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Rasputin: The Mad Monk (1966)
Director: Don Sharp

review by Jim Steel

Hammer was always more about bums on seats than art. Once their horror line was established, they realised that audiences had certain expectations of the brand. This didn't stop them from making a whole line of historical drama, but they knew that when people saw the Hammer name, there had better be plenty of gore and sadism attached or there would be disappointment. Pirates, medieval adventures, and the English Civil War, provided many of the settings, but they were not unafraid to go after other subjects. Rasputin was an obvious choice, and Christopher Lee was the obvious actor. This, after all, was a role not all that dissimilar to Dracula. A hypnotic monster who is invited into the home by the innocent? Perfect.

Perhaps, in retrospect, the part was too familiar. Or perhaps the laced-up Russian court provided less opportunity for heaving bosoms to escape their confines. And there was certainly no opportunity for follow-ups. Whatever the reason, the film wasn't a great success at the time and is now regarded as a mere curiosity when it is thought of at all. It suffers from budget constraints - there are rarely more than four or five people on screen at the same time and nearly all of it is shot in the studio - and timing constraints. It had to fit into double bills, and much of the story had to be truncated, so certain historical events and people are absent from the film. Czar Nicholas II, for example, and the First World War, and even within the film, the climactic fight scene had to be heavily cut since it was the only sacrifice that could be made without making nonsense of the plot.

Ironically, since the film was made, it has been discovered that Rasputin's traditional end is mere myth. Unfortunately, this discovery is far too late for audiences who might have felt short-changed on the night. There may be plenty of faults, but the film is not to be written off entirely. There are some wonderful performances to be found here. Lee plays Rasputin with psychopathic abandon and is a delight to watch. Rasputin's hypnotic powers are very close to Dracula's but, when his eyes are not filling the screen, Lee shows us one of the most rounded creations of his career; and it's a much better performance than the film deserves. But that's always been Lee's curse.

Another high point is Francis Matthews' Prince Ivan. Matthews' foppish aristocrat is an iron fist in a velvet glove. The scene where Ivan entices Rasputin into the trap is the highpoint of the film - and is one of the best scenes in the entire history of Hammer. It's like watching a chess game where Rasputin, for once, is completely out of his depth.

But it's a Hammer film. You know what to expect. Many of the other actors are straight out of Hammer central casting and give the impression that they were not sure what sort of a film they would end up in when they turned up for work that morning, but that's part of the charm of Hammer. There are the usual cheesy splashes of too-brilliant blood, limb-loppings, acid-in-the-face nastiness and general misanthropy, of course, which we all love and could probably replicate just as realistically at home. And there's also a Michael Ripper cameo. It wouldn't be a proper Hammer film without him, would it?

Rasputin - The Mad Monk



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