Finally saw Christopher Lee’s take on Rasputin. Rasputin the Mad Monk is a Hammer flick, a minor classic really, yet not as well known as their horror flicks. Rasputin was a historical character, after all, not supernatural. Yet Lee’s Rasputin is almost as creepy as his Dracula. Thoroughly over the top, sure, but a subtle, chatty French art film of a Rasputin would seem unbelievable. That’s the thing about Rasputin, nothing about him seems real. I can’t even think of another character in recent history as surreal as Rasputin. He’s thoroughly evil, sprung from a Russian fairy tale. You can put your finger on what makes Hitler or Charlie Manson so damn rotten. They are historically and scientifically explainable. But Rasputin? Really? You expect us to believe that? Well, yes. There are pictures, film, memoirs, witnesses. Rasputin existed in twentieth century reality and was documented thoroughly. He existed. Go figure.
Christopher Lee seemed made to order for the role. He certainly had Barbara Shelley’s number. As crazy and ridiculous the story is, it’s unnerving how much of the plot is based on reality. In fact, it stays clear of the really weird facts. You’d need an epic film for that, and David Lean was busy with Dr. Zhivago. A brilliant film, Dr. Zhivago, one of my favorites (I can hear the damn theme in my head as I type), but face it, it cries out for Rasputin. Rod Steiger could have done a great mad monk. A little chunky, maybe, but intense. Oh well. It wasn’t workable. You wouldn’t want a Rasputin pawing Julie Christie. It was unnerving enough with Barbara Shelley. She played a lady in waiting. She kept an eye out for little Alexei, the heir, famously hemophiliac. Those recessive genes kept popping up throughout the royal families of Europe, after fifty generations of cousins sleeping together. Alexei’s bleeding was Rasputin’s ticket into the Hermitage, the imperial residence. The Tsarina worshipped him. Did he bed her in real life? Probably not. There were plenty of others though. Duchesses and cabinet wives, ladies in waiting and silly rich girls. Rasputin got around. St. Petersburg was his paradise. The Great War put him right in center of power. As Russia’s armies were beaten on every front, the Tsarina would consult Rasputin, and she passed on his wisdom to the Tsar. A lot of prayer, a lot of spells. A lot of perks and feats and ambassador’s wives. A well hung man can go far in this world.
At last a couple princes figured with the Russian Empire on the verge of disintegration, it might be time to do in Rasputin. They made a sloppy job of it, poisoned him, shot him, beat him, tied him up and tossed him in the icy Neva River. He fought like a tiger to the end, and unnervingly took forever to die. They recreate much of this in the film, and Christopher Lee is fabulous as an outraged, dying, crazy violent Rasputin. The last we see of him is his corpse sprawled on the ice. The last we see of the real Rasputin is that corpse lying on a sledge, frozen solid, full of bullets, cyanide and legend. Word has it that part of him is in a jar in an erotic museum, but I find that too hard to believe.