1965 was a particularly hectic year for Hammer with no less than 6 films before the cameras. For the players and the production crews the pace was relentless - as soon as photography wrapped on Dracula Prince of Darkness, it was straight into Rasputin The Mad Monk, a bogeyman Hammer plucked straight out of the pages of history.
The film opens with Grigori Rasputin (played with great panache by Christopher Lee), a monk with miraculous healing powers, arriving at a tavern in a Russian village, where he cures a sick and dying woman, restoring her to full health. Afterwards, Rasputin is involved in a tussle with the villagers, leaving one of them with a severed hand. After his bishop casts him out of the order for his hedonistic behavior, Rusputin travels to St. Petersburgh to seek fame and fortune and indulge his enormous appetite for drink and sex. Word of Rasputin's mysterious power gets around, and the monk soon wins the confidence of the Tsarina, setting his sights on the throne of Russia itself... Raputin The Mad Monk is a curious film to say the least, a combination of historical biopic and Horror film that never really works on either level. The most common criticism levelled at the film is its fictionalized history of Rasputin and the final days of the Romanov dynasty. In fairness to Hammer, the film was intended to be an accurate portrayal but as soon as the film was announced, the studio was straight jacketed by representatives of Prince Felix Yusupov, one of the chief participants in Rasputin's murder, who promised legal action if Hammer's original screenplay was found to be contentious. The studio did not take the threat lightly - in 1933 Yusupov had successfully sued MGM for a scene in the film Rasputin and the Empress which implied Rasputin had raped Yusupov's wife.1 With this in mind, Hammer thread lightly and revised their screenplay in accordance with Yusupov wishes.
Yusupov's interference might have reduced The Mad Monk to an entry from Ripley's Believe It or Not! but it freed screenwriter Tony Hinds to accentuate the macabre elements of the story like Rasputin's strange hypnotic control over women, and the scenes where Rasputin retaliates against his enemies by chopping off a hand (when interrupted rolling in the hay with a tavern wench) and in another moment, flinging a vessel of corrosive acid in someone's face. Christopher Lee who was something of an authority on Rasputin is on fine form here, clearly delighted to discard the fangs and the cape, and cutting a tall and imposing figure - dark, devilish, at times playful, the character given an incredible presence by Lee's powerful baritone voice. If a certain visual blandness was evident in Dracula Prince of Darkness, it's even more obvious here - Hammer didn't have a Zhivago style budget at their disposal and it shows, with St. Petersburgh represented by a few market stalls and the odd instance of Cyrillic sign posting. There's an inevitable sense of deja vu, watching the film in close succession of Prince of Darkness - the redressed, recycled sets are a giveaway despite the best efforts of Hammer's art department, and both films feature the same core of actors. On balance though The Mad Monk is an enjoyable bit of nonsense and remains a strangely compelling, if minor Hammer film.
Rasputin the Mad Monk was shot in Cinemascope, but the Optimum DVD (as well as the US Anchor Bay disc) has scaled the aspect ratio back from 2.35 to around 2.10 - as with the widescreen process used for She, there was some curvature of the image at the edges of the frame, which now looks less severe on the DVD. The picture itself looks fine, with good detail and good brightness levels - apparently the previous UK DVD from Warners was rather dark. Audio is fine too, no problems here. Sadly the commentary track from the Anchor Bay disc was not included which is a shame as Christopher Lee points out where the film departed from the facts. Extras include a trailer which contains plenty of ballyhoo ("Now at the last the real shocking story can be told!!")
1. The law suit against MGM was a significant moment in Cinema, and saw the creation of the now familiar disclaimer: This motion picture is a work of fiction and any resemblance to persons living or dead is purely coincidental.