All Hallow’s Lee – RASPUTIN THE MAD MONK
“When I go to confession I don’t offer God small sins, petty squabbles, jealousies… I offer him sins worth forgiving!”
Christopher Lee was a major star for Hammer, but unlike Peter Cushing, the parts where he was front and center from beginning to end of film are fewer than you’d think. He’d vanish for much of the time as Dracula, certainly during the daylight scenes, and he’d be a supporting character, often villainous, as much as he would be a lead. Therefore, a role such as Rasputin in RASPUTIN THE MAD MONK must have been a real bit of fresh air for Christopher Lee and he digs into the part with a real gusto.
A featured part and the fact that Christopher Lee had met Rasputin’s killers as a child, albeit Lee didn’t remember many details of that meeting. Due to potential lawsuits, the film doesn’t hew too closely to historical facts, names were changed, etc., but it does hew to the legend. And the legend of Rasputin is a pretty great one.
Directed by Don Sharp, the emphasis is on the earthiness of Rasputin as the film chronicles his rise from peasant priest to his influence over the Tsarina to his eventual assassination. The film begins with an early misadventure where Rasputin cures an innkeeper’s wife, orders a party with all the wine he can drink in celebration, seduces the innkeepers daughter, fights for his life when the daughter’s beau doesn’t take kindly to his advances, chops off the beau’s hand, and then is surprised to find out that the daughter is no longer in the mood, you sense the fact that Don Sharp is equally condemning Rasputin and is amused by his story. Lee, too, alternates between being menacing as he abuses his powers of healing and hypnosis, and amusing whether it’s lustfully leering at young women, drinking copiously, or dancing with tremendous energy as he revels in his powers and sinfulness.
After Rasputin is expelled from his monastery and travels to Saint Petersburg, it only frees him further, as he quickly wins a drinking contest, perhaps an influence on RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, ensconces himself in the home of a disgraced doctor, “seduces” through hypnosis a maid in waiting to the Tsarina (Barbara Shelley), and successfully schemes to meet the Tsarina and gain influence over the Russian monarchy through his powers of hypnosis, before he goes too far and creates enemies that stop him through assassination.
There’s nothing really surprising about the story, except perhaps for how rapid Rasputin’s rise is and how casually he discards Barbara Shelley when she no longer serves any purpose for him. Truth be told, watching Christopher Lee is the main reason to watch RASPUTIN THE MAD MONK as the secondary characters aren’t developed well and creating turn of the century Saint Petersburg and all the costume spectacle that entails is beyond the ability of Hammer. Hammer was remarkable in their ability to create a world of deserted castles and small towns and cities on the manor house sets of Bray Studios, but making the bustling capital of Russia without hundreds of extras is just a step too far.
Not that the sets are bad, Hammer reused sets from DRACULA: PRINCE OF DARKNESS to very good effect, along with bringing along Lee, Shelley, Suzanne Farmer, and Francis Matthews from that film’s cast, so there are a lot of similarities in look between the two films and the cast is obviously comfortable together. It’s obviously a professional production throughout and Sharp keeps the story moving.
What the film lacks though is an ability to bring out the themes within the material. Not much is made of Rasputin not giving a literal damn if his powers come from God or Satan. Power relationships aren’t really established visually. Don Sharp was certainly a competent director, but the film as a whole doesn’t rise above being a series of events rather than saying much about God, faith, and the corruption of power. RASPUTIN THE MAD MONK is a thoroughly competent film, if perhaps overly ambitious in scope, but it lacks a larger purpose other than entertainment which would put it up with Hammer’s best films.
That’s through no fault of Christopher Lee though as he turns in a terrific, fun performance. Nearly everyone else is a stick in the mud, save for Barbara Shelley who goes from haughty to humiliated, so that leaves Lee to inject energy into the movie and he delivers in spades. From his appearance, which bears some similarities to Saruman albeit with jet black hair, to the energy he brings to every scene, delighting in just what he’s able to accomplish, you can’t take your eyes off him. It’s a real star turn.
And it’s a star turn that relies on more than his imposing stature and deep voice. RASPUTIN THE MAD MONK wouldn’t be my first recommendation for a Hammer film, even one showcasing Christopher Lee, but it’s one of his best performances of the 1960s and shows just how capable he was as an actor. And how charismatic he could be. If you’re searching for Christopher Lee performances that you haven’t seen before, put this near the top of your list.