A man whose real life was already like a horror film – Grigori Yefimovich Rasputin was born in 1869 and was a Russian Orthodox Christian and mystic. His strange ways, possible supernatural powers and influence over the Russian Emperor and his family lead to his strange and terrible assassination and earned him the title of ‘the Mad Monk’.
Rasputin’s life is perfect fodder for a Hammer movie and the 1966 classic (which is now re-released), directed by Don Sharp relishes all the gory, slanderous and sexy details played out by Christopher Lee who gives an amazing performance.
Starting the story with the mysterious Rasputin healing an innkeeper’s sick wife, her husband is so happy that he throws a party in the mystics honour. As the celebrations spiral into chaos Rasputin drinks the pub dry and ends up maiming a local boy whose woman he is caught ravishing in the barn next door.
Hauled up in front of the bishop of his monastery, Rasputin shocks his accusers saying that he drinks, fight and fornicates because he wants to give God some sins worth forgiving.
Thrown out of the order for his behavior and for the healing touch which the priests think is a gift from Satan, Rasputin heads for the capital St. Petersburg where he plans to live a life of luxury.
Seeking wealth, power and influence he soon becomes involved with the lady in waiting to the Tsar’s wife, using his sexual magnitude and mesmerizing powers to peruse and exploit the perfect connection into the very heart of Russia’s ruling family.
What propels Rasputin: The Mad Monk above other Hammer’s is Christopher Lee’s power house performance. Unlike his usual suave aristocratic roles, Lee is almost hidden by a bushy beard and long black hair. He uses his burning commanding stare and brilliant physicality to capture the charisma and menace that Rasputin must have had to dominate people and convince them of his power.
Dancing, drinking, cavorting and fighting this is Lee at his most primal, taking life by the neck and wringing it dry of all he can take – the same way Rasputin did all those centuries ago. Running through every sin in the book and enjoying all of them you can’t help but like him, yet at the same time fear his aggression and anger and worry for those around him who he uses and abuses as is his want.
Those include the great Barbara Shelley as Sonia, the maid to the Tsarina, who Rasputin toys with. And Richard Pasco as Dr. Zargo who he meets in a drinking competition and stays with after he beats him.
The film isn’t scary per se, but Rasputin: The Mad Monk does have its violent gory moments and nasty effects. The true terror is to be found in the megalomania of the Mad Monk and his power over other people, as well as the fact that he was a real life historical figure.
With such a great central character played with such aplomb and a terrific tale the film moves along with a great pace – all the way to Rasputin’s assassination where his enemies attempt to kill him off, finding that it is a lot harder than they had hoped.
It is in this last scene where you may not believe the fact is just as sensational and scary as the fiction as it is documented that he was poisoned, shot, strangled, shot again, beaten, wrapped in a carpet and thrown in a river where he escaped only to drown and finally die.
A Hammer classic with an outstanding central performance from the cult icon that is Christopher Lee, Rasputin: The Mad Monk is not only a great movie, it also proves that the Mad Monk with his legendary real life death inspired countless slasher horror villains to rise that ‘one last time’ before they are finally killed.
The only difference being Rasputin was real and he never returned in a sequel.
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