Thursday, June 25, 2015

Rasputin the Mad Monk (1966)

Written by: Anthony Hinds
Directed by: Don Sharp
Christopher Lee as Grigori Yefimovich Rasputin
Barbara Shelley as Sonia
Richard Paso as Dr. Zargo

Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to mourn the passing of a legend. That word gets kicked around a lot talking about venerable old horror stars, and occasionally it's deserved. Even people who don't know anything about or even like horror know who Vincent Price is. But there is perhaps no other actor in living memory as deserving of the title as Sir Christpher Lee. He bestrode the world like a titan, and left an impression on fantasy and horror films that will last for centuries (if you think I'm being hyperbolic, I remind you that we're still talking about the greats of German expressionist horror nearly a hundred years after the best of those movies were made). No doubt you've all seen the picture floating around Facebook of him with the insanely impressive list of his lifetime accomplishments that make even then most exaggerated of those Chuck Norris Facts gags seem tame by comparison. If you're reading a site like this, there's also no doubt you know most of that stuff anyway. Lee needs no introduction to the horror community, after all. Like I said, legend.

More knowledgeable film scholars than I have and will spill plenty of ink about the man and his life, and do a much better job of it than I would, so I'm not going to go into a great long biography about him here. I will just say that since I was a kid, I knew the name Christopher Lee meant quality. I've always loved horror, but my parents wouldn't let me watch any of the more modern violent stuff when I was young. They were perfectly fine with the Universal monsters (my mom has fond memories of watching The Wolf Man from behind the couch as a kid, so that probably helped) and other things from the 50's and 60's. I'm actually really glad that was the case. It meant that while all the other kids were watching Jason and Freddy slash their way through yet another disposable batch of idiot teenagers, I got an education in the classics years before I got into the nasty stuff. If I'd jumped right into slasher movies, I don't think I'd have the same appreciation for older horror I do, and that would be a damn shame. Sort of like getting into metal with Napalm Death and then thinking Black Sabbath was too slow and boring.

I remember the first time I ever saw Lee was when I chose Horror of Dracula at the video store one weekend. I was expecting another black and white Universal type movie, and was pleasantly surprised by how colorful and scary the movie was. The final battle between Lee and Cushing stuck in my head for years. Even though I couldn't remember what the movie was called, that great piece of action was burned into my brain. When I finally got a copy of it in a Hammer box set, I was thrilled to see it again. Many other Hammer flicks crossed my TV in the mean time, though, and as I began to recognize actors who kept popping up in many different movies that I loved, sure enough, Christopher Lee was in a lot of them. I started actively looking for things with him in the cast, and watching them every time they came on TV. I remember one day when I was in high school, Bob and I walked into the local Sam Goody and saw a big display of fancy looking hard plastic clamshell VHS cases prominently displayed right in the middle of the main aisle...and they were all Hammer movies. By then we knew full well what a great find this was. I remember I got The Reptile, Plague of the Zombies, and Dracula, Prince of Darkness. I also specifically remember I passed over Rasputin, the Mad Monk because it wasn't a monster movie. It also didn't help that the photo they used for the VHS cover was taken from such an angle that it makes Lee look more than a little bit like Eric Idle. Turns out 16-year-old me was an idiot.

The wife of a landlord is dying of fever in the family rooms of the inn when a huge, bearded man in a robe kicks the door in and asks for wine in a booming, larger-than-life voice. The landlord apologizes for not being able to offer more hospitality, but he is about to loose his wife. The shaggy colossus tells the landlord to show him to the sick woman. He lays his hands on her face, and in seconds the fever has left her and she is almost completely recovered. The amazed and grateful landlord tries to offer the stranger some money, but he says he will have no payment for his good deed. When pressed, he asks for a bottle of wine. When told this is an insufficient reward for giving the man his wife back, he asks for two. When told this still isn't enough, he demands they throw a party so everyone can dance and get shitfaced because it's a happy occasion and calls for celebration. He proceeds to drink everyone under the table, make out with the landlord's daughter in the barn, get in a fight with her jealous boyfriend, and chop the boyfriend's hand off with a scythe...and this is all in the first ten minutes of the movie!

