The second half of the 1960s saw James Carreras and Hammer Productions facing even stiffer competition than usual at home from the likes of Amicus and Tony Tenser’s newly formed Tigon British -- both rival companies proving to be significantly adept at times in either finding and promoting new talent, such as the young director Michael Reeves (who brought a new vitality to the British horror genre with his uncompromising approach to screen violence) or by co-opting many of the established stars and production crew whose careers, in many cases, Hammer had been instrumental in nurturing in the first place, in order to make some fairly passable Hammer-esque product of their own: names such as Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, or director Freddie Francis (who successfully brought a Hammer-like style to many of his anthology films for Amicus) would often make it difficult for unsuspecting audiences to realise that what they were watching when they went to see such films, was in many cases, not in fact a Hammer production at all.
Now that their foreign distribution deal with Columbia Pictures had come to an end, and being faced with these more challenging domestic circumstances, Carreras significantly stepped up Hammer’s production of horror films from the mid’60s onwards, and also sought to capitalise on the company’s growing association with the genre rather than seemingly downplaying it (as had been his previous strategy) by sponsoring more critically approved types of film whenever he could. At the same time, after Carreras struck a new distribution deal with Associated British, Hammer was forced to embark on a drastic cost-cutting programme which proved to be really only a delaying tactic that merely put off for a short while their inevitable abandonment of their Bray Studios base for the cheaper alternative offered by working out of Elstree -- for the cost of maintaining the home facility and grounds continued to spiral as worsening economic conditions took root in Britain.
However, this first attempt to stave off the demise of the family-sponsored atmosphere at Bray also produced several classic double-bills, which consisted of the pairing up of one film from each of the two pairs of productions that were shot back-to-back on the same re-dressed sets to save money; in effect (or so the theory went), producing four films for the price of two. While John Gilling directed “The Plague of the Zombies” and then launched straight into “The Reptile” on the same faux Cornish village sets, Terrence Fisher oversaw the long awaited return of Christopher Lee in the role of Count Dracula in “Dracula Prince of Darkness”, before director Don Sharp took over the reins -- with most of the same supporting cast in tow -- and the environs of Bray’s back lot and locations at nearby Black Park which had only just been used as stand-ins for Transylvania, were now expected to be accepted as settings belonging to Tsarist Russia in a production of “Rasputin the Mad Monk”, scripted by Tony Hinds under his pen name John Elder. Bernard Robinson’s vacated sets for the interiors of various assorted Transylvanian inns, monasteries and Castle Dracula itself (including the icy exterior where the Count eventually meets his end) all crop up again here looking virtually unchanged, which may account for why (along with a rare-for-Hammer use of sticks-out-like-a-sore-thumb stock footage for a large-scale Russian ball scene at the Tsarist court) the film has always been dismissed by many as a cut-price failure -- notable mainly for its poster (on which it was paired as the A film in a double-bill, supported by “The Reptile”) being the first instance of Hammer explicitly identifying itself as ‘Hammer, the House of Horror’ and therefore having more of a symbolic rather than any artistic significance for the Company’s history.
The film isn’t ostensibly a horror film in the usual sense, but belongs to a sub-genre of ‘historical dramas with a sadistic edge’ which Hammer in particular had excelled at for quite some time in films such as “The Stranglers of Bombay” and “The Terror of the Tongs”. The role of Rasputin had in fact been used as a tempter, and was offered to Lee in order to get him to also agree to appear as Dracula again, the idea of making the film in the first place having apparently been circulating in the Hammer offices ever since 1961. Christopher Lee’s interest in the subject was the clincher which ensured it actually did come before the camera though, even if only in a cash-strapped form. Hinds based the original screenplay on a memoir by the still-living Prince Felix Yusupov entitled “Lost Splendour”, but Hinds (mindful of legal action previously taken by some of those involved in the actual events, who were still alive when several other adaptations had been screened) chose to revise the story several times until it bore scant resemblance to anything in the book, with characters composited and many names changed; while the relationship between Rasputin and the Tsarina Alexandra becomes rather less central to the story than one would have thought it. Instead, the film plays very much in the same vein as one of Hammer’s traditional Gothic melodramas, and becomes by the end a simple battle between the forces of good and evil where Lee, essentially, is playing a loud, licentious, booming-voiced version of Dracula – an outsider who invades the ordered world of a settled institution, and eventually morally corrupts and seeks to destroy those who have become ensnared by his mesmeric power.
