Horror Bites - Russia's Greatest Love Machine

RASPUTIN THE MAD MONK (1966)


There's a sort of endearing quality to these kind of double features, the ones made in tandem to save costs and so they could be screened together. In this case a lot of the cast members and several sets are clearly the same as those in Dracula: Prince of Darkness. Seeing them decades after their intended release format it's never really a problem and more of a trivia point; watching them back to back and noting all the recurring scenery is lots of fun. Hammer plays it loose with the facts in this vaguely historical thriller in which Christopher Lee dons a beard and drinks his way to the top of Russia's social ladder to sate his less than pious ambitions. It's by no means an educational story, but nobody is going to mistake it for one with that title.

This is a film from the '60s set in the Motherland, so they have to cover all the expected stereotypes. People spend lots of time partying and drinking each other under the table. There are plenty of big hats and people dancing, often in a paralytic state. They all speak with English accents too of course, it's that kind of feature. The set design is low key with a few taverns and indoor locales rather than any big St. Petersburg landscapes or expensive establishing shots. They put just enough snowy backdrops behind the windows and throw in a few street signs in Cyrillic lettering to give enough of an impression.

To get things going the titular holy man arrives on the scene to down a few bottles of wine, only to find that the local peasant bar is a sombre place and the owner's wife is ill. Using the power of his hands alone he cures and then proceeds to drink the place dry in celebration. Hammer have to add their own style of sex and violence in right out of the gate, and so Rasputin ends the night with an attempt to woo the owner's daughter. Her boyfriend isn't too happy about this, but his attempt at intervening doesn't go his way when they fight inside a tool filled barn. It's all fun and games until someone loses a hand.

The general tone is like this for most of the story, with some vague attempts to heal people or help the royal family ending with excess and violence. He quickly becomes less interested in helping and more in the wine and womanising. It helps that his powers are not limited to just taking away sickness, but also extend to mental manipulation which never fails. There's a lot of hypnotism as Grigori worms his way into the ruling family's favour, despite protestation from Boris a disgraced doctor he's pressured into helping. The ladies begin to fall under his wild man magnetism whether they like it or not, and soon there are reasons the other characters want to be rid of him.


A lot of the reason this works is the main star himself, Lee just seems to be having a good time. He's always making demands, filling his face with wine and scheming something new. The church officials thought his miracles couldn't be sent from anywhere but hell, so why not push the boat out. There's a lot of maniacal laughter and speeches about the kinds of things to be gained from the Tsars, as well as more dancing and boozing. His overbearing personality and the way he talks down to everyone as 'little Sonia' or 'little Peter' is always engaging while never being sympathetic. His threads improve but his manners are always terrible. In terms of the look it's a little heavy on the make-up, but his more serious moments have enough intensity to pull it off.

Regular faces like Barbara Shelley and Francis Matthews are also good as the socialites he's trying to exploit, in general this is a classic cast even if Michael Ripper is absent. As a chiller to be watched alongside the third of Hammer's Dracula outings things are not too high on atmosphere, but there are still some good moments including a shadowy revenge sequence in an acid filled laboratory. The famous assassination ending is also very effective even if it deviates from the real events; it's not as if the rest of the film was accurate to begin with. It's fun debauchery filled entertainment and it certainly holds up as one of the best Christopher Lee character pieces.

4/5