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Tuesday, August 10, 2021

‘Rasputin: The Mad Monk’ Delivered One of Christopher Lee’s Finest Hours [Hammer Factory]

While Hammer Studios has been in business since 1934, it was between 1955 and 1979 that it towered as one of the premier sources of edgy, gothic horror. On top of ushering the famous monsters of Universal’s horror heyday back into the public eye, resurrecting the likes of Frankenstein, Dracula and the Mummy in vivid color, the studio invited performers like Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Ingrid Pitt and so many more to step into the genre limelight. Spanning a library housing over 300 films, Hammer Studios is a key part of horror history that until recently has been far too difficult to track down.

In late 2018, Shout Factory’s Scream Factory line began to focus on bringing Hammer’s titles to disc in the US, finally making many of the studio’s underseen gems available in packages that offered great visuals as well as insightful accompanying features. Over the course of this column, I will focus on these releases, gauging the films in context of the Hammer Studio story as well as analyzing the merits of the release. It’s time to highlight the power, impact and influence of Hammer Studios and ignite new conversation surrounding some forgotten classics.

Welcome to the Hammer Factory. This month we dissect Rasputin: The Mad Monk (1966).


The Context

Obscured and exaggerated by myth, the truth behind Grigori Rasputin and his demise is awash in the murky fog that so often arises between fact and fiction. Few personalities in human history have incited more stories, tomes and cinematic outings, none of which are truly able to arrive at a definitive conclusion regarding the nature of the man they all so voraciously concern. A holy devil, a lecherous drunk or perhaps a combination of the two, the mere idea of Rasputin lies at the crossroads of grounded human intrigue and otherworldly mystical purpose.

Rising from peasant farmer to healer of the Russian imperial court, Rasputin gained favor with the tsarina when he came to the aid of her hemophiliac son Alexei, supposedly employing mystical healing powers to carry him back from the verge of death on multiple occasions. Rasputin’s political influence with the Romanovs grew exponentially, making him a target for assassination. Led by Prince Felix Yusupov, a group of conspirators lured him to Felix’s home and, so Felix claims, after being poisoned, shot, beaten and dumped in an icy river, Rasputin was finally killed. Shortly after, the Bolshevik Revolution brought about an end to the Romanov regime, a downfall Rasputin himself predicted in vagaries, should his untimely execution come to pass.

Over the years, the story became ever more marred in hyperbole, its factual details hidden in the memory and conflicting mistruths espoused by Felix Yusupov, the one man who was there to witness it. Almost 16 years later, MGM mounted the first major motion picture about the mystical figure, Rasputin and the Empress (1932), altering the story in places and combining several of the conspirators into a single character. Furious about these depictions and intimate insinuations that the film made regarding his wife Irina, the then still exiled Felix Yusupov filed a lawsuit against MGM. He won and was awarded what would amount to several million dollars today, altering Hollywood’s perspective on Rasputin moviemaking and resulting in the “all persons and events are fictitious” disclaimer that films continue to employ to this day.

By the time the story reached the halls of Hammer, the truth of the man behind the myth seemed all but irrelevant— if anything, it was the myth that most interested them. Enamored by the complicated figure, Christopher Lee championed the project which had been on Hammer’s docket since 1961, brokering a deal to get it made should he agree to reprise his iconic Count for the first time since Dracula (1958). Shot in close succession with three other pictures as part of an experimental, cost-saving production strategy with 20th Century Fox, Rasputin: The Mad Monk (1966) was a whirlwind production that shared many of the same sets and cast members as the movie that got Rasputin greenlit in the first place, Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966).

With frequent Hammer collaborator Don Sharp at the helm and Christopher Lee occupying the title role, the film was set to offer something different than the typical Hammer gothic at the time. Keenly sadistic with a barbed, foggy sense of moral ambiguity, Rasputin is one of the rare Hammer efforts where the hero of the picture is not so clearly identified. Motivations are clouded by desire and the visuals depict a stark, cold and unyielding landscape that wholly supports the narrative’s nebulous ideologies.

