Better late than never, I suppose, even as Christopher Lee February stretches into March (and in a leap year, no less!) with two more films to go. Anyway, The Mad Monk! Perhaps I set my expectations a bit too high for this 1966 Hammer film starring Christopher Lee as the titular “mad monk,” because the movie, while by no means bad, was kind of a let down. The film has a number of problems: Christopher Lee and the character of Rasputin aren’t really used to full effect here, the first 2/3rds of the film are unnecessarily long — comprised of a tedious and over-long set up for the final confrontation, and the film fails to do anything particularly interesting with the characters, story, or the completely insane rumors and legends surrounding the real Rasputin. (If you don’t know what I mean, take a look at his Wikipedia page.) The most disappointing part of all of this is that Lee looks the part of Rasputin, but he’s not given much of a chance to shine in the role. Rasputin, who did most of the writers’ work for them by being a completely crazy motherfucker in real life, is toned down in this film — even in the climatic moments of the film where Lee is allowed to (finally!) play up the crazy a bit. (But, more on this later.)
The film’s trajectory follows Rasputin from the time when he was a backwoods holy man, healer, drunkard, daughter seducer, wife seducer, and legendary square-dancer until his arrival in St. Petersburg and the court of the Czar. The audience watches as Rasputin takes part in his favorite activities, which consist mostly of drinking and being a bit of a sociopath (with the occasional faith healing thrown in). This back story drags interminably on for much of the film so that instead of Rasputin repeatedly coming back from the dead after his numerous enemies kill him and making everyone in the Czars’ court fill their pants, he instead does uncreepy and boring things. Occasionally Christopher Lee allows the ham to slip out, throwing some crazy eyes around, or doing creepy things with his hands, but most of the first hour of the film is spent in drinking contests and illicit liaisons with ladies of the court. He also meets a baggy-eyed doctor who, like Rasputin, is a filthy drunkard. I hesitate to say “befriends” a doctor, since Rasputin’s idea of “friendship” typically ends in murder, but they get along alright for most of the film as all Rasputin is looking for is someone to be his page boy and the Doctor apparently loves getting bossed around.
This is probably the best way to sum up the first hour: Rasputin heals some people, but is drunk most of the time. He also tells the Church to go fuck themselves on a couple of occasions, which is considerably more entertaining than his endless drunkenness and G-rated liaisons with ladies of the court. Finally, in the last 20-odd minutes, Rasputin starts to show some of the crazy he is known for, but until this point we’re treated to a pretty mundane bio pic about a Russian monk who, occasionally, is a tad bit of a creeper. I won’t spoil the end for you, but it basically does what the film should’ve been doing for most of the hour beforehand: i.e. attempting to kill Rasputin and having him survive, causing the aristocratic Russians to crap themselves.
And this is my main problem with the movie. You have a historical figure as a main character with the primary attribute of “the guy seemingly won’t die.” It’s perfect for a horror movie, he’s the mad monk who can’t be killed. But he’ll kill the hell out of you. Instead the film waits until the final five minutes to even remotely touch on what is arguably the most popular part of the Rasputin legend. When you think Rasputin you think of only one thing: the guy was shot, stabbed, throw in frigid water, buried, and burned before people were even slightly convinced he was dead (and even then they weren’t sure). That right there should be the premise of your horror movie, not the final five minutes of it. This is a horror film, not a historical narrative — cut out all of the unnecessary set up and just jump to Rasputin being Rasputin. Just give us some horror!
But, alas, it wasn’t to be. Lee isn’t really given much of a chance to work with the material, a fact that is doubly disappointing since he looks the part. Instead it becomes a sort of period drama, chock full of British people, with a kind of creepy main character who finally goes a little wonky in the last twenty minutes. There’s not nearly enough sleaze or assassination for this movie to be genuinely interesting. The film is generally mundane from a technical standpoint, though the sets and costuming were interesting and appealing. But the atmosphere is never quite right, nor is Rasputin’s character ever pushed to the limits of what the writers could have done with him (and these are interrelated, I think). I was expecting a bit more from this film, which may have led me to a harsher judgement than I normally would’ve given it, but the fact of the matter is, Rasputin does very little to keep your interest and wastes a huge opportunity in the character of Rasputin and, even more so, Christopher Lee.