This article is part of ReelWeegieMidget’s Great Hammer Amicus Blogathon, focusing on the classic Hammer horror films. Trigger warning: this article contains an image of a real human corpse.
History, like life, has its own real horrors. Sometimes things that really happened are more awful and terrifying than anything that can be contrived for a horror film. It was probably inevitable that the story of Rasputin, one of the most terrifying and colorful characters in late Imperial Russia, would be made into a horror film. The specter of Rasputin’s real death on December 30, 1916–he was poisoned, shot, thrown into a freezing river and still wouldn’t die–is custom-made for the climax of a horror movie. Indeed, the first cinematic telling of Rasputin’s life (and death) came out in 1917, and the character has continued to haunt cinema, comic books and video games ever since. But, although it’s terrible history to the point where it’s basically total fiction, my all-time favorite depiction of Rasputin is in the 1966 Hammer film Rasputin, The Mad Monk, where the hypnotic starets is portrayed chillingly by Christopher Lee–in what I firmly believe to be the single best performance of his entire astonishing career.
The film begins with the typical Rasputin legend: out in the Russian countryside in the late 19th century, Grigory Rasputin (Lee) is a hard-drinking, sexually promiscuous libertine and con artist who is particularly fond of abusing and ruining women. He has the power to heal sickness with his hands, but also the power to hypnotize people with his crazy-looking eyes and commanding voice. Making his way to St. Petersburg, Rasputin begins leeching off a man, Ivan (Francis Matthews) and a doctor, Zargo (Richard Pasco), whom he uses to wheedle his way into influence at the Tsar’s court. After Rasputin becomes powerful and even more capricious, Ivan and Zargo decide to terminate him. Cue the elaborate death scene. Virtually none of it is historically accurate, and the film is a potboiler from start to finish, but Rasputin, The Mad Monk is a rollicking good time, and represents the trashy peak of Hammer’s milieu.
The crazed starets Rasputin (Christopher Lee) heals the hemophiliac Tsarevitch Alexis in this scene from Rasputin, The Mad Monk. In real life Alexis did appear to respond to Rasputin’s treatments; one was even administered by telephone.
What’s amazing about the film is how successful it manages to be despite how flimsy it all is, with the exception of Lee’s mesmerizing performance. Verisimilitude is so totally absent from Rasputin that one wonders if an armed guard was posted on the set to keep it away. Beyond the basic fact that Rasputin claimed to have healing powers, infiltrated the court of Tsar Nicholas and was somehow assassinated, the film gets nothing right about late Imperial Russian history. Even the title is wrong: although Rasputin did live at the St. Nicholas Monastery at Verkhoturye in 1897, he never took vows as a monk and held no position in the Russian Orthodox Church. Rasputin, the movie, is about a dangerous and darkly seductive Svengali, and the main focus of the story is his hypnotic effect on his victims. The real Rasputin was much more complicated than the boogeyman Lee portrays him as here. His death, too, was very complicated; it was political, part of the foreshocks (a quiver, you might say) of the coming Russian Revolution, which happened nine weeks after his death. In the film, basically he’s offed because he’s about to ruin Ivan’s sister. A grand political pageant, in the film, becomes a simple revenge play.
Christopher Lee, however, makes the film work. He takes a character that was little more than a cartoon on paper and turns him into one of the most thrilling villains in Hammer’s long history. The close-ups of Lee’s manic eyes really do make you think that he can hypnotize people with them, and that combined with his rich baritone voice creates a villainous psychopath so resonant that his performance was pretty much unmatched in horror film history for a quarter century, until Anthony Hopkins portrayed insane psychologist Hannibal Lector in Silence of the Lambs. (Indeed, I think Hopkins’s performance in that 1991 film takes a cue from Lee’s here). While watching Rasputin you can feel Lee’s power seeping through the screen and infecting you. The destruction of Rasputin at the end of the film brings the audience into the central experience of the horror genre: catharsis. As bad as it is on an objective level, Rasputin, The Mad Monk is a perfectly-constructed horror movie.
The real Rasputin fought hard for his life. He ingested poisoned chocolates served to him by Yusupov, was then shot, and ultimately thrown into the Neva river. His death probably made the Russian Revolution more likely.
It becomes that almost by accident. The picture was hastily shot back-to-back, and on the same sets, as Hammer’s other 1966 movie with Christopher Lee, Dracula, Prince of Darkness. The bright colors, moody red and purple lighting, and neon vermilion-colored blood–a Hammer trademark–all combine to show us the visual look of a Hammer film from the mid-1960s, even if it’s a far cry from what late Imperial Russia really looked like. Part of the flimsiness of the script and story is Hammer’s careful avoidance of portraying too many real details of Rasputin’s assassination. The man who killed Rasputin in real life in 1916, Prince Felix Yusupov–the richest man in Russia before the Revolution–was still alive in 1966, and had already sued over an earlier 1932 film depicting the assassination; in fact, in 1966 Yusupov was embroiled in another lawsuit with CBS network over a television play about the event. Hence Yusupov, in real life every bit as complex and fascinating a man as Rasputin, was changed to the colorless and pedantic duo of Ivan and Zargo, played by stock British Hammer thespians. Given Lee’s performance as the title character, though, pretty much no one else in the picture even matters. Yusupov, incidentally, died in 1967. Predictably he found Rasputin, The Mad Monk fulsome and insulting.
Lee’s performance as Rasputin is utterly riveting, as shown in this clip from the film. Those eyes, that voice!
Rasputin, The Mad Monk is peak Hammer, and it represents everything we love about Hammer horror films. The irony is that, if a filmmaker wanted to portray the real story of Rasputin on the screen with great attention to historical accuracy, it would probably make an even better horror film than this one is (presuming the central role is well-cast). As a historian you would normally expect me to condemn a film that takes as many wild liberties with the facts of the past as this one does. I can’t bring myself to do that, though, because Rasputin is just so much fun. Don’t expect to learn any history from it, but once you stare into those eyes and hear that voice, you’ll never quite be the same.
The poster for Rasputin, The Mad Monk is presumably copyright (C) 1966 by Hammer Productions; I believe my inclusion of it here is permissible under fair use. The photo of the real Rasputin is in the public domain. I am not the uploader of any YouTube clips embedded here.