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Rasputin the Mad Monk

Rasputin the Mad Monk



1966, Dir. Don Sharp

Starring:
Christopher Lee, Barbara Shelley

RATING



Rasputin is quite possibly one of the most enigmatic characters of the last century. So much of the man's life is shrouded in myth it's near impossible to separate fact from fiction, giving filmmakers and writers free reign to depict Rasputin any way they choose. In 1966 Hammer Studios chose to do so. Now, nine out of ten times I'll defend Hammer Studios.

This is ten.

This film isn't really very good. It can't decide whether to try and stay close to historical truth or just go off on a wild tangent, and therefore it wavers in purpose. Rasputin himself is marginalized into a two dimensional movie monster. Christopher Lee plays the Mad Monk, a much more substantial part than his other lead roles. It took a few Dracula films before he got significant lines, and didn't speak at all as Hammer's Frankenstein monster or Mummy. It's good to see him breathe a little bit, only occasionally veering into overacting. To his credit, he gives the role a little more substance than the writers did.

The first ten minutes of the film establishes Rasputin's behavior patterns. He arrives at an inn / tavern and heals the landlord's wife. He insists they then have a party, full of wine and dance. It's a hoot seeing Chris Lee, or perhaps Chris Lee's stand-in, doing a mean jig. Then he steals away to the hayloft with the landlord's daughter. The jealous boyfriend isn't having it and fights Rasputin, only to get his hand chopped off. Then, as Dracsputin forces himself upon the daughter, the menfolk bust in. He escapes and sneaks back into his monastery.

The next morning he is called before the bishop and admonished for his behavior. This exchange doesn't do much for the whole "mystic" angle of Rasputin, instead it makes him seem like the class rebel who wants to buck authority. So he sets off for St. Petersburg. Through a chance encounter with a lady-in-waiting to the Czarina (and a good deal of hypnotism) he manages to get himself in the good graces of the royal family. The Czarina sets him up in a leftover setpiece from Dracula Prince of Darkness in which to practice his trade and he instantly becomes the toast of the women of St. Petersburg, who flock to him for consultations. So he's kinda like Richard Simmons or Billy Blanks if they were turn-of-the-century Russian peasant monks.

So since the plot needs more movement than simply Rasputin being a bastard, they decide to renew a plot point that that seemed to be abandoned long ago. Rasputin's unwilling assistant Boris decides to turn on him, and plots with the brother of lady-in-waiting Vanessa (the lovely and underused Suzan "Die Monster, Die!" Farmer) to trap the monk by promising a meeting with Vanessa. He goes, they trap him, they kill him. The much mythologized death of Rasputin is represented by poisoned wine, a box of poisoned chocolates, a syringe to the back, and a shove out the window (DUMMY FALL!!).

If the point of this film is to fit the character of Rasputin into a horror film mold, it didn't quite work. Too often it feels like a romance novel, what with vengeful brothers, swooning ladies and all. Character motivation is a touchy subject too. Boris has no reason to follow Rasputin around. The monk doesn't particularly need an assistant, and Boris hasn't been hypnotized. All Frankensputin did was outdrink him, move into his apartment, order him around, have sex in his bed (as anyone with a roommate will tell you that's a definite no-no), and reveal his plot to injure the son of the Czar (who, by the way, doesn't appear in this film) to him. And he doesn't even do anything for Rasputin, he's just there.

The random subplot between Rasputin and Vanessa is a detrimental point as well. In their first encounter, when the monk raises his glass to her in a dive bar, it seems to be Rasputin simply being lecherous. He then ignores her and focuses his attentions on her best friend Sonia. Vanessa's all but forgotten until Boris and her brother hatch their plan, and that makes it seem as if Rasputin's infiltration into the royal family is done just so he can hook up with another lady-in-waiting.

IN CLOSING: All the surface elements that make Hammer great are here; the costumes, the sets, and the acting. But the overall movement of the film is wobbly, leaving it hanging. It's not horror enough to be horror, it's not romance enough to be romance, it's really just kinda messy. Besides Lee's performance as Kharisputin the Mad Mummy, there's not much to crow about. For Lee fanatics and Hammer completists only.