Friday, June 7, 2019

Let's Get Hammered! - Rasputin the Mad Monk

One of the best things about Hammer that no one ever talks about is the ever changing Christopher Lee facial hair. It all rules.

By Daniel Epler

For a huge Hammer nerd like myself, this film plays like damn fan service. I mean that in the best way. Once you get to a point where you've watched a lot of Hammer films, a movie like Rasputin the Mad Monk almost becomes a game of how many faces and places you can recognize. Famously, this film was shot immediately after Hammer wrapped on Dracula: Prince of Darkness. It shows. Apparently most of the cast was not given a break because most of them show up in this movie. In addition, many of the same sets are used, and it becomes fun to try to spot them. 

Rasputin the Mad Monk stars Christopher Lee as the real-life peasant-mystic Grigori Rasputin. The character begins the film as a Christian monk who has the uncanny power to heal people with his hands. He does not know how he got that power, only that he intends to use it as he pleases. Grigori doesn't fit in as a man of the clothe, as he is selfish, brash, alcoholic and a great lover of the company of women (he excuses these things as him "giving God sins worth forgiving", which cracks me up). After he is thrown out he decides to become an opportunist and use his power to gain money, fame and influence. By any sinister means necessary.

The cast to this film is the greatest joy it has to offer. First, we have to acknowledge the legendary Christopher Lee. While I can't call this film one of Hammer's best, it is one of the best showcases for the talents of Lee. He delivers a deliciously over-the-top performance as Rasputin, and is never less than enthralling while on screen. This is not the silent but menacing performance he offers in Dracula: Prince of Darkness (or a bunch of other horror flicks), in fact, it couldn't be more different. He's undoubtedly the star of film, not having to take a back seat to any dashing hero. Few actors ever get the chance (or have the talent) to give this much intensity to a role. Lee here is loud, arrogant, sinister as all hell and has, not one, but TWO dancing scenes. If you weren't sold on this movie before, you surely are now. Francis Matthews himself called this Christopher Lee's best performance. Honestly, I find that hard to ague with. He is perfection in this film. Plus, more epic Christopher Lee facial hair.

Another returning cast member from the previously mentioned Dracula film, is Barbara Shelley. Oh man. I don't even know how to talk about her in this movie without sounding like a sleeze. Let me just say she is gives a wonderful and sexy performance that I haven't been able to stop thinking about since. She plays a woman named Sonia who is incredibly attracted to Rasputin and starts a sexual relationship with him. The intensity and passion she brings to the part is well enough to match even Christopher Lee, and their scenes together are the best in the film. They share a love scene that is worth ALL the dollars you will spend on the blu ray. Ok, now I am sounding like a sleeze. Oh well, it's Hammer. Shelley is starting to become one of my favorite Hammer actors, up there with Cushing and Lee. We are not worthy of Barbara Shelley. 

Besides the two of them, we also get Francis Matthews (The Revenge of Frankenstein, Dracula: Prince of Darkness), Suzan Farmer (Dracula: Prince of Darkness), and Richard Pasco (The Gorgon). The amount of Hammer regulars is wonderful. If only we got Michael Ripper in the flesh! Everyone's favorite Hammer character actor dubs over a side character's voice for some strange reason, but we never see the man here. If we did, this might be a perfect movie!

Perhaps one thing the film is missing is a compelling hero. I like Francis Matthews, perhaps mostly because of my affection for the fact that he appears in so many of these films, but he is hardly an interesting character here. He does the best he can I think, but his character traits seem to end at "Suzan Farmer's brother". Richard Pasco is a fun drunk, and we also get Dinsdale Landen as Shelley's brother. By the way, what's with all these guys going to bars and balls with their sisters? Guys, get some actual girlfriends. I actually really like romance in these movies. It's the worst part of any Universal Horror movie, but it's far better in Hammer. So the fact that the men and women in this movie are siblings is kind of lame. It's also very hard to nail down what genre this movie is. I think we assume it's horror just by the fact that it's Hammer... but is it? We have an evil villain with powers, but all he really tries to do is gain worldly influence and get laid. He is a modern day Wall Street opportunist. The only somewhat "horror" sequence in the film is when a certain character meets his fate rather gruesomely near the end. It contains a spectacular gore gag that is not to be forgotten!

But to be honest, neither of these "problems" bother me very much. My favorite Hammer films do tend to be ones with heroes I love, but Christopher Lee and Barbara Shelley have well enough charisma for any movie. They may not have a traditional "romance", but they give the film more sexual tension than just about anything you'll ever see. I also often find myself attracted to films that can't be nailed down to a specific genre. This film is a thriller, a historical (ish) drama, a very dark romance, and even perhaps somewhat of a horror film. There are no genre tropes to be found here, and it is consistently unpredictable. The pace drags somewhat from time to time, but there's always something fun to be found right around the corner. I whole heatedly recommend Rasputin the Mad Monk to any movie fan, if only for Lee and Shelley's performances. But if you nerd-out for Hammer, then it is a must see.

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