Stricken with a tight production time frame, an ever-shrinking budget and, as a result, a constant stream of forced excisions from the script, Rasputin: The Mad Monk still managed to emerge as one of Hammer’s stronger, more affecting pictures. Christopher Lee’s Rasputin is a commanding presence, imposing upon each frame with physicality and intellect alike, ensuring that one of the few times he enjoyed a leading role at Hammer was easily one of his career-spanning best as a performer. Anything but average for Hammer, the film managed to feel new while grappling with the disparaging ideas of class, status and wealth juxtaposed against the subjugated those privileged aristocrats held dominion over that the studio so often felt compelled to explore.

The truth behind the life and death of Grigori Rasputin is likely long since lost, in its wake a cobblestone path of whisper and theory that results in something far more intriguing than legitimacy could ever offer. And yet, even amongst the thick stalks of legend one can unearth seeds of truth, a question regarding the unknown that can neither be proven nor dispelled. Still, all of that aside, that didn’t stop Hammer from ensuring that Felix Yusupov signed off on every last page of the script before a single frame was filmed. Even when dealing in legend, storytelling is a business, after all.

Such is the perspective employed in Rasputin: The Mad Monk, from Anthony Hinds’ screenplay, to Christopher Lee’s layered performance to Don Sharp’s excellent eye for visual acuity. Like Hammer’s best work, the film transposes legend to celluloid, not simply immortalizing its figurehead but that intangible, resonating feeling that such legends elicit – obscurities and exaggerations included.


The Film

“I only know I have this power. I have always had this power. I can feel it burning within me, driving me on. It is here inside me. It is in my hands. And I warn you, I warn you all that I, Grigori Yefimovich Rasputin, intend to use it. The power is mine and I will continue to use it as I please.”

An ornate red curtain greets the viewer as though seated before the stage, the thunderous march of Don Banks’ imperialistic score carrying the credits forward. The curtain soon gives way to a small pub wherein the innkeeper is negotiating with the local doctor, seeking a cure for his ailing wife. With hope dwindling, the old man prays in the dim light of his bedroom for a miracle. That’s when a tall, dark figure throws open the tavern door downstairs. He enters with resolve, his thick, billowing black hair coating his head and reaching down to his chest, before pounding three times on the counter and shouting “landlord!” with commanding expectation.

A patron informs the man of the sickness that has infected the house. Frustrated by the lack of amenities, the man heads upstairs, bursting into the innkeeper’s bedroom without regard for protocol or privacy and surveys the woman on the bed. He acknowledges her fever and proclaims that he shall be the one to remove it. Within seconds he has situated himself on the bed, his piercing eyes locked, his long fingers spaced about her skull, clutching and convulsing just above her skin. A transference occurs. Her sweat becomes his own. He stands a moment later. He washes his hands. The woman is cured and, now, finally, the innkeeper can retrieve the wine the man had been waiting for with such frustration.

Filmed back to back with Dracula: Prince of Darkness, Rasputin: The Mad Monk repurposes much of the production elements and crafts a decidedly more barbarous experience than the latter, exploring the much mythologized legacy of Grigori Rasputin. Don Sharp brings a unique eye and perspective to the film and, like he did with Kiss of the Vampire (1963), moves away from the clear duality shared between good and evil. Instead, his focus lies squarely on the soupy waters that flow between sin and righteousness, carried throughout the picture’s runtime by Christopher Lee’s charged performance as the commanding mystic, a captivating presence that lands as neither hero nor villain.

Even in the film’s opening moments, Lee’s Rasputin treads this fine line. After curing the innkeeper’s wife, he manifests a raucous celebration in the hitherto quiet and reserved pub. The hero of the hour, Rasputin guzzles wine and flirts with the innkeeper’s daughter, whisking her away to a barn where banter turns to something more personal. Before long, her boyfriend discovers the two and there’s a shift in Rasputin. His lust turns to rage and, as though woken from a trance, the once smitten young woman seems positively terrified of the man she was so willing to give herself to moments before. The fight that ensues is violent and bloody, a testament to Rasputin’s power and willingness to exercise it.

