsar Nicholas II. Screenwriter Anthony Hinds was no doubt aware of MGM's legal troubles when it mounted its lavish Rasputin and the Empress in 1932. That film, which featured all three Barrymore siblings, was the subject of a libel lawsuit by Prince Yusupov (who allegedly participated in the assassination of Rasputin). Yusupov was still alive when Hammer made its version. Incidentally, the MGM lawsuit is largely credited with the following verbiage appearing in the credits of most movies: "This motion picture is a work of fiction and any resemblance to persons living or dead is purely coincidental."

On its own terms, Rasputin, the Mad Monk is a modest success. It was shot back-to-back with Hammer's Dracula, Prince of Darkness and features several of the same cast members (Lee, Shelley, Francis Matthews, and Suzan Farmer), plus some of the same sets (the frozen lake plays a key role in both films). Hammer lacked the budget to provide Rasputin with the necessary scope. In fact, for the longest time, I wasn't sure where the movie was supposed to take place because it sure didn't look like Russia (eventually, a character mentioned traveling to St. Petersburg). The ending is a definite letdown, apparently because a longer fight scene was cut from the final print.

Christopher Lee gives a convincing portrayal as the title character. In a 1974 interview for Nightmare magazine, he said: "Probably one of the best performances I've ever given was as Rasputin in a Hammer film. If it had been made by another company as a serious picture, I think it might have helped me considerably, but it was made once again in the sort of Hammer-horror-mold and as such didn’t really benefit me very much." Interestingly, when Lee was a child, he met Prince Yusupov and as an adult, he met the real-life Rasputin's daughter.

Barbara Shelley.
The other reason to see Rasputin, the Mad Monk is for Barbara Shelley's performance. The lovely red-haired actress rarely got roles worthy of her talent. She makes the most of her screen time as Sonia and convinces the audience that this intelligent woman could so easily fall under Rasputin's influence.

For Hammer aficionados, Rasputin, the Mad Monk is required viewing. For others, though, it depends on whether you're in the mood for a malicious monk movie.

3 comments:

  1. I disagree a bit; most of Hammer's films are, at their core, historicals dramas with nasty beasties tossed in. Just pluck the beasties out and you have all the makings for any historical one could dream of. I think that's what makesz Hammer so brilliant and worth watching; I wish they'd done THE THREE MUSKETEERS, or Sherlock Holmes films in great quantity! :)

    I'm a huge fan of this film, and I suppose, any Rasputin tale. It's really quite creepy, and it features John Welsh, one of my UK TV Notables!

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    1. I can see your point, though I think there's a difference between period-set films and historical films. I would have loved for Hammer to have made more HOLMES films with Peter Cushing and Andre Morell. They were a great detective duo!

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    2. A difference, I suppose, but a bit like the difference between butter and cheese. :)

      I wish they'd done more British Raj things...they were so well-equipped for that classic British vibe.

      (I loved the Cushing, and I have the TV ones as well, but I thought he was a tad too undertaker-like and mildly emaciated for Holmes. Stll, he was wonderful. Seen Douglas Wilmer? He's also a bit off-cast, but very good as Holmes)

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