Rasputin the Mad Monk
It seems like Christopher Lee and Hammer always had a bit of a troubled relationship. His very good friend Peter Cushing seemed happy enough to do whatever, and enjoyed the work regardless. The only thing that ever bothered Pete was when his character was asked to do something he didn’t think they would do. Van Helsing wouldn’t do black magic (so they had another vampire hunter do that in Kiss of the Vampire) and Frankenstein wouldn’t force himself on a woman (though he sort of had to, but not really, and definitely under protest in Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed). But the point is Pete didn’t care so much about the wisdom of making the movie, only what he was going to have to do in it. But Christopher was a whole different kettle of grumpy fish.
I wonder if they had like a special position for someone at Hammer films who was only employed to spend every day begging Lee to do another Dracula film. I can imagine them becoming desperate enough that if they couldn’t think of a good idea they would just ring him up and see how many times they could say ‘please’ before he put the phone down. It would have been a lonely and fruitless job alright. But every now and then Lee would stay on the phone, sometimes he would have his own idea, and that’s when the Executive Vice President of Begging Lee would walk into the Hammer Producer’s office with a worried expression on their face. ‘Oh God’ they would say. ‘What does he want this time?’ And one time, in exchange for being in Dracula: Prince of Darkness, the answer was - to play Rasputin the Mad Monk.
The thing is, that’s not such a bad idea. After all, Rasputin is exactly the kind of monster Hammer like. He throws the established order into chaos, scares the crap out of rich people, and is capable of seducing any woman he fancies. He’s also practically unkillable, which is very handy for a movie monster. However, there was one giant spanner in the works; it turns out that one of the people who eventually succeeded in killing the real Rasputin was still alive, madly enough, and was in fact rather fond of suing people trying to tell any story with him in it. So Hammer have to make a movie about a bloke who is mostly famous for worming his way into a Royal inner circle without being able to touch any of its members with a bloody barge pole. This, understandably, is a bit of a tricky proposition. Still, they give it a good go, mostly by focusing on the movie’s greatest strength - Christopher Lee enjoying himself.
He is, it turns out, enough to hang an entire movie on. Which is in itself a bit of a feat given you can’t see most of him because of the regulation Rasputin mad hair and evil beard. But Chris has three secret weapons - his booming evil voice, his huge freaky hands and his mad staring eyes. And when he starts wobbling them all over the shop, watch out in the cheap seats ‘cos Chris sees you and he’s coming for you. It’s a good thing too because, honestly, there’s not a lot else going on. They flirt at the beginning with exploring Rasputin’s idea that being true to God means enjoying himself as much as possible and damn the consequences. But then it sort of shifts into this mutually destructive relationship between the bad monk and the lady in waiting, which definitely has its moments and the slow burn madness of the Lady in Waiting is brilliantly played. She needs just as much as Rasputin does, but where he needs to feel everything, she only needs to feel him. And that little tragedy in the middle of the film works pretty well for a while. But where it should get bigger and bigger as the movie goes on, building up to a climax with him nearly bringing down an entire empire just by wanting to have a good time, instead it only gets smaller and slower and in the end he’s taken down by a walking embodiment of ‘Now, look here! That really is too much!’ And all that is sort of fun in its own way and does have the effect of Rasputin pacing these tiny rooms that seem barely big enough to contain him, let alone all the things he has in his wicked mind. And seeing Christopher cause every room he’s in to burst at the seams using nothing more than his eyes is pretty impressive to watch let me tell you.
It’s just, I don’t know, Rasputin nearly caused the ruin of an entire empire and it took God knows how many people to murder him in God knows how many ways. He just wasn’t BIG enough by the end of this picture, that his fall would cause enough of a satisfying crash. When you’ve got Lee being this good and having this much fun, you should push him until he and the film nearly explode, and that’s when you take him down. And let him get back up. Then take him down again. And repeat and repeat and repeat until all that’s left is the echo of his booming voice, promising a return that everyone in that room would remember every stormy night. That’s what it should feel like to take Rasputin out.
Instead he falls into one of the lamest traps I have ever seen. The old ‘why don’t you pop by to hook up with that woman you desire that previously despised you but what do you know she’s changed her mind now and she definitely wants to get with you, oh and fancy a drink while you’re waiting?’ I mean, come on…
Don’t get me wrong, it is well worth watching Lee having a ball as Rasputin and seeing the polite drawing rooms being torn to pieces by a mad bearded lunatic with an unquenchable appetite and a direct line to God. Maybe I just wanted more. Maybe it’s just that you can’t have too much of a good thing, as I’m sure Rasputin himself would agree. Speaking of which…