Continuing our look at Hammer Films with their curious hybrid of historical biopic and gothic horror from 1966.
Just what is and isn’t a horror film has long been the subject of fierce and not always coherent debate. There are those who, even now, insist that a horror film must include some aspect of the supernatural, a claim so ludicrous that it barely merits consideration. There is no sense in this claim and it’s an entirely arbitrary line in the sand from people who want to act as genre gatekeepers so badly that they haven’t even thought their argument through properly. Not only does it remove films like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre from the genre, but it also throws out the Frankenstein movies, most monster movies, every mad doctor film and countless other established genre classics – but it does accept Twilight as a horror film, so there’s that. If you cling to this theory, I might respectfully suggest giving your head a wobble.
Horror is a broad church and allows all manner of narratives to sit at the edges of the genre, be it thrillers that tip into the macabre – where, after all, does Hitchcockian end and Giallo begin? – or dark fairy tales. The idea that ‘I know it when I see it’ has always felt to me as the best way to define the genre and I take an unashamedly broad approach to what I think horror is. If in doubt, include it. But even I sometimes raise my eyebrows at stories that have become a part of the horror canon. For the life of me, I can never work out just why The Hunchback of Notre Dame is seen as a horror story unless we buy into the bigotry of the characters in the story and consider Quasimodo a monster. It’s not a hill I have any desire to die on and I’m certainly not going to reject the film adaptations as genre movies – in part because most of them are informed by the novel’s reputation as a horror story and so emphasise those elements – but it just doesn’t make sense to me.
Equally, I am baffled as to just how the true story of Grigori Rasputin has become part of the horror staple. Long before Hammer took a stab at the story, it had been filmed and marketed as a work of horror, full of implications about sinister occult forces controlled by a monstrous emissary of Satan. The true story of Rasputin is a fascinating tale of power and corruption in the final days of Imperial Russia – but it’s hardly a horror story. However, the image of Rasputin and the suggestions of his dark powers – in essence his reputation as a healer and his skills at manipulating others for his own advancement and pleasure – has been warped into something more Satanic in the public mind. No wonder Hammer thought that the story fitted in with its mid-Sixties gothic horror stories.
Even so, Rasputin the Mad Monk has always felt like a bit of an oddity in the Hammer Horror filmography, as much there due to when it was made and how it was released more than anything to do with the film itself. In a way, it seems to have been as misrepresented as Rasputin himself was, which I guess is rather fitting. Although marketed (and generally reviewed) as a horror film, it really isn’t, despite vague hints at supernatural powers that seemingly come and go according to the requirements of the story and may well be a gift from Satan. Rather, this is a heavily fictionalised version of an already fictionalised true story, never allowing anything as inconvenient of a fact to spoil the proceedings. In a way, it is closer to Hammer’s swashbucklers and historical adventures than the horror movies, though the sets, the atmosphere and Lee’s full-blooded performance will forever see it thrown in with the gothic films. Such was the power of the immediately recognisable Hammer style by this stage, and so it remains.
In this version of the story, Grigori Rasputin (Christopher Lee, hidden behind a long wig, beard and swarthy make-up) is a rebel monk with mysterious healing powers and a healthy appetite for wine, women and song. He’s also a man with lofty ambitions and an ability to manipulate others. His lust for power takes him to St Petersburg, where a chance encounter in a tavern with the Tsarina’s lady in waiting Sonia (Barbara Shelley) gives the monk a foot in the door to real power. Through hypnosis, he manipulates Sonia into firstly allowing the Tsarina’s son to badly injure himself in a fall, and to then have Rasputin called to miraculously heal him. This ‘miracle’ soon sees the monk embraced by the Tsarina as both a healer and an advisor. But as his influence grows, Rasputin makes enemies, and his power-hungry ruthlessness – as well as his mistreatment of those around him and heartless disposal of those who are no longer of use to him – soon sees an alliance build against him. All this is taking place against the backdrop of growing discontent and stirring revolution amongst the Russian people – but the film barely touches on this, instead keeping the story on a more intimate level. The true story of Rasputin and his final death are fudged in favour of a more dramatic fictional take – and with some of those involved still alive at the time, Hammer had to tread carefully. Prince Yusopov, who was heavily involved in the assassination of Rasputin in 1916 is removed from the story, replaced by Ivan, a one-name fictional character played by Francis Matthews.
Shot back-to-back with Dracula Prince of Darkness and released on a double bill with The Reptile, Rasputin the Mad Monk is always going to be doomed by association with those superior movies – out of the four films shot back-to-back as a pair of double bills in 1966, this is definitely the least admired and the most forgettable. In truth, this isn’t a bad film – it simply doesn’t quite know what it wants to be. It’s not a horror film and not a historical drama and instead sits somewhat uncomfortably between the two. Don Sharp – another workmanlike Hammer director – directs with solid efficiency and the film certainly looks impressive but it never quite satisfies.
Interestingly, although the movie ramps up the villainous aspects of Rasputin, it’s still, in the end, a story of someone who is ruthless, power-hungry and ambitious (a description we can use for any politician), and who meets his downfall because he is not part of the power elite who believe they rule by divine will. In this film, his ruthlessness is absolute, but aside from one suicide that he ‘suggests’ (allowing him the ‘Charles Manson defence’ of not actually being involved), the only other killing is an act of self-defence. It would be a bit of a stretch to call the film a political story – that’s not what anyone is interested in here and I’m not sure that the Hammer establishment would’ve been on the side of Rasputin or the Bolsheviks anyway – but nevertheless, the film does hint at the decadent emptiness of the ruling class in Russia at the time and its often hard not to admire Rasputin as he chips away at their insecurities and manipulates them for his own desires.
The film does, however, benefit from a full-blooded performance from Lee, who clearly relished being able to play a more nuanced villain (if, indeed, Rasputin is the villain). We’re used to Lee being a bit of a cold fish in movies, but here he is anything but that and takes the lustful, emotional and excitable character and runs with it. He brings a humanity to the character too, making him more nuanced than the film perhaps intended him to be – he’s less a ‘mad’ monk and more a revolutionary force, a precursor to what was to come in Russia just a year later. There are those – Lee included – who think that this is one of his best roles, and I can’t really argue with that. Barbara Shelley makes a good partner for him – the pair bring a real passion and excitement to their scenes together.
Essentially, Rasputin the Mad Monk is more lurid melodrama than gothic horror – perhaps the sort of story that you might expect Tod Slaughter to have tackled rather than a typical Hammer horror. I suspect that its negative reputation with some fans is as much to do with the fact that the film was blatantly and cynically missold as something that it wasn’t and in retrospect, you might wonder if the film would’ve been better if it fully embraced the fictional and presented Rasputin as a genuinely demonic figure. Nevertheless, of all the Rasputin films – including some much more respectable Hollywood interpretations that fully eschew any element of the horror film – this remains the best known and most widely available. That alone says something for it.
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