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.

Review: The Hunt for Red October (dir. by John McTiernan)


The Hunt for Red October

Fresh off the success of his two previous films, The Predator and Die Hard, John McTiernan was now tasked with adapting one of the 1980’s most popular novels with Tom Clancy’s debut techno-thriller, The Hunt for Red October.

By 1990, the year the film was released, Gorbachev had thawed the Cold War that existed between East and West. The Berlin Wall was months away from being torn down and glasnost became the word of the day for most people who knew nothing but the spectre of nuclear annihilation hanging over their heads since before born.

It was during the final years of the Cold War that an insurance salesman with a penchant for military and spy thrillers tried his hand in writing one. this first attempt became a worldwide sensation and was quickly put up in a bidding war by all the major studios. It would be Paramount Pictures who would win to adapt The Hunt for Red October for the big-screen and John McTiernan would be hired to steer the film.

While Sean Connery would ultimately be cast in the main role of Soviet submarine Marko Ramius, he wasn’t the first choice. German actor Klaus Maria Brandauer was originally cast but ended up leaving production a coupe weeks into production due to prior commitments. So, in comes Connery and the rest, as they would say, is history.

The thing about film adaptations of popular novels has been how much of the novel could the filmmakers, especially the screenwriter, be able to fit into a film that would run around 2 hours or so. Some cutting of scenes that fans loves would have to be done and depending on the scenes in the novel, a backlash could begin against the film even before filming was completed.

Fortunately, this was Hollywood in the late 1980’s and there was no such thing as the internet as we know of it today. There were no blogs dedicated to reporting on every minute detail of a film production. No amateur film newshound bringing up unsubstantiated rumors of the going’s on during a film’s production. This was still a Hollywood who controlled how news of their activities were going to be reported and what they decided to tell and show reporters.

This would be a boon for McTiernan’s The Hunt for Red October since the film had some major help from not just the U.S. Navy, but from the Department of Defense in trying to make sure the film was as realistic as possible in portraying the life of American submariners, Naval personnel and how the intelligence community in the West operated. Again, this was also with the film portraying all these groups in a much more positive light in return for their assistance.

In today’s world, such a compromise from the filmmakers to gain the help from the military-intelligence apparatus would be akin to some as perpetuating warmongering and glorifying the military. I could see blogs shouting for boycotts if such a thing happened nowadays.

But returning to the film The Hunt for Red October, for a straight-by-the-numbers thriller it still brings a certain surprise and inventiveness in the action-thriller genre that other filmmakers decades later would try to emulate (Crimson Tide and the many Jack Ryan-based films). Despite a Russian accent that really was cringe-worthy even when first heard, Sean Connery made for a charismatic and sympathetic Marko Ramius whose reasoning for defecting with the titular submarine Red October went beyond just the politics of the era.

Backing him up was a strong ensemble cast with a very young Alec Baldwin in the role of Jack Ryan, James Earl Jones as his boss CIA director Adm. James Greer and Sam Neill and Scott Glenn as Cmdr. Borodin and Capt. Mancuso. The film goes in heavily into Clancy’s love for technobabble and military jargon, yet the actors involved seemed very game and convincing in acting out the dialogue that would sound ridiculous is just read without context and understanding.

While the film does sacrifice some of the more political maneuverings in the book, which meant less scenes with Richard Jordan as National Security Advisor Dr. Pelt, it does streamline the film to be more action-oriented. It was a shame they went that way in which parts of the novel to cut out since Jordan’s performance as Dr. Pelt was one of the highlights of the film, despite his limited screentime.

In terms of action, The Hunt for Red October proved once again that McTiernan knew how to handle both tension and action in equal measure. He makes the cat-and-mouse battle between the Soviet and American subs seem as thrilling as any fast-paced dogfight scenes that thrilled filmgoers when Top Gun premiered on the bigscreen.

Even the film’s orchestral score from the late and great composer Basil Poledouris would lend the film a certain level of martial prowess that Poledouris’ compositions were known for. Even after many viewings it’s still difficult not to hum the film’s Soviet national hymn-inspired theme.

