I had hoped this sterling presentation of Hammer’s much respected RASPUTIN THE MAD MONK would alter my opinions on the film …

A doctor informs an inn-keeper one evening that, having looked at his sick wife, he cannot do anything to help her. The landlord is understandably perturbed by this news and leaves his customers drinking downstairs while he rushes to pray at his wife's side in her bedroom.

Downstairs a tall bearded man enters the inn demanding wine. His name is Grigori Rasputin (Christopher Lee), and he is ... a mad monk. Upon hearing of the sick spouse, Rasputin rushes up the stairs and barges into her room. Ignoring the pleas of her concerned husband, the monk places his huge hands upon the gravely ill woman's head - and cures her.

As payment, all Rasputin asks is to be plied with wine while the landlord hosts a party in his inn. Booze and women - we learn that these are Rasputin's two great loves. So much so with the latter, that he has to flee the party in the early hours when he's caught trying to seduce the landlord's daughter in a barn.

The following morning Rasputin is called to the monsignor's quarters at his monastery and reprimanded for his behaviour. Despite an appeal from the landlord whose wife owes his life to him, Rasputin is ordered to leave the sect - but not before he ominously reminds them that he holds great power in his hands ... and will use it as and when he chooses.

And so he does. First, he uses his powers to drink profusely and pick up loose women. Then he uses them to dance (really! In a cringe-inducing protracted scene, too) after beating a businessman in a boozing competition. Then, he uses them to allure the noble Sonia (Barbara Shelley, DRACULA PRINCE OF DARKNESS) to his room and make her apologise for laughing at said dancing.

Whatever the mad monk has, it certainly works - Sonia becomes so infatuated with him that she lets him slap her across the face as punishment. Then shags him!

But all is not well. Rasputin's reputation is growing; he's exploiting his "healing" powers for his own financial gain, bedding far too many locals and even managing to piss off his own right-hand-man Boris. All of which combines to spell bad news for Rasputin ...

Regarded by many as one of the stronger Hammer films of its era, the historically fictional RASPUTIN has dated a lot. The acting is forced and OTT for the most part - with Lee in particular being guilty of far too much intensity in what is a laughably "serious" performance.

The script doesn't seem to have anywhere to go; it merely offers a few tame set-pieces held together by the flimsiest of narratives, before rushing into a nonsensical and forgettable climax. Even the lurid ingredients common with Hammer are diluted - okay, there's the severing of a hand and a couple of knifings, but it's all curiously unremarkable stuff.

Don Sharp's direction is competent enough, keeping things ticking over nicely, but the story simply fizzles out and seems terminally confused during the final 45 minutes. Sticking more closely to the real Rasputin's life story would have been a wise move! The best things about RASPUTIN (apart from Lee's enjoyable over-acting) are its luscious widescreen photography and period set designs.

Still, the film is extremely well served on this fine blu-ray disc from Studio Canal.

Presented uncut in its theatrical aspect ratio of 2.35:1, RASPUTIN comes in 1080p HD and with 16x9 enhancement. The presentation here blows former DVD incarnations away: colours, detail, and depth – they’re all convincingly improved without any unwelcome noise reduction or edge enhancement.

English mono audio is remastered in a new Master HD mix, lossless to boot, and sounds very impressive. Optional English subtitles are easily readable and well-written.

The disc opens with a subtly animated main menu page. This contains pop-up sub-menus, including a scene-selection menu allowing access to the film via 12 chapters.

Extras begin with an alternate 2.55:1 version of the film. As the introductory text disclaimer states, "(the film) was shot in 4-perf CinemaScope with anamorphic lenses, ‘squeezing’ a 2.55:1 picture into a standard 35mm 1.37:1 frame. The film was intended to be matted down to 2.35:1 and this was achieved by losing detail at the left (more) and right (less) of the picture. We have restored the film ‘open gate’ at its entire shooting ratio, so we can show more of the picture as filmed".

Yes, it’s the entire film, again, but in the aspect ratio that it was shot in. Purists will cum.

An audio commentary track follows, conducted by Lee, Suzan Farmer, Francis Matthews and Shelley. Lee holds centre court, naturally, offering as much anecdotal trivia as he does historical fact. The others remain agreeable throughout, chipping in amiably wherever possible. This is the commentary track that featured on the Region 1 DVD release of the film several years ago.

"Tall Stories" is a 24-minute look at the making of the film. Hammer historians Denis Meikle and Jonathan Rigby, "To Kill Rasputin" author Andrew Cook and even Shelley turn up to offer invaluable insight into the inspiration and genesis of the film.

"Brought to Book: Hammer Novelisations" looks at the paperback adaptations of Hammer films. Rigby takes a front-seat for this 14-minute featurette, but Mark Gattiss is also on hand here.

All of the above are presented in 16x9 HD.

Next up is another episode of the wonderful archive TV series "World of Hammer". Once again narrated by Oliver Reed, this episode is entitled "Costumers" and is presented in window-boxed standard definition. It looks at the studio’s penchant for period-based dramas.

A 3-minute gallery of promotional artwork and stills is set to sound-bites from RASPUTIN, and rounds off the rather spiffing set of bonus features.

Taking liberties with history and striding gleefully into B-movie melodrama, RASPUTIN THE MAD MONK is not without its graces but, beyond some attractive production values and a wicked sense of the overblown on Lee’s behalf, it’s high camp and dated as a result. But it looks better than ever here.

Available as a 2-disc "double play" blu-ray and DVD combo pack (we reviewed the blu-ray disc here).

Review by Stuart Willis

Released by Studio Canal
Region B
Rated 18
Extras :
see main review