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Posts Tagged ‘Rasputin the Mad Monk’

There was something of a vogue, a few years ago, for sticking the boot to the big Hollywood studios for making ‘historical’ films in which the history was, um, laughable bunk, and more often than not skewed wildly in favour of America. Now, neither bad history nor bias is what you’d call a recent invention – the latter has been a mainstay of war movies for as long as they’ve been made, but it is a little surprising to find it in films made about wars which concluded many decades ago. Dubious historicity likewise has a lengthy pedigree, but the reasons for it can be more varied.

Which is a roundabout route to what regular readers may find to be a rather familiar topic: a Christopher Lee-fronted Hammer horror movie. This week’s subject is Rasputin, the Mad Monk, a film from Hammer’s mid-Sixties golden era, directed by Don Sharp. I feel obliged to promise at this point that, despite the fact this is intended to be a semi-humorous film review blog, I will not be going for easy laughs by making endless references to the Boney M song on the same subject. (No, no: thank me later.)

Anyway, our story opens deep in the Russian heartlands, which as usual in a Hammer movie bear a striking resemblence to some woodlands out the back of the studio. You can tell we are in Russia because people wear Lenin-style caps and call each other Vasily despite having Somerset accents. Gloom pervades the local inn, as the landlord’s wife is poorly and the local doctor has given up. However, who should stride through the door but Russia’s greatest love machine ahem, a mysterious stranger (Christopher Lee). He is, of course, Rasputin, but we don’t find out his name just yet.

Preferring a boozer with a livelier atmos, Rasputin takes it upon himself to exercise his mystical powers of healing to perk the landlady up a bit, which is the cue for a party, some boozing, and more ethnic folk dancing than is usual in this kind of film. (The copious hair and beard with which Lee has been issued makes it easy for someone else to double for him during the fight and dancing sequences in this movie – although knowing what a legendary polymath Christopher Lee is, he probably did it all himself anyway). When Rasputin gets a bit frisky with the young lady of the establishment, a fight breaks out, and this being a Russian pub (and a Hammer movie), someone gets maimed with a scythe before the big fella can make an escape.

However, he is tracked down to the local monastery, where he is called upon to explain this rather un-monklike behaviour. Rasputin’s answer has a certain logic – if confession is good for the soul, as the abbot is always insisting, then the more impressive the sins that you have to confess, the better. (Yes, I know: Christopher Lee, folk dancing and theological debate in the same movie – sadly the similarities with The Wicker Man pretty much end there.) The abbot is unconvinced, and – pausing only to fearfully ponder the true origin of Rasputin’s unearthly powers – has him slung out of the monastery.

Someone suggests to Rasputin that a man with his schtick could do well at the court of the Tsar, and he heads off to St Petersburg straightaway. It soon transpires his unusual attributes extend far beyond his healing hands, as in the big city he is very soon displaying hollow legs with which to win drinking contests, mesmeric eyes with which to impose his will on others, and… er…. well, let’s just say he’s popular with the ladies too. Chief amongst his conquests is Sonia (Barbara Shelley), a lady-in-waiting at the court. Rasputin spies a chance to win real power and influence – but his general nuttiness and lack of manners are rubbing the cream of the young Russian gentry (primarily Francis Matthews, Dinsdale Landen, and Richard Pasco) properly up the wrong way, and plans are soon underway to eliminate him…

So, the unusual thing about Rasputin, the Mad Monk is that it’s a movie based on actual historical events which weren’t that long past at the time the film was made (48 years, give or take – bear in mind the film itself is 47 years old now). Christopher Lee himself has described meeting Rasputin’s real-life daughter (who was apparently very complimentary about his performance, which is slightly mind-boggling), and some of the actual conspirators involved in killing Rasputin were still around when the film was made. This explains the ‘No living person is depicted’ disclaimer in the opening credits, and the fact that the film casts loose from anything closely resembling actual history quite enthusiastically. (Despite the fact the real Rasputin’s death occurred in the middle of the First World War, there’s no mention of any such thing going on, for instance.)

With a proper bio-pic apparently not a possibility for legal reasons, you would have thought the sensible option would be to really push the fantasy-horror angle on the story – but Hammer seem to have backed off from this, as well. Initial scythe-maiming aside, there’s no real horror element to this movie until quite close to the end, and what we get instead is a lurid melodrama about Rasputin’s pursuit of power. What’s he going to do with it when he gets it? The film does not elucidate. Why does he want it in the first place? Well, beyond the initial implication that he has been granted strange abilities by the powers of darkness, the film is likewise silent – but it’s pretty clear throughout that Rasputin is a thoroughly bad sort.

Without a proper grounding in fact or fantasy, Rasputin, the Mad Monk constantly threatens to dissolve into vague inconsequentiality, but a few things more than redeem it. First and foremost, this is possibly Christopher Lee’s best bad guy role for Hammer – a heretical assertion, yes, but he gets more to do, with more screentime and more dialogue, than in any of the Dracula movies. Admittedly the harsh shouty voice he opts to deliver all his lines in gets a bit tedious very quickly, but many of the film’s best scenes revolve around Lee remaining silent, letting his body language and  – especially – his eyes do all the work. Much as I admire Christopher Lee, I don’t think he has the same range as a performer as – obvious candidates alert – Peter Cushing or Vincent Price, but in terms of intensity and presence he’s The Man. I don’t think Hammer ever used those qualities quite as well as in this film, as Lee is frequently quite magnetic.

Rasputin, the Mad Monk was shot back to back with Dracula: Prince of Darkness, hence the crossover of sets and personnel between the two films (a frozen moat features prominently in the climax of both, for instance). However, the director is different, and Don Sharp does some interesting things here. There’s not a lot of proper gore in this film, but what there is has a harder edge to it than in other films of this period – the salaciousness is perhaps a touch more explicit, too. Most interesting is a sequence in which a vengeful young man attempts to confront Rasputin in his lair (the Castle Dracula set redressed, of course), which takes place almost completely in darkness, faces and weapons swimming in and out of fragments of light.

This is an interesting and fun movie rather than a really good one – unintended entertainment aplenty can be derived from the film’s total failure to authentically depict the Russian setting and characters, the more satisfying kind from watching Lee do his thing and the very decent performances from everyone else in the cast. Hammer was making all sorts of odd films in the mid Sixties as they tried to extend their brand – this is probably one of the odder ones, but not a bad one and no disgrace to the House.

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