By 1966, Sir Christopher Lee had already completed countless movies for Hammer Films. He had made the role of Count Dracula his own and had already secured his place amongst other legendary horror actors. Yet, it would be his role as a real life character that would allow his acting abilities to truly shine. With Rasputin, the Mad Monk, Lee brings forth a character as frightening as any traditional monster.
In his autobiography Tall, Dark and Gruesome, Christopher Lee provided a perfect description of Rasputin.
“Healer and rapist, peasant and seer, Rasputin was a legendary enigma, a real actor’s part, one of the best I’d had…and I had a long-drawn-out exquisite death to get my teeth into.”
Grigori Rasputin was a real-life character in Russia in the late 1800s and early 1900s. He was a peasant and mystic healer who befriended the family of Tsar Nicholas II. How much influence he had over the family remains the stuff of legend. Conflicting accounts have done nothing to substantiate the claims but everything to make him a historical oddity. What is certain is that his presence played a key role in the end of Russian monarchy and his assassination remains shrouded in mystery even today.
In Rasputin, the Mad Monk, much of the historical facts are set aside in order to portray Rasputin as an almost demonic force. As the movie begins, we see that an innkeeper’s wife is near death. Rasputin comes barging in demanding wine, only to find a very somber environment. He goes to the woman’s bedside and mystically removes her fever. He in turn drinks freely at the inn and attempts to rape the innkeeper’s daughter. When Rasputin is brought before a bishop, he mocks their religious beliefs even when the bishop claims the power he has comes from Satan. The innkeeper comes to his defense and Rasputin goes free.
Rasputin soon reveals his plot to become close to the Tsarina (Renee Asherson) so he can gain influence over the ruling family. Rasputin uses hypnotism to control and seduce his victims. His intentions are soon discovered by the family and, with the help of Dr. Boris Zargo (Richard Pasco), an ally of Rasputin, a plot is in place to kill Rasputin. However, that is much easier said than done. The ultimate death is a grisly one but not quite what the filmmakers wanted since Prince Yusopoff, the real-life assassin of Rasputin, was still alive. It needed to be tamed down for religious reasons as well since the image of Rasputin raising his hands up in benediction was too much for the censors of the day.
What enhances Christopher Lee’s performance is his close association to the real Rasputin. Lee and his mother actually met the real Prince Yusopoff when Lee was a child. He also met Rasputin’s daughter in 1976 and even visited the site of the murder in St. Petersburg. It seems that he was born to play the part of Rasputin.
Rasputin, the Mad Monk is one of Christopher Lee’s best performances and a highlight of his career. He brings to life the grotesque visage and voracious appetites better than I think anyone could have. I highly recommend this movie. It is currently available on YouTube, which is going to be your best option at this point. The movie is out-of-print here in North America and DVDs have a very hefty price tag. This film is a good reason to purchase a region-free DVD/Blu-ray player as it is currently available in the UK and Europe. However you watch it, I guarantee you’ll enjoy it!
Next time, Lee reunites with Peter Cushing for one of their best outings together, Horror Express (1972).