Saturday, December 7, 2013

Rasputin: The Mad Monk




(1966) Directed by Don Sharp; Written by: Anthony Hinds; Starring: Christopher Lee, Barbara Shelley, Richard Pasco and Francis Matthews; Available on DVD.

Rating: *** ½

“Healer and rapist, peasant and seer, Rasputin was a legendary enigma, a real actor’s part, one of the best I had.” – Christopher Lee (from his autobiography Tall, Dark and Gruesome)

When I think of Rasputin: the Mad Monk, the imagery that first springs to mind is from vintage commercials which (in a William Castle-esque vein) touted free Rasputin beards for all attendees of the film.  Although I wasn’t around when the movie premiered, it’s fun to picture what it must have been like to be among the audience, sporting a cheesy Rasputin beard, watching the film, along with the second flick on the double bill, The Reptile.  Admittedly, I’d still love to have one of the fake beards, but alas, I have to be content with my own, considerably shorter, real version.  But I digress…


Hammer’s take on the Rasputin story, filmed on many of the same sets as Dracula: Prince of Darkness, represented a welcome departure for Christopher Lee from his typical horror roles.  While budget-conscious Hammer frequently recycled set pieces from one movie to another, Rasputin: The Mad Monk does a nice job of convincing us we’re witnessing a different time and place, apart from the production company’s other period films.  On the other hand, the prevalence of Cockney accents in turn-of-the-century St. Petersburg is never explained. We scarcely notice, however, thanks to convincing costumes, solid acting from a talented cast, and the skillful redressing of familiar sets with new props.


Christopher Lee is outstanding in his role as the enigmatic mystic Grigori Rasputin, a man with the power to heal, but a propensity towards creating mayhem.  He appears suitably imposing with his tall frame, long scraggly hair and flowing beard.  While the script took many liberties with the historical elements, Lee took pains to ensure his performance retained the basic integrity of the real-life Rasputin, through extensive research.*   He presents Rasputin as an individual with many contradictions: a holy man with a gift for healing, a womanizer, and a ruthless schemer. He’s a demon to some, and a savior to others.  Lee was quick to note in his DVD commentary, however, that Rasputin was widely regarded by the commoners as a hero, and believed his reputation as a healer was founded in reality.  One indisputable fact about Rasputin, which Lee masterfully illustrates, was his propensity for making people bend to his will.  The peasant-born Rasputin finds a way to win the good graces of the Russian aristocracy through Sonia (Barbara Shelley), a lady in waiting to the Empress, whom he uses for his own purposes.  She’s merely a means to an end, to discard when she can serve no further purpose.  He debases her, but somehow she’s drawn to him by the sheer force of his magnetic presence.

* Lee was fascinated by the subject from an early age.  As a young boy he was introduced to two of the five co-conspirators who had plotted to kill Rasputin.


Rasputin: The Mad Monk fudges with the historical facts, not by laziness on the part of the filmmakers, but by design.  According to Lee many details in the script were changed at the last minute, primarily due to legal considerations.  Prince Felix Yusupoff (alternatively, Yousoupoff or Yusupov, depending on which authority you believe), one of Rasputin’s assassins, served as a consultant, insisting on the omission or alteration of characters, as well as the specifics regarding Rasputin’s death.  The real story behind Rasputin’s death (which included poisoning, shooting, beating and drowning) is far stranger than his comparatively prosaic demise in the film. 


It’s too bad the finished result is a bit slight, compared to the historical events that inspired it.  The 91-minute running time seems all too brief for a story of this magnitude, lacking the epic sweep that the source material demands, but Lee’s stellar performance, which ranks among his best, steals the show.  The concessions made to Prince Yusupoff caused the filmmakers to pull their punches, resulting in a good but not quite great film.  Faults aside, Rasputin: The Mad Monk stands as an underrated Hammer effort, bolstered by Lee’s spirited portrayal of one of history’s most misunderstood individuals.

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