The TSL’s Horror Grindhouse: Rasputin, The Mad Monk (dir by Don Sharp)


In turn of the century Russia, there lived a man named Grigori Rasputin.

He was a monk, though some considered him to be more a servant of the devil than of God.  Legend has it that he was a man who rarely bathed and who made it a point to live in the wild, a part of nature.  His hair was long and unkempt and he was known for his wild eyes.  Depending on who is telling the story, Rasputin’s stare is described as either being seductive or frightening.  Rasputin had a reputation for being a great healer, as well as a great seducer.  (It is said that Rasputin offered up as his defense that it was necessary to sin so that he could be forgiven by God.)

Despite being a controversial figure (and, in the eyes of same, an instrument of the devil), the charismatic Rasputin became well-known in Russian social circles.  In fact, the stories of his powers as a healer eventually reached the household the Tsar.  The Tsar’s son suffered from hemophilia and was frequently ill.  Rasputin was brought into the royal palace to cure him and, according to contemporary accounts, he was somehow able to do just that.  It was said that only Rasputin could stop the boy’s bleeding.

It was also said that Rasputin grow to have a good deal of influence over the Tsarina.  In fact, he was seen as having so much influence that certain members of the royal court started to view him as being a threat to their own power.  On December 30th, 1916, Rasputin was murdered.  There are many stories about how Rasputin was murdered but it’s generally agreed that the conspirators first tried to poison him, just to discover that Rasputin was apparently immune to cyanide!  Eventually, Rasputin was shot twice and then dumped in the Malaya Nevka River.  Stories about how difficult it had been to kill Rasputin only added to his legend.

After his death (and the subsequent communist revolution that led to the murders of the Tsar and his family), Rasputin became a legendary figure.  Because of his connection to the occult, it’s perhaps not surprising that he’s also been the subject of a number of biopics.  Everyone from Klaus Kinski to Lionel Barrymore to Alan Rickman has played the mad monk.  (Apparently, Leonardo DiCaprio has been attached to an up coming film about Rasputin.)

And then there’s Christopher Lee.  Christopher Lee played Rasputin in the 1966 Hammer Film, Rasputin, The Mad Monk.  It’s probably one of Lee’s best performances, as well as one of his most lively.  Lee plays Rasputin as being a cunning charlatan, one who may act like a madman but who always know exactly what he’s doing.  The film makes perfect use of Lee’s imposing physical presence and, when Rasputin uses his powers of hypnotism, Lee stares with such intensity that you never doubt that he’s a man who knows how to get exactly what he wants.  Lee makes you believe that, through sheer willpower, Grigori Rasputin very well could have become one of the most important men in Russia.

As for the film itself, it’s a briskly paced retelling of Rasputin’s final years, hitting all of the expected points without ever digging too far beneath the surface.  Rasputin cures the sick and seduces their mothers, wives, and sisters and uses his powers of hypnotism to hold most of St. Petersburg under his control.  Many of the usual Hammer performers (including Barbara Shelley, as the Tsarina’s servant and Joss Ackland as a bishop) make an appearance and the fact that no one makes the least bit of effort to sound Russian just adds to the film’s charm.  It’s an entertaining look at a fascinating historical story and, most importantly, it features Christopher Lee at his chilling best.

Horror Film Review: Dracula, Prince of Darkness (dir by Terence Fisher)


Draculaprinceofdarkness“My master is dead but he left instructions that the house should always be ready for visitors.”

“Who was your master?”

“His name was Count Dracula…”

— A snatch of dialogue from Dracula, Prince of Darkness (1966)

Dracula, Prince of Darkness is notable for many reasons.

First off, this movie marked Christopher Lee’s return to the role that he played 8 years earlier in The Horror of Dracula.  After being forced to make one Dracula film without Dracula, Hammer Films was finally able to make a direct sequel to The Horror of Dracula.

As a result of Lee returning, this was also the first of the Hammer Draculas to feature the previously destroyed Lord of the Vampires being revived through a splash of blood.  This was a plot element that all subsequent films in the series would feature and, to a certain extent, you have to admire Hammer’s efforts maintain some form of continuity.  Whereas it would have been easy enough to just have Dracula show up with no explanation as to why he’s back, the Hammer films at least  tried to make sure everything followed some sort of identifiable logic.  (Or, at least they did until Dracula A.D. 1972 but we’ll get to that movie later…)

This was the first Dracula film not to feature (with the exception of the footage from Horror of Dracula that opens the film) Peter Cushing in the role of Van Helsing.  And while the film probably would have been improved by the presence of Cushing, the film does come up with a more than adequate substitute in the form of Andrew Keir’s Father Sandor.  Whereas Cushing’s Van Helsing always seemed to be a rather rational vampire hunter, Keir brings a truly demented energy to the role.

And finally, Dracula, Prince of Darkness is probably best remembered for being the Dracula film in which Dracula does not speak.  He does hiss a few times but, for the most part, Dracula is silent throughout this entire film and, instead, relies on his servants Klove (Philip Latham) and Ludwig (Thorley Walters) to do most of the talking.

Why Dracula doesn’t speak is a matter of debate.  Christopher Lee has claimed that he refused to say any of the dialogue that had been written Dracula while screenwriter Jimmy Sangster wrote, in his autobiography, that Dracula was specifically written to be a silent role.  (Or, as Sangster put it, “Vampires don’t chat.”)

Regardless of why Dracula is silent, it actually works quite well.  Sangster’s right.  Vampires don’t chat and Christopher Lee’s haughty Dracula would be the least likely of all to make small talk.  Dracula’s silence both reminds us of the contempt with which he views the living and it also plays up the animalistic aspects of the character.  It helps, of course, that Christopher Lee is one of those actors who can do more with one dismissive glare than most actors could do with 20 pages of the most florid and overwritten dialogue.

As for the film itself, it serves as a reminder that the only thing that need happen for evil to be triumphant is for stupid tourists to take a holiday in Transylvania.  Ignoring the warnings of practically everyone else on the planet, the Kents — Alan (Charles Tingwell) and wife Helen (Barbara Shelley) and Charles (Francis Matthews) and wife Diana (Suzan Farmer) — spend the night at Dracula’s castle.  Dracula’s servant, Klove, murders Alan and drains his blood over Dracula’s ashes.  Soon, Helen is a vampire, Diana has been selected to be Dracula’s latest bride, and it’s up to Sandor and Charles to save everyone’s soul.

Dracula, Prince of Darkness is a lot of fun.  It’s full of all the usual Hammer touches — melodramatic dialogue, ornate castles, pretty costumes, plentiful gore, unfriendly villagers, and not-quite-brilliant heroes — and, best of all, it’s got Christopher Lee proving that Dracula doesn’t need to speak to be frightening.  Subsequent films in the Hammer Dracula series would grow increasingly uneven but Dracula, Prince of Darkness is a worthy entry.