Soon Rasputin finds himself before the Bishop at his sect, played with believably reserved authority by Joss Ackland, uninterested in pleading his case but rather compelled to dictate the mantra with which he lives his life. Sin must be committed to be forgiven in the eyes of God, he explains – the greater the sin, the greater the forgiveness associated with it. These sequences serve as a prologue to the events that will transpire in their wake, establishing an amoralism in story and tone that brandishes Lee’s depiction of Rasputin as a protagonist to simultaneously fear and respect. Sharp’s coverage is classical here, providing views of Rasputin’s intense abilities in both wide and close frames, ensuring the viewer is more than convinced of his abilities well before they hold any real influence over an Imperial Court.

Uninterested in his secluded life in the countryside, Rasputin sets off for Saint Petersburg in search of a grander purpose. It’s there that he finds himself in yet another pub, this time in the presence of those that will come to make up the remainder of the film’s core cast. Each relationship is carefully cultivated in this scene, lensed through Rasputin’s domineering perspective so it is clear to see why he values who he does and how it is he might leverage them to realize his self-serving desires.

The drunk and disgraced Dr. Boris Zargo, who would go on to become his confidant, is immediately presented as a capable intellect who has become dependent on escapist endeavors. Richard Pasco plays Zargo with a sad sense of whimsy that carefully reveals itself to be crippling regret, fear and eventual anger throughout the film. He serves as a potent human accessory to Rasputin’s dark deeds, revealing how seductive such influence can be to the medicated mind.

Francis Matthews plays Ivan, a stand-in for the real life Yusupov, an affable and somewhat aloof member of the court and friend to Barbara Shelley’s Sonia. Playing a similar role to what she had just played in Dracula: Prince of Darkness, Shelley’s Sonia is a repressed lady-in-waiting to the Tsarina, seemingly more interested in the goings-on of the lower class than the life of wealth, properness and comfort that she’s intended for. There too is Suzan Farmer’s Vanessa, friend of Sonia and one who shares the same position, as well as Sonia’s brother Peter, played by Dinsdale Landen.

Filled with drink and food, Rasputin entertains the room, dancing vigorously before being interrupted by Sonia’s laughter. Regardless of the reasoning, Rasputin stops and accosts her, demanding an apology for her belittling reaction. Despite Ivan’s protests and the shocked reaction from the room, it’s here that Sonia and Rasputin lock eyes and exchange an electric connection. Lee’s dark, piercing stare penetrates Sonia’s and there’s no denying that a spell has been cast. Whether she welcomes its danger or resents its condemnation remains to be seen, but it’s clear that no matter what follows, Rasputin’s indelible imprint has been seared into her mind.

While it is well documented that a great deal of Sonia’s scenes were excised in light of time and budgetary constraints, Shelley’s performance is a highlight of the film and the rare equal to Lee’s onscreen abilities. Her transformation from reserved assistant to lurid mistress occurs with subtlety and grace, Shelley often expressing her hidden desires and internal struggles with wordless exchanges and mere glimmers of expression. Even in what was one of Hammer’s most explicit sexual encounters up until that point, Barbara Shelley exercises emotional restraint and authentic desire that perfectly compliments the raw lust that Rasputin wields.

Anthony Hinds’ script is even less interested in the truth than the stuff of legend, creating devilish contrivances to bring Rasputin to the royal court. Opting not to leverage the Tsarevich’s real-life condition, the film instead depicts Rasputin as having hypnotized Sonia into sending the young Tsarevich over the side of a bridge. Armed with the knowledge that he alone can resurrect the boy from his coma, the act results in the boy’s recovery as well as Rasputin’s rise to power and prominence. Rasputin is a man uninterested in luck. More than even the legend the character is based on, Lee’s Rasputin leaves nothing to chance.

Once indoctrinated into court, Rasputin is surrounded by women who are drawn to him and men who are threatened by him. The film seems to suggest that high society, royal or otherwise, is comprised primarily of those wishing to climb to its peak or those terrified of people around them looking to do the same. However, the difference between the priests, advisors, doctors and Rasputin is that Rasputin recognizes such truths and is unafraid to act. He moves with a blatancy that is unnatural in the upper echelons of class, a brusque brashness that lays bare his desires and allows him to seize them. One wonders if such an attitude is not how a legend like this starts in the first place.