While The Hunt for Red October was one of the last films of the Cold War-era that still showed the tug-of-war between the East and West, it was a fitting end to a part of Hollywood’s cinematic history that portrayed Communism, especially that of the Soviet Union, as the big go-to Enemy that made action movies of the 80’s so popular with the Reaganite crowd.

The success of this film would begin a cottage industry of sequels featuring the character of Jack Ryan who would be portrayed in subsequent films by none other than Everyman himself Harrison Ford then in a miscasting in a later sequel by Ben Affleck.

A Movie A Day #226: Citizen X (1995, directed by Chris Gerolmo)


How do you solve a crime in a society that refuses to admit that crime exists?

That is the dilemma faced by Viktor Burakov (Stephen Rea) in the fact-based film, Citizen X.  Burakov is a forensic expert in the Soviet Union.  In 1982, when a dead body is found on a collective farm, Burakov is assigned to investigate.  When seven more bodies are discovered, Burakov is convinced that he is dealing with a serial killer.  The problem is that the official Soviet position is that crime and, especially, serial murder are a product of western decadence.  With his superiors refusing to accept that a serial killer could be active in the USSR, Burakov is driven to the point of insanity as he both tries to stop the murders and keep his job.  Fortunately, he has the Machiavellian Col. Fetisov (Donald Sutherland) on his side but, even with Fetisov’s protection, Burakov is no closer to tracking down the murderer.

Citizen X is based on the crimes of Andrei Chikatilo.  From 1978 to 1990, Chikatilo committed at least 57 murders, with several of his victims being young children.  Though many were suspicious of him, Chikatilo was protected by both his membership in the Communist party and the government’s refusal to allow most of his crimes to be publicly reported.  It was only during the reforms of Perestroika that authorities were allowed to thoroughly investigate Chikatilo’s crimes.  Chikatilo was arrested in 1992 and executed, via a gunshot to the back of his head, in 1994.  In Citizen X, Chikatilo is played by Jeffrey DeMunn, who gives a very good and disturbingly plausible performance as the monstrous killer.

Made for HBO, Citizen X is a low-key but thought-provoking recreations of not just Chikatilo’s crimes but the atmosphere that allowed him to go undetected,  Along with DeMunn, both Rea and Sutherland give great performances.  (Sutherland won an Emmy.)  Max Von Sydow also appears, playing a psychologist who is given the unenviable task of trying to enter Chikatilo’s mind.

A Movie A Day #80: The Palermo Connection (1990, directed by Francesco Rosi)


Carmine Bonavia (James Belushi) is an idealistic New York City councilman who wants to be mayor.  Despite an easily understood slogan — “Make A Difference!” — his reform campaign is running behind in the polls.  Having nothing to lose, Carmine announces that he supports the legalization of drugs.  By taking out the profit motive, the Sicilian Mafia will no longer have any incentive to sell drugs in the inner city.  Carmine shoots to top of the polls.  Now leading by 11%, Carmine marries his campaign manager (Mimi Rogers) and returns to his ancestral home of Sicily for a combination honeymoon and fact-finding tour.  The Mafia, realizing that Carmine is serious about legalizing drugs, conspires to frame him for the murder of a flower boy.  If that doesn’t work, they are willing to resort to other, more permanent, methods to prevent Carmine from ever becoming mayor.

The Palermo Connection is an unfairly overlooked film from Francesco Rosi, an Italian director who specialized in political controversy.  Though The Palermo Connection was sold as a thriller, Rosi was more interested in showing how organized crime, big business, government corruption, the war on drugs, and the poverty of the inner cities are all intricately connected.  When Carmine arrives in Palermo, Rosi contrasts the outer beauty of Sicily with the desperate lives of the junkies living there.  The pace may be too slow for action movie fans but Rosi gives the audience much to think about.  This is probably the last film you would ever expect to star James Belushi but he gives a strong and committed performance as Carmine.

The Palermo Connection, which was co-written by Gore Vidal, is a good film that predates The Wire in its examination of how greed, drugs, poverty, and racism all come together to victimize the most marginalized members of society.