Though known for their horror films, British Hammer Studios produced films in a wide range of genres, including fantasy, action, sci-fi and historical drama. Hammer’s 1966 film Rasputin: The Mad Monk, which piggybacked the production of their more famous Dracula: Prince of Darkness, is a key example of the dark, historical fantasy the studio created in the 1950s and ‘60s. Due to a series of legal issues, the film is not a factual interpretation of the life and assassination of famed mystic and healer Grigori Yefimovitch Rasputin. Instead, the great Christopher Lee channels the mythic elements of Rasputin’s legend, resulting in a lesser-seen but impressive character study that blends horror and drama.
Rasputin, a depraved monk and healer in rural Russia, begins to move up in the world when he travels to St. Petersburg and hypnotizes, then seduces, Sonia, one of the Czarina’s ladies in waiting. He manipulates Sonia to injure Alexi, the Czar’s heir, so that he can worm his way into the palace, and the Czarina’s heart. When Rasputin orders Sonia to kill herself, his associate, a down-on-his-luck doctor, meets secretly with Sonia’s brother and friend to plan Rasputin’s destruction once and for all.
Historical accuracy is not a reason to watch Rasputin. The film was originally intended to be an adaption of Prince Felix Yusupov’s Lost Splendor, a memoir about Yusupov’s alleged involvement in the assassination of Rasputin. A number of prior legal issues with Yusupov’s book, along with other Russian aristocrats suing over portrayals of their lives on stage and screen, contributed to Hammer’s growing anxiety. Ultimately, this became a complete work of fiction with names and events changed. It is easy to be disappointed that Rasputin lacks any exploration of the political climate of Czarist Russia, a deeper understanding of Rasputin’s motivations and effect on people, or even a cursory explanation of the court system. The Czarina has a few brief scenes, but the Czar is not mentioned, nor are any of Russia’s political troubles.
The best way to appreciate Rasputin is as a dark character study. Because of its fantastical elements, this does feel more like a horror film than a historical drama, and includes moments of violence and some slight gore (a dismembered hand, a face disfigured by acid, etc). Though the other actors in this small ensemble cast all give solid performances, especially Barbara Shelley, Christopher Lee is the real draw. He does bring a lot of Dracula into the performance, particularly the hypnotism, sexual allure and force of personality – though he finally gets the amount of screen time his iconic character deserved, but was denied in the nine-film Hammer Dracula series. Lee also allows moments of humor and pathos, making Rasputin just likable enough to carry us towards the film’s violent conclusion.
Most noticeable about Studio Canal’s print is that the edges of the images look distorted. This is not a problem with the disc. Rather, it is apparently the fault of cheap widescreen lenses used during production, and results in a sort of fish eye effect. Otherwise, the 2.55:1 aspect ratio looks great, and gives a better glimpse of the claustrophobic sets, beautifully designed by Bernard Robinson. Despite Rasputin’s low budget, the film’s set looks almost opulent and serves to define Rasputin’s character, who appears in nearly every scene. Colors pop, particularly when accentuating Rasputin’s detailed costuming. This new aspect ratio does justice to the lovely work by director Don Sharp (Kiss of the Vampire) and cinematographer Michael Reed, both just off Dracula: Prince of Darkness. Reed, in particular, does a breathtaking job with lighting choices, and his work is one of the many reasons to seek out this lesser known effort from Hammer.
The disc’s audio is average, if slightly tinny, though not in an overly distracting way. Overall, it’s generally pleasing, insomuch as Christopher Lee’s booming tones are clearly audible, and, in turn, well projected. The disc’s English language LPCM mono track is in 48kHz, 24-bit. There is also a French language mono dub available.
This edition of Rasputin includes a number of appealing extras. There is a commentary track with actors Christopher Lee, Barbara Shelley, Francis Matthews and Suzan Farmer, all of whom reflect on fond experiences making the film. Lee discusses his in-depth knowledge of the historical Rasputin, and relates the time he met two of Rasputin’s alleged assassins as a child. If disappointed that the film veered so far into fantasy, definitely give this a compensatory listen.
Two new documentaries are included – Tall Stories: The Making of Rasputin the Mad Monk and Brought to Book: Hammer Novelisations. Tall Stories further explores the factual Rasputin, and how the characters in the film relate to his real history. This is a fascinating look at the making of the film and the legal struggles adapting Yusupov’s book. Brought to Book is enjoyable, albeit not being directly associated with Rasputin. It examines the tie-in novels and novelizations of a number of Hammer films throughout the history of the studio.
Oliver Reed takes us through most of Hammer’s historical dramas, narrating the World of Hammer episode “Costumers”. Reed discusses some of the early drama-suspense cross overs like The Stranglers of Bombay, pirate films like The Pirates of Blood River, and even makes fun of his own performance in The Brigand of Kandahar.
Finally, a fairly extensive stills gallery includes posters, lobby cards, behind the scenes photographs and more.
Rasputin isn’t perfect – it suffers from a very limited budget, a constricted set and a flat script – but it remains an enjoyable, compelling piece of filmmaking nonetheless. The film does not deserve the neglect it has all too often received; beyond die-hard Hammer fans, its appeal crosses over to anyone who enjoys moody period pieces.
NOTE: Rasputin is out on Blu-ray from Studio Canal in the U.K., so be forewarned that this is a region B Blu-ray and will only play in multi-region or region B players. Rasputin was released as a loose trilogy with two Hammer classics, the superior The Devil Rides Out, where Lee had the rare chance to play a protagonist, and The Mummy’s Shroud.
– By Samm Deighan