The film builds to the demise and disregard of those Rasputin required to get what he wanted. In an incredibly powerful scene of extroverted emotion headlined by Barbara Shelley, Rasputin laughs in her face and casts her aside, figuratively and literally, before commanding her to take her own life. Zargo watches in horror, realization dawning as the last vestiges of his fear rooted loyalties to Rasputin fade. The closeness of the chaotic camera movements and pained expressions of everyone but Rasputin serves to inform why it is that the mystic will ultimately fall. That, good and evil aside, there are some things that man cannot stomach, unchecked power amongst them.

Despite the unfortunate excision of Barbara Shelley’s suicide, the climax offers some of the film’s most striking and atmospheric moments. From a staggeringly disturbing sequence shot in almost complete darkness, wherein Rasputin appears and disappears into the void as Peter slowly makes his way toward an unfortunate fate involving acid, to the culmination of Ivan’s plan to kill the mad monk of the film’s title, the film treads toward its finale with the same ambiguous sense of right and wrong that has guided it from the beginning.

With his sights set on Suzan Farmer’s Vanessa, Rasputin travels to Ivan’s manor. As is fabled, a tray of poisoned sweets and wine awaits him there. But instead of inhuman strength, Lee allows for vulnerability here, doubling over as the poison hits, for example, before willing his strength to return when finally facing his conspirators. While the sequence is again the victim of some odd edits, particularly a large portion of the fight between Ivan and Rasputin, along with the use of an unconvincing dummy that lessens the impact of Rasputin’s ultimate end, the struggle is an intense one and an effective capper to the sordid tale.

Rasputin: The Mad Monk brings the legend of Rasputin to its logical resting place, one which intermingles with the stories that had been passed around while adding its own sense of flourish and humanity. Don Sharp’s purposeful direction and interest in moral ambiguity serves as the ideal complement to Christopher Lee’s intimidating performance, cultivating a different flavor of Hammer gothic than what was being churned out by the studio at the time. While it was profitable, its legacy has only grown, standing decades later as not only one of Christopher Lee’s finest hours but one of the studio’s most engrossing character studies.

As Don Banks’ powerful score swells once more and Rasputin lies dead by the frozen lake, the woman he saved in the tavern and Rasputin’s edict regarding his abilities feel particularly resonant. Rasputin had power, it was true, and he intended to use it. Purpose, it would seem, was irrelevant. When it comes to social status and the human condition, the unsettling truth to the question of “why,” is often quite simply, “because one can.”


The Special Features

This release comes equipped with the 2012 Studio Canal restoration of the film in both its original Cinemascope 2.55:1 aspect ratio and its 2.35:1 reformatting. The main feature (2.35:1) is a better looking, less compressed option, boasting striking contrast and colors that standout, really bringing to life the costumes and set design that provides the whole affair a sense of authenticity.

The DTS-HD Master Mono track is a little soft at times, the mix not always providing clear dialogue set against the resounding score, but works well enough to create an immersive experience. Overall, the A/V package is equivalent to what was released in the UK, providing US audiences with a solid presentation of one of Hammer’s great films.

Audio Commentary, by Author/Film Historian Steve Haberman, Filmmaker/Film Historian Constantine Nasr and Filmmaker/Film Historian Ted Newsom

(New: 2020, produced by Shout Factory)

Film historians Steve Haberman, Constantine Nasr and Ted Newsom provide a newly recorded commentary track delving into the story of Grigori Rasputin and the specifics regarding the production of Rasputin: The Mad Monk.

Informative and engaging, the three dive into the production and its various players with a copy of the shooting script in hand. Providing insight into what was cut, amended or altogether reinterpreted on set by way of Christopher Lee’s performance decisions, the track helps to flesh out the characters and their motivations while providing the same service for those behind the camera. A fun, involving listen, this commentary is an invaluable asset to the film’s enduring legacy.

