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: The Revenge of Frankenstein (dir by Terence Fisher)


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Last year, Gary reviewed the first of the Hammer Frankenstein films, The Curse of Frankenstein.  For today’s horror film review, I’m going to take a look at the second movie in Hammer’s Frankenstein series, 1958’s The Revenge of Frankenstein!

The Revenge of Frankenstein opens where The Curse of Frankenstein ended.  The monster (played by Christopher Lee in the first film) has been destroyed and Baron Frankenstein (Peter Cushing) has been sentenced to be executed for the monster’s crimes.  However, the Baron escapes the guillotine.  Instead, he arranges for a priest to be beheaded in his place.  Working under the name Dr. Stein, the Baron escapes to another village and, after several years, re-establishes himself as a wealthy and respected doctor.  While most of his patients are rich, Dr. Stein also helps the poor and the disabled.  By all accounts, he’s doing wonderful work but he’s also deliberately enigmatic, refusing to join the local doctors council.

Right from the beginning, we’re reminded of just how different Hammer’s Baron Frankenstein was from Universal’s version of the good doctor.  In the Universal films, Dr. Frankenstein — regardless of whether the doctor in question was Henry, Wolf, or Ludwig — was always portrayed as being misguided but ultimately noble.  If any of the Universal Frankensteins had been sentenced to death, it’s probable that they would have put on a stoic face, walked to the guillotine, and allow their head to roll.  In fact, they would have felt so responsible for the actions of the Monster that they probably would feel it was their moral duty to allow themselves to be executed.

That’s not the case when it comes to Hammer’s Baron Frankenstein.  Baron Frankenstein feels no guilt over what the Monster has done.  Go the guillotine?  No way!  Baron Frankenstein is determined to create life and if creating life means that other, lesser mortals end up dead … well, so be it.  As opposed to the Universal Frankensteins, who all developed god complexes after the success of their experiment, Baron Frankenstein has his god complex from the beginning.  And if Baron Frankenstein is a god, why shouldn’t a priest be sacrificed for the good of the Baron’s work?

Anyway, Dr. FrankenStein and his assistant, Dr. Kleve (Francis Matthews) are determined to once again bring the dead back to life.  This time, the plan involves transplanting the brain of hunchback Karl (Oscar Quitak) into a physically strong body (played by Michael Gwynn).  Dr. Kleve is worried that a brain transplant could lead to unforseen complications.  For instance, one of Dr. Stein’s chimpanzees reacts to being given an orangutan’s brain by turning into a cannibal.  However, Stein tells Dr. Kleve not to worry about it.  After all, what could go wrong?

Well, a lot goes wrong.  It’s a Frankenstein movie, after all.

I have to admit that, while I love Hammer’s Dracula films, I’ve never been a huge fan of their take on Frankenstein.  While Peter Cushing always makes for a wonderfully compelling and often chillingly evil Baron Frankenstein, the majority of the Hammer Frankenstein films always seem to move way too slowly.  Whenever I watch one of them, I always find myself growing rather impatient with the endless scenes of grave robbery and body stitching.  “HURRY UP AND BRING THAT DAMN THING TO LIFE!” I’ll find myself shouting.

However, I was actually pleasantly surprised by how well The Revenge of Frankenstein holds up.  That Cushing would give an excellent performance as Baron Frankenstein is to be expected.  But really, the entire film is well-acted and both Oscar Quitak and Michael Gwynn give poignant performances as Frankenstein’s latest experiment.  It’s a visually vibrant and nicely paced horror film, one that never drags like some of the later Hammer Frankenstein films.

The Curse of Frankenstein and The Revenge of Frankenstein make for a great double feature, especially in October!