Rasputin The Mad Monk Review
There isn't much in Rasputin The Mad Monk to suggest that it's overly concerned about the claim that he was Russia's greatest love machine nor to argue but whether or not he was a cat that really was gone. And if he was really wunderbar is something that Hammer don't appear to have put much effort into providing a definitive answer. But, in almost all other respects, Hammer's Rasputin The Mad Monk is a wonderfully over-the-top, historically inaccurate telling of the tale of Grigori Yefimovich Rasputin that doesn't so much describe the corruption of the later years of the Romanov dynasty as revel in its madness. After all, a can't really describe its central character as being the mad monk whilst hoping to be seen as impartial.
Starring Christopher Lee as Rasputin, the film begins deep within the Russian countryside where the monk heals the wife of an innkeeper, who suffers greatly under a fever. Laying his hands upon the woman, her fever lifts and after many fitful days, she finally has a restful night. But as he celebrates in the inn with the landlord's daughter, they quietly leave for the barn where the licentious monk seduces the young woman. Interrupted by her fiance, the innkeeper sees another side to Rasputin as he grabs a blade and cuts off the young man's hands, escaping through the roof as a crowd gathers before him. The next day, hauled before a Russian Orthodox bishop, Rasputin defends his actions, saying that he sins in order to have something worth confessing and though he claims to have God working through him, the bishop says otherwise, saying that Rasputin acts only with the Devil.
Eventually, Rasputin makes it to Moscow, where, over a bottle or twelve of wine, he makes the acquaintance of Dr Boris Zargo and, with the inebriated doctor unable to protest, moves in with him. But that night, Rasputin meets Sonia (Barbara Shelley), a lady-in-waiting at the court of the Tsarina and through his powers of hypnosis, she falls under the monk's spell, even to obeying his every command. As the days pass and Rasputin's ambition grows, he orders Sonia to do the unthinkable...to deliberately injure the Tsarevich Alexei and, as the young man and heir to the throne lies gravely injured, to call for him. And so it comes to pass, with Alexei falling whilst on holiday and, after he is brought back to the palace, drifting into a coma. Rasputin is called and his healing of the Tsarevich is declared miraculous by the crown but as his reputation grows, so too does the anger of those affected by his vicious temper, his insatiable hunger for women and his endless ambition. The nearer to the Tsarina he gets, the more enemies he makes, leaving them hungry for revenge and for Rasputin's head.
Part of the obvious attraction of Rasputin as a character and in this film is the very short time that had passed between the death of the real Rasputin and Lee's portrayal of the same. Indeed, only fifty years passed between the assassination of Rasputin in 1916 and the release of this film in 1966. But there is also the fact that Rasputin, regardless of this film, is a figure from history - look him up if you have any Reader's Digest Strange But True... books about the house - which marks something of a departure for Lee, who, until that point, had been best known for Dracula, Frankenstein's monster and Kharis. That said, this was produced by Hammer back-to-back with Dracula: Prince Of Darkness - look closely at those sets and the spot where the Tsarevich Alexei falls looks to be the same one where Dracula disappeared under the ice - and so the events of Rasputin's life have been made much more colourful, even down to the severed hands in the film's opening moments.
Of course, severed hands were a Hammer speciality and with or without the history lesson, the British studio delivers on the sex, the gore and the horror. It is, then, classic Hammer horror and builds to the good old-fashioned death of a monster, being, in this case, one who drifted too close to a seat of power. The actual murder of Rasputin is one lost in legend - he apparently survived poisoning by cyanide, a shooting, castration, being set on fire, a stabbing and was still alive has he was thrown beneath the icy waters of a river - and though this film plays that down somewhat, it still has Christopher Lee roaring his way to his doom, downing poisoned wine as though it were milk and laughing as his would-be assassins recoil in horror as her rises once more. There is a madness to it but it's an attractive one, setting the throne of Russia amongst liars, murderers, whores and a monk consumed by lust, all whilst revolutionaries circled about them. Oh, those Russians...
Anamorphically presented in 2.35:1, Rasputin The Mad Monk has also benefited from the same restoration that has left One Million Years BC looking cleaner and with a sharper picture than Warner's Hammer releases of four years back. There is, however, an occasional touch of dirt on the print as well as some grain but neither, particularly not the grain, gets close to affecting one's enjoyment of the film, which, like many classic Hammer, is perfect for a night's chills. The DD2.0 audio track is a perfectly good one, although being mono, offers no separation nor use of the rear channels. On the contrary, it simply offers an excellent recording of the original and very atmospheric soundtrack.
The only extra on this release is a Trailer (2m25s), which puts an accent on the relatively limited bloodletting of the film.
Included as part of the recent Hammer boxset from Optimum, this is one of the very best from Hammer and is certainly on a par with The Curse Of Frankenstein, the Horror of Dracula, The Hound Of The Baskervilles and Dracula: Prince Of Darkness. Hugely entertaining, wonderfully atmospheric and verging into horror from a solid base in historical fact, it could be better but, for the life of me, I'm hard pressed to say how.