Audio Commentary, by Stars Christopher Lee, Barbara Shelley, Francis Shelley, Francis Matthews and Suzan Farmer

(1999, produced by Anchor Bay)

Performers Christopher Lee, Barbara Shelley, Francis Shelley, Francis Matthews and Suzan Farmer sit down to have a running conversation about their experience making Rasputin: The Mad Monk and their careers in general in this conversational commentary track ported over from the film’s 1999 DVD release.

Christopher Lee leads the conversation, proving that even many years later he is still an expert on all things Rasputin. Dispelling rumors and venturing deep into the controversial mystic’s mythology, Lee reminds why he was so driven to portray the character. The group discusses fond memories of working with one another and for Hammer, while touching upon some of the questionable decisions made on set— such as the choreography that led to a serious injury for Barbara Shelley. The track is occasionally stricken by bouts of silence and simple commentary regarding onscreen happenings, but it remains a fun and interesting way to experience the film through the eyes of those that helped bring it to life.

Tall Stories — The Making of Rasputin the Mad Monk (25:23)

(2012, produced by StudioCanal)

A collection of film historians and surviving members of the crew come together to discuss the origins and execution of Rasputin: The Mad Monk in this making of documentary ported over from the 2012 UK Blu-ray release of the film.

Talking about how retooling history was not anything new to Hammer as was the case in The Stranglers of Bombay (1959) and The Terror of the Tongs (1961), the documentary shows that Anthony Hinds had been considering a Rasputin movie for years. They discuss the true story of Rasputin and the inconsistencies in the myth as well as how they rationalized all of those details into a coherent and complex narrative. Much praise is heaped upon Christopher Lee’s towering performance and, still, it’s suggested that the studio’s reach may have exceeded its grasp on the project. The feature is a quick, enlightening way to get a sense of history regarding Rasputin and the film.

Brought to Book — Hammer Novelizations (15:09)

(2012, produced by StudioCanal)

Jonathan Rigby, Mark Gatiss and Johnny Mains run through a brief history of how Hammer’s library of films made their way to the paperback section in this feature ported over from the 2012 UK Blu-ray release of the film.

The historians walk us through the timeline, beginning with The Camp on Blood Island (1958) novelization and carrying through to reprints of the original Dracula novel with images of Christopher Lee on the cover. Eventually, this gave way to 1966’s “The Hammer Horror Omnibus” and its follow up in 1967 by John Burke, which were collections of 4 Hammer film novelizations that made the movies accessible to younger audience members that were unable to see the movies theatrically. From their collectability to the impact they had on Hammer fandom, this feature is a fun and entertaining guide to the impact and importance of the horror movie novelization.

The World of Hammer – Costumers (25:50)

(1990, produced by Hammer Films)

A standard definition episode of Hammer’s anthology TV series as narrated by Oliver Reed focusing on the costumes that helped make Hammer’s oeuvre so memorable. Showcasing films like A Challenge For Robin Hood (1967), The Pirates of Blood River (1962), The Scarlet Blade (1963), Stranglers of Bombay (1959), Sword of Sherwood Forest (1960) and Wolfshead (1969), the episode reminds the viewer that Hammer was known for more than the macabre, producing some of the finest swashbucklers of their time.

The World of Hammer – Christopher Lee (24:59)

(1990, produced by Hammer Films)

A second episode of The World of Hammer is included here, this one focused on the films of Christopher Lee— what Reed refers to as, “one of the most important elements of a Hammer film.” Showcasing clips from Dracula, Dracula: Prince of Darkness, The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959), The Devil Rides Out (1968), Scars of Dracula (1970), To the Devil a Daughter (1976) and more, the episode is a brief but fun reminder of the staggering amount of classic films that Christopher Lee took part in crafting.

Theatrical Trailers (5:49)

The camera zooms in to Christopher Lee’s menacing eyes. A severed hand lies in the frame and a voice announces the word, “evil.” The voice informs that evil is coming to seek out and destroy, before announcing that “Guys and gals alike! Disguise yourself from the most inhuman creature ever to scare the wits out of you!” A title card appears showcasing a red and blue beard, showing that you can get a Rasputin bluebeard for free (the red being for the ladies).

