Rasputin The Mad Monk Review

Mike Sutton has reviewed the Region 2 release of Rasputin The Mad Monk, only available in the UK as part of Warners’ Hammer Horror Resurrected Boxset. A fine performance from Christopher Lee is the only reason to watch this disappointingly bland retelling of the famous story.

Rasputin The Mad Monk is hardly a classic but it’s oddly watchable. Although it takes the most simplistic possible view of the central character of Grigory Rasputin and his political influence in pre-revolutionary Russia, the central performance of Christopher Lee is strong enough to make the film worth a look.

Rasputin is first introduced to us as a mysterious stranger, wild of beard and low on social skills, who cures the wife of an innkeeper. His intervention is greeted with joy by the husband and his comely daughter and soon Rasputin is having his way with the latter in the hay loft. Following an interruption by the daughter’s suitor, who loses a hand for his pains, Rasputin escapes and soon winds up in St. Petersburg where he charms his way into the favours of the Nicholas, the Tsar, and his wife Alexandra. His claims to be a divinely inspired healer lead to his involvement with the Tsar’s son Alexei – a haemophiliac – but political unrest at his influence on the court – and his relationship with the sexually frustrated Tsarina – soon leads to plots for his removal.

I imagine that most people will be familiar with the broad outline of the history. It was dealt with in fine style in the 1932 film Rasputin and the Empress – the only film to star John, Ethel and Lionel Barrymore – and the 1971 historical epic Nicholas and Alexandra, in which a manically grinning Tom Baker portrayed the crazy cleric. Elem Klimov’s decidedly mannered 1975 film Agony is an interesting take on the story and the pulp nonsense of Harlequin, which updates the tale to Australia in the 1970s is worth a look if you’re a fan of bad movies.

In the circumstances, I don’t think that historical inaccuracies particularly matter but it’s worth considering the true story as opposed to the legend. Grigory Rasputin may have had some problems with confronting reality but he was not a monk. He was a member of an obscure sect called the ‘khlysty’, a Siberian group of flagellants who became notorious among Russian high society due to his theatricality and his apparent sexual magnetism. The Russian royal family regarded him as a man of the people, politically useful in the volatile times they were having to live in, and kept him as part of their retinue as a reward for his ability to cure the haemophiliac bleeding of the Tsar’s son. There is no evidence that he had a sexual affair with Tsarina Alexandra but it is true that his influence on the court led to a series of appointments and dismissals that brought the crown and its government into disrepute. He was eventually poisoned and shot by Prince Felix Yusupov in December 1916. Although Rasputin was clearly no help in saving the Royal Family from itself, few historians believe that he was a direct cause of the revolution, more a symptom of the problems.

The truth about Rasputin would clearly not make a very interesting film so Hammer have decided to sex it up and add all manner of semi-Gothic trappings to persuade their punters that this is some kind of historical horror movie. The presence of Christopher Lee is the key to this and he was certainly given centre stage in the advertising. His performance is very strong and interesting to watch in that it’s extrovert madness is very different from his characterisation of Count Dracula. Indeed, he’s positively garrulous here, a stark contrast to Dracula Prince of Darkness where he didn’t utter a single word – not for dramatic effect but because Lee refused to speak the abysmal dialogue. Lee’s magnetic presence has rarely been better used than it is here and his hypnotic stare – so heavily featured in the Dracula films – is ideal for the part. I’m not too sure about his dancing but Lee does at least demonstrate that he’s game for anything.

However, this points towards the main problem with the film. Lee is the whole show and when he’s off-screen there’s nothing very interesting left to watch. Few of the other actors match him for sheer presence, with only Barbara Shelley and the underrated Richard Pasco (as the disgraced Dr Zargo) making much of an impression. Don Sharp’s direction is efficient and sometimes effective – the faith healing scenes are genuinely eerie – but much of the film is slow and Sharp has a tendency to show off the sets as if they were something to be pleased about rather than the usual over-stuffed Hammer faux-period furnishings. It’s not hard to tell that he is much more at home when things turn horrific, notably in the hugely entertaining climax as Rasputin is murdered and crawls along the floor like some kind of demented insect. But even this is disappointing; the full horror of Rasputin’s seemingly endless refusal to die is skipped over and the final disposal of him is simply laughable as we see one of the most obvious dummies in film history fall out of a window.

The general visual look is cheap, partly because of the far too even lighting of the sets and partly because it was one of the films made in a back-to-back deal in 1965/66. Rasputin The Mad Monk and Dracula Prince of Darkness were meant to be the main attractions but both films are shamed by their double-bill partners; the excellent Plague of the Zombies and the very atmospheric The Reptile. Cheapness isn’t necessarily a drawback for Hammer films – Plague of the Zombies is obviously a very low budget film but it’s still a classic – but for this kind of historical melodrama it’s a big problem unless the characters and narrative are very strong. That’s not the case here and it’s only Christopher Lee who makes the film worth a look. Compared to the other Hammer historical blood-and-thunder flicks – the deliciously silly Stranglers of Bombay and the sadistic and genuinely unpleasant Camp On Blood Island – this is pretty weak stuff.

The Disc

Not much to say about this R2 DVD release. It’s only available in the UK as part of the Hammer Horror Resurrected boxset from Warner Brothers and it’s very similar in quality to the other films in the box.

The film is presented in the original 2.35:1 Cinemascope aspect ratio and has been anamorphically enhanced. It’s one of the better transfers in the set and there’s considerably less print damage than is present on, for example, Plague of the Zombies. Colours are rich, blacks are deep and true and there isn’t too much grain on show. The main problem is that the image looks very soft throughout and there is a lack of fine detail which I found irritating.

The soundtrack is the original Mono recording and is absolutely fine.

There are no extras at all, just the usual 16 chapter stops and some of the soundtrack music over the main menu. Unfortunately, no subtitles are included.

Rasputin The Mad Monk is a film with a cult following but I don’t think that it deserves its increasingly impressive reputation. There are much better Hammer movies in need of rediscovery – Demons Of The Mind for example – and if it wasn’t for the barnstorming performance of Christopher Lee, it would fall very flat indeed. The DVD release is generally quite good but if it wasn’t part of the boxset then it wouldn’t be worth buying on its own.

Mike Sutton

Updated: Jan 04, 2004

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