Saturday, 11 July 2015

Rasputin: The Mad Monk (1966)

Filmed back-to-back with ‘Dracula: Prince of Darkness’ (1966) at Hammer's Bray Studios in ‘65 using the production’s sets and even a few of its cast, ‘Rasputin: The Mad Monk’ is the genre film company’s fictionalized account of peasant and mystic faith healer Grigori Rasputin’s rise to extraordinary power by gaining great influence over the Russian monarchy in pre-revolution Russia. Directed by Don Sharp (1973’s British cult horror ‘Psychomania’), the late great Christopher Lee stars as the infamous historical figure but do not expect any historically accurate depictions except for some events leading up to Rasputin’s assassination. The emphasis here is purely entertainment as we see Lee having a great time relishing his role as his character indulges in drunken debauchery and abuses his mystical powers to not only seduce women but to get them to do his bidding in his ruthless quest for wealth and power.

Curing an innkeeper’s sick wife Rasputin is awarded as many bottles of wine as he wants and then seduces a local woman only to come under the wraith of a jealous regular at this countryside inn. After his confrontation with him, Rasputin is set upon by more angry locals who he manages to fend off and escape. Brought before his monastery’s Orthodox bishop to answer for his immoral sexual behaviour Rasputin protests the bishop’s accusations voicing a view based on the beliefs of the obscure spiritual Christian underground sect of the Khlysts that the real life Rasputin was rumoured to have connections with - “When I go to confession I don't offer God small sins, petty squabbles, jealousies... I offer him sins worth forgiving!” Claiming he has healing powers in is hands as well he vows to use them and leaves for St. Petersburg where he soon puts a plan into action to gain influence over the royal family in his pursuit for riches and power. However, after succeeding in his taking control of the monarchy the more he tightens his grip bitter opponents come to stand in his way.

If you can ignore the historical inaccuracies there is much fun to be had here with the filmmakers striving to entertain in what is a standard heyday Hammer effort… so yeah it is pretty damn good then. The writing team of Anthony Hinds, Barbara Shelley (who also stars as Sonia) and Christopher Lee himself have a helluva a time playing with the widely perceived notion of Grigori Rasputin and his supposed powers and antics exploiting history for entertainment’s sake and largely ignoring the politics of the time. Together they created a vehicle for the star a memorable antagonist who could be a major villain in many a horror movie of the day; an evil and selfish being with terrifying abilities being able to hypnotise as well as heal to use people namely attractive young women as puppets to do his bidding… well much like Dracula then.

Lee takes full advantage of the material and you can see he is enjoying himself chewing up the scenery with an intense and often over-the-top performance portraying someone so boisterous complete with maniacal laughter but also has an underlying creepiness. His usual commanding presence oozes charisma - an authoritative posture and his booming voice equally so and uses his eyes to great effect with a menacing stare that you will not soon forget. He even has a good old Russian dance. All this is greatly aided by how Sharp puts emphasis on the master actor's grand stature filming him by way of long shots. As well as meeting Rasputin’s assassins as a young boy in the 1920s - Prince Yusupoff and Dmitri Pavlovich - Lee would also go on to meet Rasputin’s daughter Maria in 1976 who actually told the actor he had her father’s “expression”.

The usual quality Hammer production values are on display here. Filmed back-to-back with another production using the same sets on a small budget of £100,000 does not sound like “quality” on paper but it is testament to the company’s collective talent and hard work that what is seen on screen is a lavish affair that includes top-notch costume designs. The supporting cast of Richard Pasco, Suzan Farmer, Dinsdale Landen, Renée Asherson, Francis Matthews and of course Shelly (the latter two of which also starred alongside Christopher Lee in ‘Dracula: Prince of Darkness’) are all solid but the non-attempt as Russian accents does put a damper on this feeling like an authentic Russian setting. Don Sharp’s direction is also very capable in keeping the story moving along at a brisk pace and creating suspense and tension in the set-pieces that have an earthy roughness with Michael Reed’s cinematography and Don Bank’s sweeping musical score providing an atmospheric encapsulation of the proceedings.

If you are looking for a history lesson with an accurate documentation of events then I cannot recommend ‘Rasputin: The Mad Monk’ to you at all, as I assure you will be disappointed. Although if you are looking for some genre thrills with a thoroughly enjoyable piece of hokum then you cannot go wrong with this typical Hammer affair. It might not be one of the esteemed British production company’s finest works but it is most certainly a very decent one and featuring a hugely enjoyable turn from the great man Lee, it makes this an essential viewing for Hammer fans and Christopher Lee fans alike. His filmography was littered with greatness but he did have a fair of stinkers in there too but even with the quality of filmmaking at an all-time low, he was always the saviour of lost causes making even the biggest pieces of shit a passable watch. This is good though and besides who does not want to see one of British cinema’s greatest ever talents having a ball starring as such a larger than life character indulging himself by drinking his weight in wine and having his wicked way with beautiful young woman. Definitely worth a watch.

*** out of ****

Dave J. Wilson

©2015 Cinematic Shocks, Dave J. Wilson - All work is the property of the credited author and may not be reprinted or reproduced elsewhere without permission.

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