Friday, March 4, 2016


Don Sharp, 1966
Starring: Christopher Lee, Barbara Shelley, Richard Pasco

Rasputin, a depraved monk and healer in rural Russia, begins to move up in the world when he travels to St. Petersburg and hypnotizes, then seduces Sonia, one of the Czarina’s ladies in waiting. He manipulates Sonia to injure Alexi, the Czar’s heir, so that he can worm his way into the palace and the Czarina’s heart. When Rasputin orders Sonia to kill herself, his associate, a down-on-his-luck doctor, meets secretly with Sonia’s brother and friend to plan Rasputin’s destruction once and for all.  

Though known for their horror films, Hammer produced films in a wide ranges of genres, including fantasy, action, sci-fi, and historical drama. Hammer’s 1966 film, Rasputin: The Mad Monk, which piggybacked on the production of their more famous Dracula: Prince of Darkness, is a key example of the dark, historical fantasy the studio occasionally churned out in the 1950s and ‘60s. Due to a series of legal issues, this is not a factual interpretation of the life and assassination of famed mystic and healer Grigori Yefimovitch Rasputin. Instead, the great Christopher Lee channels the mythic elements of Rasputin’s legend, resulting in a lesser seen but impressive character study that blends horror and drama.

Historical accuracy is not a reason to watch Rasputin. The film was originally intended to be an adaption of Prince Felix Yusupov’s Lost Splendor, a memoir about Yusupov’s alleged involvement in the assassination of Rasputin. A number of prior legal issues with Yusupov’s book and other Russian aristocrats suing over portrayals of their lives on stage and screen contributed to Hammer’s growing anxiety with the original plot. Ultimately this became a complete work of fiction with names and events changed. It is easy to be disappointed that this film lacks any exploration of the political climate of Czarist Russia, a deeper understand of Rasputin’s motivations or effect on people, or even a cursory explanation of the court system. The Czarina has a few brief scenes, but bafflingly, the Czar is not mentioned, nor are any of Russia’s political troubles.

The best way to approach Rasputin is as a dark character study. Because of its fantastical elements, this does feel more like a horror film than a historical drama and includes moments of violence and some slight gore (a dismembered hand, a face disfigured by acid, etc). Though the other actors in this small ensemble cast all give solid performances, especially Barbara Shelley, Christopher Lee is the real draw. He does bring a lot of his Dracula into the performance, particularly the hypnotism, sexual allure, and force of personality, though he finally gets the amount of screen time his iconic character deserved, but was denied in Hammer's nine film Dracula series. Lee also allows moments of humor and pathos, making Rasputin just likable enough to carry us towards the violent conclusion.

Rasputin isn’t perfect and suffers from a very limited budget, a constricted set and a flat script, but it remains an enjoyable, compelling piece of filmmaking regardless. The film definitely does not deserve to be so neglected and will appeal to die-hard Hammer fans and anyone who enjoys moody period pieces. Rasputin is out on Blu-ray from Studio Canal in the U.K., so be forewarned that this is a region B Blu-ray and will only play in multi-region or region B players. Rasputin was released as a loose trilogy with two Hammer classics, the superior The Devil Rides Out, where Lee had the rare chance to play a protagonist, and The Mummy’s Shroud. The 2.55:1 aspect ratio looks great and gives a better glimpse of the claustrophobic sets, beautifully designed by Bernard Robinson.

Despite the low budget, the set looks almost opulent and serves to define Rasputin’s character, who appears in nearly every scene. Colors pop, particularly in the detailed costuming. This new aspect ratio does justice to the lovely work by director Don Sharp (Kiss of the Vampire) and cinematographer Michael Reed, both just off Dracula: Prince of Darkness. Reed, in particular, does a breathtaking job with lighting choices and his work is one of the many reasons to seek out this lesser known effort from Hammer.

The disc includes a number of appealing extras. There is a commentary track with actors Christopher Lee, Barbara Shelley, Francis Matthews, and Suzan Farmer, all of whom reflect on fond experiences making the film. Lee discusses his in depth knowledge of the historical Rasputin and relates the time he met two of Rasputin’s alleged assassins as a child. If you were disappointed that the film veered so far into fantasy, definitely give this a listen. Two new documentaries are included, Tall Stories: The Making of Rasputin the Mad Monk and Brought to Book: Hammer Novelisations. Tall Stories further explores the factual Rasputin and how the characters in the film relate to his real history. Overall this is a fascinating look at the making of the film and the legal struggles adapting Yusupov’s book.

Brought to Book is enjoyable, but sort of unrelated to Rasputin. It examines the tie-in novels and novelizations of a number of Hammer films throughout the history of the studio. Also included is The World of Hammer episode, “Costumers” is narrated by Oliver Reed, who takes us through most of Hammer’s historical dramas. He discusses some of the early drama-suspense cross overs like The Stranglers of Bombay, pirate films like The Pirates of Blood River, and even makes fun of his own performance in The Brigand of Kandahar. Finally, a fairly extensive stills gallery includes posters, lobby cards, behind the scene photographs and more.

No comments:

Post a Comment