Cult Movie: Rasputin The Mad Monk is the most entertaining movie of this true-life tale - thanks to Christopher Lee

Christopher Lee plays the titular role in Rasputin The Mad Monk
Christopher Lee plays the titular role in Rasputin The Mad Monk Christopher Lee plays the titular role in Rasputin The Mad Monk

Rasputin The Mad Monk

FEW historical figures have fascinated the film industry quite like Grigori Yefimovich Rasputin. The true life tale of the self-professed Russian mystic and holy man, who wheedled his way into the inner most circles of the Tsar's family only to meet a grisly end when his influence was deemed too strong for the powers that be to stomach, has inspired a raft of sensationalist films down the decades. Rasputin The Mad Monk is just one.

Made by Hammer films in 1966, it's probably not the greatest re-telling of the tale: for that, you might be better off seeking out Franklin J Shaffner's 1971 epic Nicholas And Alexandra.

It's not even the greatest film of director Don Sharp: for that, you'd need to spend a little quality time with either his luscious gothic fairy tale Kiss Of The Vampire (1962) or his preposterously entertaining British zombie biker epic Psychomania (1973).

What makes this particular take on an all too familiar story special is one thing, and one thing alone – the central performance of Christopher Lee. Lee was always a magnetic screen presence regardless of the role he took on, but here he cranks up the glowering levels of intensity to almost unbearable levels.

When quizzed in later life about his favourite big screen roles, he always mentioned this performance – and it's easy to see why. An aloof actor given to a self-possessed sense of superiority he 'becomes' Rasputin like no-one before or since. His eyes burn with a fairly unhinged and hypnotic quality throughout, he storms through scenes demanding wine, women and song like a man possessed and he bursts into wild Cossack dancing interludes at the drop of a Balalaika.

Tom Baker may have given big Chris a run for his money on the wild overacting front with his turn as the much mythologised holy man in the aforementioned Nicholas And Alexandra – Baker never intentionally underplayed anything he had the good fortune to grace after all – but given the amount of time Lee is on screen in The Mad Monk and the sheer force of will to reel you into his crazed mind that he displays every time the camera comes within manic glaring range, he surely has to take the title of 'greatest screen Rasputin ever'.

This being a relatively low budget affair made with most of the cast and the sets of Dracula Prince Of Darkness which preceded it on the Hammer production slate, Lee wastes not a second in setting out his stall: we first meet him as he slams open a tavern door and proceeds to get wildly drunk before laying his healing hands onto the wife of the bar owner and seducing the fiancé of said bar owner's son.

This interpretation plays fast and loose with historical fact, but that hardly matters when you're talking about a central performance as powerful and convincing as this. Rasputin The Mad Monk may not be the most accurate or lavish of re-tellings of that well-worn story, but there's simply no denying that it's easily the most entertaining.