I love Hammer horror films. I love Christopher Lee. He's one of my favorite actors. Therefore, I should love a Hammer horror film starring Christopher Lee, especially when it's one I've never seen. A new treasure to be explored and savored! Right?
Not so fast. RASPUTIN THE MAD MONK (1966) is, by any one's standards, a rather lackluster Hammer film. Shot on a low budget, the film recycles sets from previous Hammer productions and although ostensibly set in pre-revolutionary Russia, makes no attempt whatsoever to accurately depict the time and place. Outside of character's names and some period costumes, everyone speaks with a British accent, the scale of the film is intimate and the one shot of a grand ball in the Tsar's palace is clearly recycled footage from some other film.
In addition, the screenplay by Anthony Hinds takes quite a while to really get going and when it does, the storyline is routine with Rasputin's powers and plans never quite fully explained while Don Sharp's direction is flat and dull.
With all of that working against the film, it's up to Christopher Lee to carry the weight and he does so admirably. Lee plays Rasputin as a cross between Dracula and Charles Manson, a "holy man" possessing the power to heal and to mesmerize people into doing his bidding. His healing power is demonstrated in the opening sequence of the film. He cures a woman ravaged by fever and then launches into a wild orgy of drink, dance and attempted rape. He's attacked by concerned citizens, slices off one man's hand and flees back to the monastery to repent of his sins. His credo is, if you're going to ask God for forgiveness, give him something really wicked to forgive.
Rasputin heads to St. Petersburg where he crosses paths with Sonia (Barbara Shelley), who is a lady-in-waiting to the Tsarina (Renee Asherson). He seduces Sonia and mesmerizes her into doing his bidding. Rasputin's goal is to get in good with the royal family and he succeeds. He's given a palatial home in which he sets up shop, ministering to the needs of various women. As his power and ambition grows, he hypnotizes Sonia into committing suicide and moves closer to the royal family. Sonia's brother, Peter (Dinsdale Landen) and Ivan (Francis Matthews), realize the threat Rasputin poses and plot to kill him.
But Rasputin proves hard to dispatch. Poison doesn't do the trick, but getting thrown out of a window does. The monster's dead. The movie's over.
It's never made clear if Rasputin possesses any supernatural powers or if he's just an incredibly powerful con-man and trickster. Since the film is loosely based on a real historical figure, it would be wrong to categorically state that Rasputin was indeed imbued with Satanic abilities. He was nevertheless, a ruthless schemer and plotter which Lee capably portrays.
The story of Rasputin provides material for a great film. RASPUTIN THE MAD MONK, sadly, isn't that film. It's second tier Hammer fare redeemed by Lee's performance.