Director Don Sharp was an experienced hand who had been drafted into the Hammer fold by Tony Hinds in 1962 when he became the first director other than Terrence Fisher to direct one of the company’s mainstream Gothic subjects. He took to it immediately, despite allegedly never having seen a horror film before, and “Kiss of the Vampire” was to become one of Hammer’s most loved vampire pictures. It was therefore fitting that Sharp should now be employed to take over from Fisher again after he’d wrapped work on “Dracula Prince of Darkness”; and, in actual fact, Sharp’s last film immediately prior to starting on “Rasputin the Mad Monk” had been “The Face of Fu Manchu” (made for Harry Alan Towers), which also starred Christopher Lee, so this was a quick and pleasant reunion for the pair. However, the budget problems were an issue from the beginning and Sharp found himself from early-on being consulted over which elements could be best cut to save money. The ballroom set had to go, and actress Renee Asherson’s role as the Tsarina considerably reduced (something which did not go down too well). Other issues that plagued the film mainly revolved around its abbreviated ending. A major fight scene between Francis Matthews’ character and Rasputin was cut out of the finished print completely by Anthony Nelson-Keys after Sharp had already left to start work on “Our Man in Marrakesh”, resulting in major issues with continuity and a rather limp and abrupt finish to the film which can’t help but diminish its power.
Nevertheless, this is definitely an underrated Hammer film, which still has many virtues to its name. One can’t deny the monumental performance from Christopher Lee which lies at the heart of this picture; the big man is in his element here and, unlike in most of his appearances for Hammer in the role of Dracula, in which Lee is off-screen the majority of the time and his participation reduced to a few key set-pieces, in this case Hinds’ script thrusts him centre stage from the off, and Lee never lets up in his burning intensity. In the first ten minutes alone, we see the monomaniacal monk getting to exercise his inexplicable healing powers to bring an innkeepers wife back from the brink of death simply by drawing her fever up into his huge, expressive hands and dissipating it in a basin of water; but he follows that up with the unusual encore of raping a village girl in a barn and hacking her boyfriend’s hand off with a scythe! Brought before the Abbot for crimes such as these and subsequently cast out of his monastery as a diabolical fiend whose powers must have come from the Devil (since God would never bless a whoring, drinking and brawling monster with such gifts), Rasputin ups sticks and sets out for St Petersburg where he applies himself to inveigling his way into the lives of anyone who might be able to promote his rise in influence and power in the bustling city.
Lee’s performance as the shaggy bearded, wild-eyed healer is allowed to dominate proceedings since his Rasputin is a man who operates solely by crude, brutal domination (both mental and physical) of everyone around him (his seduction technique involves simply commanding women to ‘look into my eyes’ in a booming voice), and who sees people as merely stepping stones to his next goal who can be appropriately disposed of when they have served their purpose. He takes up with the penniless Doctor Boris Zargo (Richard Pasco) at his lodgings and sets about trying to gain influence over the Court of Tsar Nicholas II through one of the Tsarina’s Ladies-in-Waiting, Sonia Vasilivitch. Here we have the film’s other great bravura performance -- that of Barbara Shelley, whose character is part of a quartet of bourgeois courtiers (consisting of Dinsdale Landen as Sonia’s brother Peter; Suzan Farmer as fellow Lady-in-Waiting to the Tsarina, Vanessa; and her brother Ivan, played by Francis Matthews) who enjoy going ‘slumming’ in some of St Petersburg’s seediest dives. Sonia’s penchant for frequenting the kind of disreputable places where there might be a drunken fight that could provide for some colourful entertainment, is augmented by an immediate attraction to Rasputin’s rough manners when the party encounter him engaged in a drinking contest with Zargo. And it seems she subsequently rather enjoys being abused and commanded about by him, especially after he demands that she apologise for laughing inappropriately at his over-the-top Russian Cossack dancing. Much to her brother’s chagrin, Sonia is soon regularly indulging her newly revealed masochistic tendencies, visiting Zargos’ lodgings for sex with the monk and eventually being hypnotised by him into harming her charge, the Tsarina’s son Alexei, so that Rasputin can gain access to the Romanov court as a healer.
Shelley’s performance is as full-on and committed as we’d come to expect after her repressed-Victorian-turned-vampire-consort in “Dracula Prince of Darkness” but the scene in which she finally realises that she’s been used and that Rasputin cares nothing at all for her is one of the most notable in her distinguished career: she becomes a screeching harpy, whom Rasputin eventually mesmerises into destroying herself through the act of slashing her wrists, in order to get her out of his beard for good. Another highlight in the acting stakes is Richard Pasco’s Doctor Zargo: a medic, struck off for malpractice, who is mesmerised into providing for Rasputin’s keep until his enforced companionship results in him becoming all too aware of just how much destructive influence the monk has over key figures in the royal family’s court, and he joins forces with Rasputin’s persecutors. Suzan Farmer is underused here and Francis Matthews gets little to do for most of the film, although he does have one good scene where he acts the part of a foppish dandy in order lure Rasputin into a trap, concocted by Zargo, by apparently offering to pimp out his sister! Dinsdale Landen’s finest moment as Sonia’s disapproving brother Peter provides what is also the film’s most gruesome set-piece – when, after visiting the luxurious house Rasputin’s been given by a thankful Tsarina for healing her sick son, he’s taunted by the monk in the semi-darkened hallways (‘poor little Peter, afraid of the dark!’) and then has corrosive, disfiguring acid flung into his face -- which makes for still one of Hammer’s nastiest images in the entire catalogue of its make-up horrors. The real star of this production though is Michael Reed’s cinematography which, in combination with Don Sharp’s intelligent use of the 2.35:1 widescreen aspect ratio, provides the entire spectacle with a real touch of class. The use of shadow, spot lighting and colour is exemplary throughout, making Bernard Robertson’s sets look even more magnificent and persuasive here than they usually do. Although the finale is to some extent bungled, Lee’s performance during the poisoning sequence itself, in which he attempts to transcend the state of death, crawling in his shiny red silk shirt across the floor like a slug, is extremely affecting when taken alongside Don Banks’ epic score.
