Editor’s Note: The links within all point back to the original sources. Perhaps one day I will fix them but more than likely I will keep them as is to honor the past (and because it is so much easier). Links to the AVC are likely off due to the Kinja switchover.
10/26/2016 – Hammer: Rasputin, the Mad Monk (1966)
Directed by Don Sharp
Founded in 1934 but existing in its notable form starting in in 1946, Hammer Film Productions was founded with the explicit purpose of creating low budget films, a sort of British version of AIP. It wasn’t until 1955 though that Hammer found their true calling and what they would be known for, horror. Starting with the The Quatermass Xperiment, Hammer would turn out countless stylish and typically mediocre (frequently Gothic horror) films that were bloody, violent, and sex filled at least for the day. They were also quite fond of sequels and reusing actors such as Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Barbara Shelley, Michael Ripper, André Morell, Francis Matthews, and Ralph Bates. Cushing and Lee especially came to define Hammer Horror and for good reason as they always elevated the lousy scripts they were given.
While the Quatermass series (also including Quatermass 2 which I haven’t seen or the original for that matter, the related X the Unknown, and Quatermass and the Pit) founded Hammer Horror, they were best known for their takes on the Universal franchises. Starting with the clear highlight in Terence Fisher’s The Curse of Frankenstein, Hammer would turn out seven Frankenstein films, nine Draculatitles (starting with (Horror of) Dracula) and four The Mummy films. They also turned out a number of other lackluster horror titles including The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll, The Gorgon, The Reptile, a trio of lesbian vampire films (of which I’ve seen The Vampire Lovers and Twins of Evil), and To the Devil a Daughter. By the mid-‘70s however they were dying off and dead by 1979. Hammer mounted a mini-comeback in 2008 with a handful of films (most notably in coproduction the far inferior remake Let Me In and the mediocre remake The Woman in Black) but for the most part it’s dead and it really is a relic. An influential relic that helped modernize horror and push boundaries of what was allowed to be depicted on screen, but a transitional relic all the same.
Rasputin, the Mad Monk offers us a rare look into a subgenre horror rarely dives into, the biopic. There have been many others which draw from real life serial killers and the like including Jack the Ripper, Ed Gein, and the Zodiac Killer and sometimes even depicting them directly (or theories on who’s responsible for them) but it’s rare they are given the lead role and even rarer the film isn’t a pile of crap (In the Realm of the Senses, the fantastic Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, and the great The Conjuring are all that come to mind). It tells of Grigori Rasputin, the Russian mystic famous for how hard he was to kill. Even more than most biopics this is hardly an accurate story and they don’t even try but it’s still an interesting subject none the less with the real life story being fairly easy to reconcile with horror.
The actual film itself is pretty standard Hammer stuff. Of the Hammer regulars, we get Lee, Shelley, and Matthews with Lee playing the title role under a huge beard and long hair. Rasputin is depicted with supernatural healing abilities and the is able to hypnotize anyone with just his eyes which I’m going to treat as completely accurate. With his ultimate goal to obtain ultimate power over Russia which he plans to do by hypnotizing a woman so that she will first visit him and later so that she will cause the royal boy to suffer an accident and make them take the boy to him (which she achieves in the most incompetent manner). After he heals the boy, he’s taken in and given all sorts of power, though for some reason the skilled manipulator still resorts to hypnotizing (and honestly this just made me really wish for a more serious biopic) and bragging about it. Like all horror villains, he eventually goes too far SPOILERS and has his assistant betray him when he tells a woman to kill herself. END OF SPOILERS
While my biggest problem with the film is it’s a fairly lackluster film enlivened only by Lee’s commanding performance, a close second is that you went through all the trouble of making a film about Rasputin and you botch the most important part of his story (not that the film is vaguely accurate to begin with). SPOILERS Aside from the fact that they didn’t give him a chance to disappear more people as he had in real life (the kind of thing a film usually adds, not takes away), he’s killed merely by being poisoned and thrown out a window. He took more time than most people to die, but this is a man who in real life has been shot earlier in his life, and on the day of was poisoned, shot at point blank range, shot again, and then finished off essentially with a shot to the head though he was supposedly still alive when he was tied up and thrown into a freezing river. If you are going to play fast and loose with history, do it in a fun way. END OF SPOILERS
Heck even giving him supernatural powers is a fun concept, but let him actually use it for a reign of terror or something, not just to SPOILERS kill a single woman who finds him out. END OF SPOILERS I guess they were too afraid to roughen up the image of a guy who if given such an awesome introduction as a member of the church who commits self-confessed big sins to give him something good to confess to and is of course awesome by virtue of being Christopher Lee. It’s a film that starts well and then falls off the rails. It’s not bad, just a lot of missed potential and worth watching only for Lee.
