Another birthday, and a lockdown-boredom avoidance gift; a boxed set of 21 old Hammer films for the long nights. Don Sharp’s Rasputin The Mad Monk is one of the main draws here; this 1966 film is peak Hammer, with star Christopher Lee lured in to shoot two movies back to back, with remarkably similar casts, sets and atmosphere. Part of the formula for a Dracula movie is that the Count is largely off-stage; Lee was something of a force of nature when given a big role which enabled him to get the bit between his teeth, so this historical film puts him centre stage for a teeth-clenching, rave-dancing, huge bearded, long-haired barnstorming Rasputin that dominates the screen. He has quite a canvas to work with; Rasputin was, as many scholars have noted, Russia’s greatest love machine, and it was a shame how he carried on. There, indeed, was a cat who really was gone.
As with Dracula Prince of Darkness, the central role here actually falls to Francis Matthews, always an ideal lead. He plays Ivan, brought in when Rasputin gets his big hands into the welfare of the Russian Royal family, and specifically the Tsarina (Renee Asherton) and her son, who Rasputin cannily manages to get dropped in a river so he can turn up and heal the boy in snake-oil salesman mode. We already know Rasputin’s game, having watched him heal the wife of an innkeeper; like many Hammer films, this one imagines society via what goes on in the local pub, a specifically British point of view. Rasputin severs the hand of an unfortunate who aims to protect a local girl from his attentions, so it’s no big surprise when he arrives in St Petersburg with political control on his mind.
What is surprising is that the Tasrina’s residence is the same Karlsbad castle-set inhabited by Dracula in the sister film; the re-use of sets gives the Hammer collection a strange, dreamlike quality created by regular bursts of deja-vu. Lee takes the chance to play Rasputin with both hands, giving intense hypnotic stares and really working these healing digits. And there’s some tense scenes, notably a fight in a room full of chemicals with Rasputin making good use of a huge bottle of acid.
Although it’s a fiction, Rasputin The Mad Monk ramps up in the final third to engorge on details of Rasputin’s death, which is truncated somewhat from the real prolonged agony. That the monk was poisoned with a box of deadly chocolates adds a comic touch; it’s pretty funny seeing Rasputin struggling with his own greedy nature to avoid stuffing himself with chocs while he waits for an appointment. It’s reputed that Lee, as a child in the 1920’s, met Rasputin’s killer; obviously even as a nipper, Lee moved in exotic circles. This historical drama may not be typical Hammer, but it does give Lee one of his best roles, as a monk that’s mad, bad and extremely dangerous to know.