“Rasputin the Mad Monk” is presented in an immaculately restored HD transfer here, which looks as perfect as one could have wished: heavy blacks and deep, vivid and lustrous colours, natural-looking film grain and astonishing detail and clarity of image marks this out as one of the finest transfers we’ve seen yet in the recent range of Hammer Blu-ray releases. It’s presented in the intended ratio of 2.35:1 but also offers the chance to see it in its full-scope 2.55:1 ratio for the first time. A natural effect of the anamorphic lenses used during the filming is to create a concave-looking fish-eye image with any figures at the sides of the screen looking elongated. We do get to see a lot of extra information on the left and right of the frame that was previously unseen though, even if the film was never meant to be exhibited this way, it’s a fascinating addition which allows us to note the symmetry in both Don Sharp’s original set-ups and Bernard Robertson’s production design. Unfortunately, if this release is let down at all by any department, then it is in the audio. The film has an incredibly thin and tinny-sounding mono soundtrack which might have been put down to source materials if it were not for the fact that it had never sounded this un-dynamic and reedy on previous DVD versions!
We’re given a fine selection of extras though, kicking off with a commentary track originally recorded in 1997 with Christopher Lee, Francis Matthews, Suzan Farmer and Barbara Shelley enjoying each other’s company as they reminisce about their former colleagues such as Michael Reed and Bernard Robertson, and their genius in making the meagre budgets at Hammer stretch further than anyone could ever have thought. Lee of course, is fully boned-up on the true history of Rasputin and is a mine of information on the subject throughout. There’s more information on the subject included with Marcus Hearn’s ‘making of’ “Tall Stories: The Making of Rasputin the Mad Monk”, which includes some gruesome autopsy photos of Gregori Rasputin’s corpse and a run-down of the true story surrounding his death. Denis Meikle tells how the film came about; Jonathan Rigby assesses the strengths and weaknesses of an oft overlooked gem; and David Huckvale looks at Don Banks’ score. Actors Francis Matthews and Barbara Shelley are on hand with more anecdotes (Shelley claims Lee almost hypnotised her for real with the power of his performance) and Andrew Cook, author of To Kill Rasputin, relates how Rasputin’s death was really part of a plot by British Intelligence to thwart a peace deal between Russia and Germany that he’d been instrumental in brokering.
“Brought to Book: Hammer Novelisations” is an unexpected by timely little 15 minute featurette given that Hammer has recently revived its paperback novelisations and tie-ins through its association with Arrow Books. It takes us back to a time pre-video and DVD, when the only way to re-live the experience of watching these films in late-night BBC and ITV screenings was to get hold of one of the many novelised versions which at various times were released by Sphere and Fontana. This mini-documentary then turns into an appreciation of writer John Burke, who wrote many a novelised version of some of Hammer’s biggest titles during his career, with a moving tribute by Johnny Mains and a rummage through the many anthologies Burke also oversaw during his day.
Another “World of Hammer” episode is included, this time taking a look at Hammer’s costume dramas with Oliver Reed of course providing narration. Finally, there is a stills gallery featuring posters, lobby cards, production stills and glamour shots along with behind the scenes pics.
“Rasputin the Mad Monk” is still an enjoyable histrionic pseudo-historical romp with a commanding performance from Christopher Lee; and Barbara Shelley is at the top of her game as well. The small scale of the film, imposed by a small budget, does it no real disservice in the end, for the claustrophobia suits the subject matter. The need to keep the running time below ninety minutes because of the film’s double-bill status is what comes close to ruining what is a a torrid build-up, which then reaches a damp squib of an ending involving a rudimentary dummy being ignominiously dropped from a set window. However, particularly now it has been made the recipient of one of the best restorations the Hammer catalogue has yet seen, its beautiful cinematography and production design helps to redeem it a little more thoroughly and this special edition double-play release (featuring a DVD copy of the film) will go no small way towards enhancing its reputation yet still further among Hammer fans.
Be sure to visit Black Gloves blog, Nothing But the Night!