Bonus Episode #32 – Witches: The City of the Dead (1960)
Directed by John Llewellyn Moxey
Referred to by TCM as its US title, Horror Hotel
Here is a non-anthology horror film from Amicus Productions, makers of among other things Asylum. While not a Hammer film, visually and cast wise Amicus films are often very similar, and like a number from Hammer this title is a modernized Gothic horror tale, but visually more reminiscent of a Universal film with its black and white cinematography, scant blood, and all the fog. In fact, the whole place seems engulfed less in a layer of fog and more jets of it with the town proper having a ground almost made of fog itself. I love the gothic atmosphere and all, but it was more than a bit ridiculous at times.
The film opens with the burning of an accused witch until a man prays to Lucifer to save her (no one seems to notice him saying this shit in the middle of the crowd) and she converts to his worship and curses the town. It’s a shame we don’t get to watch her killing every last one of those assholes but I still have my imagination. Lee serves as a professor teaching the history of witchcraft who sends a student goes up to the town to study and learn about it further so she can write a paper about it or SPOILERS more accurately so that she can be sacrificed by the witches who live there. END OF SPOILERS We get a stereotypical guy warning her not to go into the town in a house which it’s always a delight seeing actually done unironically, especially by the third time he’s having to do it and he just seems warn out.
The student seems to be smart at first but man does that change once she gets into her car. Everyone in town is straight out of a ‘30s horror film and so intimidating (aside from a fellow recent visitor) and yet she seems mostly oblivious and completely upbeat. She may claim she was scared but she sure as heck didn’t show it. She really embraces the whole tourism things with her wonder at everything as if she was walking through Paris and I’m not sure if all this makes me like her for being brave or drive me mad from stupidity. Eagerly gives a ride to a creepy ass dude who seems to emerge from the fog (and disappears even quicker) which considering her choice of boyfriend (a giant dingus who has less intelligence in his whole body than I do in my left nut), she might just be too dumb to live. I know if someone just disappeared from my car, I’d be bugging out something fierce. SPOILERS After her brief sightseeing tour however, she is taken to be sacrificed by a group of witches led by the reincarnation of the witch from the opening scene and I liked the Psycho-esque way the film kills the blond female lead about half way through (considering it came out the same year, I’m not sure if they just nicked it but points for effort).
After an exhaustive (ha!) search by the police of the town to investigate her disappearance, her brother and the dingus go up to the town to investigate separately though I have no clue why they didn’t just share a ride. The granddaughter of the town’s priest also returns and has the same disappearing man trick pulled on her and it almost seems like at times the film forgets she was in the town at her introduction, the witches acting like they are seeing her for the first time among other little things. And since they must sacrifice two women a year (which seems hard since the town is rarely visited and Lee only sent one woman so they are relying on a lot of luck and also pretty unfair that both are only about two weeks apart), she is chosen as the next target. I know the sacrifice of innocents is wrong but I was pulling for the witches nonetheless, especially since they are ultimately defeated by Christianity, which yuck. Granted using the cross to light people on fire is pretty freaking awesome but message wise, screw that. I’ve complained enough though so just reread that if you care (you don’t). END OF SPOILERS
Lee’s role this time out isn’t nearly as fun but he still makes everything better and he even has an old gargoyle type thing that he uses as a faucet to wash up in. The only proper way to clean up sacrificial blood. I admit that this stuff is directly appealing to my pleasure centers and there is not much to separate it from other films of this type, but these are the kind of solid films I could watch all day and the kind of films (even more than the classics perhaps) that I most look forward to this time of year.