For a movie with such pretensions of being a historical epic, taking Rasputin, the titular holy man, from the Siberian tundra to the Tsar’s court at St Petersburg, 1966’s Rasputin: The Mad Monk is a slightly dowdy and claustrophobic affair hinging on a small cast and a bunch of narrative contrivances.
It may be unconventional material for Hammer, but to compensate they treat Rasputin as if he was just another undead beastie for Peter Cushing to slay – compare the poisoned, supernaturally difficult-to-kill Rasputin (Christopher Lee) crawling across the floor with all the eerie, murderous purpose of the girl in Ringu after the horrified Dr Zargo (The Gorgon‘s Richard Pasco) to the supernaturally difficult to kill Dracula (Christopher Lee) reeling on the floor under Van Helsing’s crucifix in 1958’s Dracula. His very literal sexual assault on the womenfolk of a Siberian village and then the royal court being the less squeamish equivalent of Dracula’s allegorical sexual assault on the women of London – what a difference to the censors those handful of intervening years make, eh?
Christopher Lee, obviously glad to be playing more than a mere monster, imbibes Rasputin with an animalistic presence far more terrifying than even his Dracula as he drinks, dances, rapes and hypnotises his way into the inner circle of the Russian Empire, all grasping fingers and glowering eyes. Similarly, Barbara Shelley obviously delights in a more complex and tragic role than her ‘scream queen’ status typically warrants as lady-in-waiting Sonia is seduced, manipulated and fatally cast aside.
The HD conversion is a treat, preserving the film grain that classic movie dorks absolutely adore. Night-time scenes have been cleaned up respectfully with as little interference with the nuts and bolts of what is actually on screen, and the brilliant colour palette of Sixties Hammer gleams like a schlock rainbow – all racing red blood and ominous shadow.
Ultimately, how much joy you take from Rasputin: The Mad Monk depends on how invested you are in the happiness of Christopher Lee, because he’s obviously having a ball dressing up in a fur hat and bellowing prime cuts of ham like “Maaaaaad?! Meeeee!? No little Peter, it is you who is mad!”