The fun and games don't last long, though. The boyfriend's father is understandably unhappy that a drunken, bellowing yeti in a monk's robe chopped his kid's hand off, and demands the church put Rasputin on trial. The landlord comes to his defense, citing the miracle he worked shortly before the impromptu amputation. The Church official is having none of it, saying that this is just one transgression among many and Rasputin's sins are too numerous and infamous to count. Rasputin blows them both off and basically tells the Church official overseeing the trial to take a flying fuck at a rolling doughnut on a gravel driveway, saying that he lives larger than life so that when he enters confession he may present God with sins worth forgiving, which is even more metal than you think when Lee says it.

While driving home from the trial in the landlord's wagon, Rasputin makes an impulsive turn on the road to take them to the capital. He enters the first pub he finds, and overhears a man bragging that his friend Dr. Zargo can out-drink anyone in the place, and there's cash in it for anyone who thinks otherwise. Cut to Zargo taking his last shot and passing out on the floor while Rasputin laughs, polishes off what looks to be about the twentieth bottle of wine on the table, and does a Russian folk dance that Lee probably learned one slow afternoon that he had off from killing Nazis.

During the cut between Rasputin accepting the drinking challenge and Zargo's liver turning in its resignation, we were introduced to Sonya, a lady-in-waiting to the Tzarina, and her boyfriend Peter. They were at a fancy ball at the palace, but decided it was lame and went to find adventure in a drinking establishment of ill repute. It is Sonya's bad luck to laugh at Rasputin's exuberant cutting of a very rustic rug and draw the ire of the massive marauding monk, who demands an apology. When she refuses, he hypnotizes her ass and makes her walk across town to apologize in person and out of clothes in the apartment he started sharing with Zargo after he carried the inebriated physician home from the pub.

At first he's satisfied to slap her around a little, but when he discovers that she has a high place in the royal court, the wheels start turning. He commands Sonya to engineer a little accident for the young prince and then casually mention that she knows this totally awesome faith healer who can make everything all better. Soon Rasputin has been given a mansion near the capital so he can be close at hand for all the Tzarina's snake oil needs. As we all know, things get a little out of hand from here on in.

I'm not a great scholar of Russian history in general or Rasputin in particular (something I should really rectify, what little I do know is pretty damn interesting), but even I know that this is very loosely based on actual events. For one thing, the real Rasputin could no more heal people by the laying on of hands than could any other faith healer quack in the history of humanity, much less send out hypnotic signals across an entire city to command young women to do his bidding! Beyond that, the account of the events leading up to the assassination were given by one Prince Yusupov, who was still alive when the movie was made, so they gave his part in the events to a fictional character named Ivan. The final assassination in the movie was not nearly as spectacular as the stories would have you believe, which is a little surprising considering how unafraid this movie is to be dark and gruesome. The hand chopping is pretty rough for its time, to be sure, but the scene I'm specifically thinking of here is shortly after Rasputin loses interest in Sonya and commands her to kill herself. Peter runs to her rooms to rescue her and shoulders his way through the locked door only to trip and land on top of her cooling corpse. Even though it's not a very visually grotesque scene, the idea of seeing someone trying to rescue their lover and instead doing a face plant on their dead body strikes me as pretty strong stuff.

And finally, of course, there's just no way the real Rasputin was as awesome as Christopher Lee. Wicker Man is without a doubt my favorite movie Lee was in, and indeed one of my favorite movies ever, period. This, however is probably my favorite of all Lee's performances I've seen. It is perhaps telling that neither the writer nor director of Rasputin the Mad Monk had much of anything to do with Lee's most well-known role, Count Dracula. Writer Hinds worked on the debut feature, Horror of Dracula, and although he wrote several of the later, better Lee-free sequels, never again wrote any of that dialogue which Lee famously refused to say. Director Sharp had nary a bloodsucker to be seen on his CV. I would imagine the makers of even the best Dracula sequels saw this movie and said, “Son of a bitch, how come we couldn't get him to do that!?” Lee's Rasputin is by turns funny, charming, and absolutely terrifying, sometimes all at the same time. He would have Dracula coming to heel like a scared puppy. 

Ra-ra-Rasputin, indeed.

Be sure to check out the other reviews in this Christopher Lee tribute roundtable by my fellow agents in the Department of Ungentlemanly Reviewing.

Checkpoint Telstar: The Gorgon 
Micro-Brewed Reviews: The Devil Rides Out 

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