Pompous know it all Christopher Lee has made a career out of playing stilted and regimented characters, so its no surprise really that his performances in Rasputin: The Mad Monk and The Wicker Man (1973) stand out. Lee has significantly less dynamic range than this Hammer colleague Peter Cushing, but what he did always bring is a certain gravitas and dignity to roles, that in all reality, didn’t deserve it. In Rasputin Lee was afforded his only opportunity with Hammer to express a more outlandish and eccentric dimension to his acting. The result is a powerhouse display, a marvellously excessive exhibition in which Lee eagerly flaunts his domineering physicality. Equally important is the booming tones of Lee’s vocal delivery, the raucousness and carnivalesque nature of Rasputin betrays a fierce intellect which is often communicated through his voice. The strength of Lee’s performance is such however that practically every other aspect of the film is dwarfed by his fierce intensity. Although Lee is supported by capable actors such as Francis Matthews, Barbara Shelley, Richard Pasco, and Suzan Farmer their performances are mild distractions from Lee’s hyperbolic histrionics. When Rasputin isn’t lighting up the screen with his greed, gluttony, drunken carousing, dancing, violence, and general blasphemy, the film is totally flat. The price for sitting back and enjoying such an overbearing and imperious performance is a terrible dramatic imbalance, an imbalance which ultimately leads to the failure of the film as a whole.
Rasputin is a very interiorised film, and while this adds a certain amount of claustrophobia, we are never given much sense of a wider world. More often than not in Hammer productions the low budgets are an inspiration to creativity, but this isn’t the case here. The story of Rasputin possesses an epic grandeur which Hammer are unable to convey on the recycled sets of Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966). Because of this the film is also unable or unwilling to develop the crucial political backdrop that is so necessary to the tale. The events of the film exist in a bizarre vacuum, and Rasputin’s attempts to seize power are made laughable by the lack of context. His ambitions just aren’t impressive enough, because Hinds’ conception of the power structures and politics of Russia are non-existent. Because of this Rasputin is able to stroll into the confidence of the Tsarina with an effortless arrogance, and set up his own little practice. Where the film does succeed is in illustrating Rasputin’s skills of manipulation. The way he preys on insecurities and vulnerabilities does at least invest the character with the means by which to bring down a ruling class.
© Shaun Anderson 2011