RASPUTIN: THE MAD MONK. Hammer Films, UK, 1966. 20th Century Fox, US, 1966. Christopher Lee (Grigori Rasputin), Barbara Shelley, Richard Pasco, Francis Matthews, Suzan Farmer, Dinsdale Landen, Renée Asherson, Derek Francis. Director: Don Sharp.

   The physically imposing Christopher Lee is at his theatrical best in Hammer’s 1966 Rasputin: The Mad Monk. Filmed at England’s Bray Studios several days after shooting for Dracula: Prince of Darkness wrapped up, this biopic blended historical drama with Hammer’s trademark atmospheric Gothic horror. Although not one of the legendary British production studio’s most impressive releases, Rasputin: The Mad Monk benefited strongly not only from Lee’s nearly flawless performance, but also from Don Sharp’s workman-like direction which keeps the proceedings moving forward at a good pace.

   Before delving further into the plot, some historical background might prove useful to those less familiar with Russian history. There are few figures in 20th-century European history that loom larger in the collective imagination than the mysterious Grigori Yefimovich Rasputin.

   Although he never held an official position in the Russian Orthodox Church, Rasputin is best remembered as a bearded monk dressed in a long robe. Born to a peasant family in Siberia, Rasputin made his way to St. Petersburg and somehow manipulated his way to the royal family’s inner circle and became close to the Tsarina, spouse of Nicholas II, the last Romanov czar. Acting as a mystical healer to Alexei Nikolaevich, heir to the Russian throne, Rasputin gained enormous power in Russian politics. So much so that a group of conservative noblemen, unnerved by his influence over the Tsarina, plotted and carried out his assassination in 1916.

   That’s the official story, true to history. There have also been a series of theories, most of which have been debunked, about Rasputin’s murder at the hands of his political enemies. As for the character of Rasputin as portrayed in Rasputin: The Mad Monk is an amalgam of both the historical Rasputin and a mad villain very much in the Hammer mold. Christopher Lee’s Rasputin is larger than life, a raving megalomaniac, and very possibly an agent of the Dark Prince, Satan himself.

   When we first encounter Rasputin very early in the film, it’s under inauspicious circumstances. An innkeeper’s (Derek Francis) wife has taken very ill. Enter Rasputin, a tall, bearded, unkempt man in a long robe. Villagers had heard of a man with mystic, healing powers and sent for him to come to the assistance of the innkeeper’s wife. Somehow, someway this mysterious man is able to put his hands on the sick woman and bring her back from the brink of death.

   But who is this visitor and what does he really want? He is, we learn, Rasputin and he’s a hard drinking, lecherous sort who has his eyes on one of the young girls at the inn. When his attempts to seduce her are interrupted by a jealous young man who attacks him, Rasputin shows just how far his soul has fallen and that his rapacious appetite is not limited to food and drink. Not only does he lash out violently against his attacker, severing the man’s hand, Rasputin also ends up raping the girl who has clearly changed her mind about this dark seductive, mysterious stranger who, just hours ago, was lauded as a miracle worker for restoring a woman back to life.

   What happens next is the movie’s inciting event. Summoned in front of a church elder, Rasputin is asked to explain his violent, sexual behavior. This is not the first time that the film takes liberties with the historical record, for Rasputin never held an official position within the church. That said, the scene in question is a pivotal one for it gives the character of Rasputin to deliver a quasi-soliloquy in which a stunning tacit admission of the origins of his unique powers is proffered. It is through Lee’s physically imposing presence and deep voice that the depth of evil in Rasputin’s soul comes to the fore. By acknowledging that his power may not come from any divine source, but from Satan, the Rasputin as portrayed in this Hammer production enters the studio’s pantheon of villains.

   Lee portrays Rasputin as a wild man, capable of charming ladies and bending them to his will. He’s as much a Russian peasant monk as he is a counter-cultural guru, a bearded mystic that wouldn’t have looked so completely out of place in late 1960s London or San Francisco. Indeed, the Rasputin portrayed here is almost a proto-Charlie Manson. He’s clearly deranged and not a particularly polished individual. And yet he is able to somehow to cast a devilish spell over young women, including one of the Czarina’s ladies in waiting, Sonia (Barbara Shelley). Not only does he seduce her, he also hypnotizes her into injuring young Alexei, heir to the Romanov throne. This is part of Rasputin’s plot to ingratiate himself with the Tsarina (Renée Asherson): have Sonia injure Alexei and then have her convince the Tsarina to invite him into the royal palace to heal the young boy. Rasputin is nothing if not devious.

   It’s clear that Rasputin thinks he can charm his way into the royal family’s good graces. And it’s not as if he doesn’t seem to have the power. One of his biggest coups is convincing the Czarina to drop her current physician and employ the services of Dr. Boris Zargo, a physician that he met in a drinking hall and has taken on as a sidekick. This haughtiness eventually catches up to the mad monk. For it is when Boris realizes the degree to which Rasputin poses a clear and imminent danger not only to the Romanovs, but also to Russia itself, that he joins forces with two noblemen, Sonia’s brother, Peter (Dinsdale Landen) and his friend, Ivan (Francis Matthews) in a plot to take down Rasputin once and for all.

   The final sequence, in which Ivan invites Rasputin to a secluded cottage under the pretense of giving the sexually depraved mystic a chance to seduce his sister Vanessa (Suzan Farmer), is worth the wait. Up to that point, the movie advances at a good clip, but there’s little in the way of action or the authentic Hammer horror aesthetic. Not so in the unforgettable scene in which Rasputin, despite being poisoned and shot, refuses to die. It is a stellar performance that Lee pulls off. It worked as well as it did simply due to the British actor’s imposing stature.

   Still, despite the climatic ending, Rasputin: The Mad Monk doesn’t quite feel like the horror movie it could have been. It’s a biopic and an historical drama with palpable horror overtones rather than a straightforward horror film. As a biopic, the movie works well enough. But it suffers the problem inherent in many biographies adapted to celluloid; namely, that the protagonist becomes larger than life and the antagonist ends up a rather forgettable, minor figure so matter how much screen time he is given. Such is the case with the characters Peter and Ivan. Overall, forgettable and mediocre characters both.

   In many ways, the film was a stark departure from Hammer’s usual fare and one that doesn’t quite mesh with the rest of Lee’s vast output with the British studio. That doesn’t mean that Rasputin: The Mad Monk is not deserving of serious attention. In many ways, Lee’s Rasputin has been one of his more underappreciated performances, and it’s nothing if not captivating. Still, the movie could have benefited from stronger hero. Peter Cushing as a Russian nobleman? One can only imagine what the final product might have been.