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The exploits of historic figure Grigori Rasputin have been dramatized in a number of films in the years since his murder on December 29, 1916, on the eve of the Russian Revolution. Rasputin is reputed to have had mysterious healing powers, a wild indulgence in women and drink, control and influence over the Tsar and Tsarina, and near-indestructibility - all of which demands a dramatic treatment, even if the "truth" of the stories may be exaggeration. In the hands of England's Hammer Films and that studio's star attraction Christopher Lee, the Rasputin legend was tailor-made for a "historical drama" that refreshingly veers into horror movie territory. The result is a fast-paced, low-budget entertainment in the tradition of other Hammer films of the 1960s, and thanks largely to a robust performance from Lee, it can easily stand alongside the Dracula films from the same era.
Although critics at the time of release often branded Rasputin: The Mad Monk (1966) as historically inaccurate, the basic elements of his rise to prominence and position in St. Petersburg are present in the script by Anthony Hinds (using his common pseudonym, John Elder), although all references to political motivations are absent. The film opens as Grigori Rasputin (Christopher Lee) seemingly cures the deathly ill wife (Mary Quinn) of an innkeeper by drawing out her fever with the touch of his hands. Rasputin proceeds to drink four bottles of wine in celebration, carouse, and force himself on the innkeeper's daughter Tania (Fiona Hartford). Tania's boyfriend (Michael Cadman) attacks Rasputin with a scythe, but the wild monk defends himself, cuts the young man's hand off, and escapes the townsfolk. He is brought before the Bishop (Joss Ackland) of his monastery for his drunken and lascivious behavior, and Rasputin exclaims, "When I go to confession, I don't offer God small sins - petty squabbles, jealousies - I offer Him sins worth forgiving!" Rasputin travels to St. Petersburg and in the Caf Tzigane he gets into a drinking contest with the discredited Dr. Boris Zargo (Richard Pasco). During his victory dance, Rasputin meets Sonia (Barbara Shelley), the lady-in-waiting for the tsarina (Renee Asherson). Sonia, her brother Peter (Dinsdale Landen) and friends Ivan (Francis Matthews) and Vanessa (Suzan Farmer) have gone to the seedy bar to escape a dull charity ball at the palace. Rasputin casts an ominous hypnotic spell on Sonia and soon has her under his control. He eventually finds favor with the royal court by healing the young Tsarvitch (Robert Duncan) himself, after setting the events in motion that led to his illness. When Rasputin does away with Sonia, Peter begins to plot the death of the Mad Monk.
The production home of Hammer Films, Bray Studios, had been shut down for refurbishing in late 1964 and it reopened in April, 1965. To make up for the lost production time, producer Anthony Keys hit upon the idea of launching an ambitious slate of four features, budgeted at just 402,000 pounds for the group and scheduled to be shot back-to-back in two pairs, each with overlapping casts and crew and using many of the same sets, only slightly refurbished. The resulting films would be split up and released on a double bill with a film from the other pair, to help disguise any cost-cutting to audiences. At the same time, Hammer was attempting to lure Christopher Lee back to the Dracula role that he made famous in Horror of Dracula (1958). He had not appeared in that film's direct sequel, The Brides of Dracula (1960), but was persuaded to don the cape for one of Keys' four productions, Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966). Lee was fearful of typecasting, so his return was ensured in part because Hammer promised to feature him in what looked to be a more prestigious role, that of Rasputin. Shooting on Rasputin: The Mad Monk began on June 8, 1965 - immediately after the Dracula film wrapped. The famous outdoor standing set at Bray which represented Castle Dracula facing a moat of ice was quickly restaged as the royal residence in St. Petersburg in the winter.
Because the rise and fall of Grigori Rasputin was in the recent past, there were people still living that had a vested interest in how his story was told. Decades earlier, the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer film Rasputin and the Empress (1932) had run into enormous legal trouble. Princess Irina Romanoff Youssoupoff, the wife of one of the assassins and the model for a character in the MGM film, was awarded damages in the courts in London and settled a suit in New York out-of-court for amounts that totaled hundreds of thousands of dollars. MGM paid the settlements and proceeded to lock away the film in the vault for decades afterward. In the audio commentary track for Rasputin: The Mad Monk recorded by Christopher Lee in 1997, the actor says that "when I was very small... 9, 10, 11 years old or something, and I was fast asleep one night, in our house in London, and my mother came up and woke me up and she said, 'put on your dressing gown and come downstairs because I'm going to introduce you to two men. You probably won't remember what they look like... but you will remember all of your life that you have met them.' ...I do remember meeting two men in black tie and tuxedoes, dinner jackets; and these two men were Prince Felix Youssoupoff and the Grand Duke Dimitri Povlovich, two of the five, I say, 'so-called' assassins of Rasputin. ...It's a well-known fact in the film industry in general and not just in regards to this film, that Prince Youssoupoff made a very good living over a period of years out of bringing lawsuits against every single company that wanted to make a picture about Rasputin." Since his reputation preceded him, Youssoupoff was personally consulted during the scripting stages by the Hammer producers. In their book A History of Horrors: The Rise and Fall of the House of Hammer, authors Denis Meikle and Christopher T. Koetting quote writer Anthony Hinds as saying, "We had to get the okay from Rasputin's murderer," and in fact, "Youssoupoff personally sanctioned the script by signing each and every page!" In interviews done at the time of release, star Lee and director Don Sharp took pains to call the film "an entertainment" rather than a historical piece.