Next, Rasputin slaps Sonia as the voice announces, “history’s man of mystery!” More images of Rasputin hypnotizing others and even commanding Sonia to destroy herself play out onscreen as the title appears. Then, the trailer segues into The Reptile (1966) where a “dreaded curse can turn a living woman into a deadly slithering snake!”

The final trailer again showcases the severed hand as Rasputin accosts the innkeeper’s daughter. A voice calls out his “insane lust to dominate and destroy” as he rides on horseback and then dances about in a bar. Then, Rasputin demands an apology from Sonia before jumping to the scene in Rasputin’s quarters where he seduces her. He hypnotizes her and explains that the little czar will have an “accident”. The voice resounds once more, saying, “Here is the amazing true story of the man whose evil genius still fascinates the world.” The conspirators collaborate to kill Rasputin and the voice chimes in, “But can they kill this man possessed by super human powers of evil?” The final fight plays over the title of the film: Rasputin: The Mad Monk.

TV Spots (1:25)

In the first, very brief spot, Rasputin commands Sonia to destroy herself in black and white, before the commercial to get your free Rasputin beard kicks in. In the second, Christopher Lee’s piercing eyes again penetrate the frame. A voice asks how you can protect yourself from “the forces of evil” before announcing the title and drawing out the word “mad” in an unhinged way before again reminding that The Reptile too is paired with the film. “Your only hope,” the announcer promises and reminds, “is to get your free Rasputin beard.”

Still Gallery (3:23)

Original poster art, press book materials, lobby cards, publicity photos, glamour shots, on-set photography, candid photographs of make-up application and advertising material comprise this lovely slideshow of images representing the film’s advertising campaign and general production.


Final Thoughts

When it comes to Grigori Rasputin, there is no truth, only story. His rise and fall is bathed in as much mystery, deceit and mysticism as the lore attempting to suss it all out, which is why his legacy continues to be such an intriguing one.

Hammer spent the bulk of its years grappling with legends. Its big screen exploits traversed every corner of dark lore, eyeing vampires, spirits, zombies, monsters and more. These were not new creations, but traditions of horror, mythologies that had existed long before and would go on to persevere forever after, eternally imbued with Hammer’s indelible stamp. Like Dracula, Baron Frankenstein and Dr. Jekyll, Rasputin’s legend evolves and matures with every new telling— the same, but different. Old and new. That’s where the magic lies, the mysticism. Not in what happened, but what one makes of it.

Scream Factory carries Rasputin: The Mad Monk to domestic release with the same beautiful transfer employed by Studio Canal in the UK. Porting over past special features across several prior releases and commissioning a new commentary track that is easily the best, most informative feature on the disc, Scream once again delivers a must own release of one of Hammer’s finest films.

A testament to the talent Hammer employed, Rasputin: The Mad Monk not only showcases the raw, commanding power of Christopher Lee’s abilities but the importance of allowing such talent to be realized by a multitude of different directors with unique sensibilities. Terence Fisher’s Rasputin would have been a very different film than what Don Sharp managed to craft and the end result is a far more complicated, ambiguous and thought provoking picture.

All of these years removed, Rasputin: The Mad Monk stands as another stepping stone on the convoluted path to the pop culture zeitgeist figure that Rasputin has become. Showing up in historical dramas, horror movies and even having a featured number in a Don Bluth animated epic, Rasputin has become as indiscernible from the movie monsters of Hammer’s stable of horrors as Dracula or the wolfman. Therefore, it seems only right that Lee should portray both the mystic and the Count on that level, both haunted men with the ability to hypnotize and seduce, forever seeking a dominion that they will never quite grasp.

It may all be far-flung from the man that this all started with. Still, at a certain point exaggeration becomes the truth, if not by reality, by time. But, then again, maybe it’s not about the truth. Perhaps, the lesson is: legends never are.



source https://bloody-disgusting.com/editorials/3677716/rasputin-mad-monk-delivered-one-christopher-lees-finest-hours-hammer-factory/

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