While the accomplishments of Barbara Shelley should be acknowledged (her Sonia is one of the most sympathetic and compelling female characters in evidence in a Hammer film from this period), Rasputin: The Mad Monk is clearly a tour-de-force for Christopher Lee. He is having the time of his life in the role; he dominates the picture and almost literally fills the frame of every scene he is in. While in motion his movements are all-encompassing and even while standing still he commands the viewer's attention. Director of photography Michael Reed makes the most of Lee's penetrating eyes in close-ups of Rasputin's stare, but even in long shots the actor wields his gaze like a weapon. If actors truly live for dramatic death scenes, then Lee has the good fortune to play out an extracted, gloriously exaggerated death scene in this film. "I asked my doctor what would be the effects of cyanide poisoning," he explained later, "and he said 'literally, like [with] strychnine, you would almost bend over backwards like a bow.'" Lee plays the poisoning to the hilt, and that is only one aspect of the protracted murder sequence. (The scene as shot was even longer; actor Francis Matthews later complained that much of his strenuous grappling with Lee in the finale ended up on the cutting room floor).
Following completion of the Rasputin film, the lot at Bray was quickly transformed into a Cornish village in order to shoot the next pair of films, The Plague of the Zombies and The Reptile, both directed in efficient but atmospheric fashion by John Gilling. The Dracula film was released on a double-bill with the Zombie picture, and thanks in part to a very effective advertising campaign (including prime-time television spots) the double-feature did huge box-office business on both sides of the Atlantic. Less than two months later the double feature of Rasputin: The Mad Monk paired with The Reptile was released and almost matched the business of the previous pair.
Contemporary reviews were tepid; The Kinematograph Weekly in Britain said the film had "a curiously unconvincing atmosphere," while The Daily Cinema called it a "garbled version with conventional Hammer shocks and historical inaccuracies." In the United States, the writer for Variety opined that "producer Anthony Nelson Keys has scripter John Elder take a somewhat fanciful (and unbelievable) approach to the subject of Russia's bad boys. As a result, the dastardly villain has been given some attributes that are certainly colorful. Christopher Lee's Rasputin is completely in character - huge, deep-voiced, compelling stare. He's a proper rascal."
The authors of Hammer Films: An Exhaustive Filmography found the film lacking, calling the subject matter "...too big for Hammer to realistically take on. A film like this needs a much larger budget and location shooting to be believable. Viewers could be easily tricked into accepting Bray as a fantasy Transylvania, but not a realistic Russia. Filming was done under hurried conditions and it shows." Similarly, the authors of A History of Horrors: The Rise and Fall of the House of Hammer felt that "John Elder's script supplies much incident but little thrill, and whatever sense of period it attempts to evoke is swamped by garish Technicolor and exposed by threadbare set design and the clear need for the occasional stock shot. Direction and playing are wholly without subtlety."
Producer: Anthony Nelson Keys
Director: Don Sharp
Screenplay: Anthony Hinds (as John Elder)
Cinematography: Michael Reed
Art Direction: Don Mingaye
Music: Don Banks
Film Editing: Roy Hyde
Cast: Christopher Lee (Grigori Rasputin), Barbara Shelley (Sonia), Richard Pasco (Dr. Zargo), Francis Matthews (Ivan), Suzan Farmer (Vanessa), Dinsdale Landen (Peter), Rene Asherson (Tsarina), Derek Francis (Innkeeper), Joss Ackland (The Bishop), Robert Duncan (Tsarvitch)
by John M. Miller
SOURCES:Hammer Films: An Exhaustive Filmography by Tom Johnson and Deborah DelVecchio (McFarland Publishing, 1996)
A History of Horrors: The Rise and Fall of the House of Hammer by Denis Meikle and Christopher T. Koetting (The Scarecrow Press, Inc., Revised Ed. 2009)
Audio Commentary track for Rasputin: The Mad Monk DVD by Christopher Lee, Barbara Shelley, Francis Matthews, and Suzan Farmer. Recorded in 1997.