Rasputin the Mad Monk (Blu-ray Review)

  • Reviewed by: Tim Salmons
  • Review Date: Feb 12, 2020
  • Format: Blu-ray Disc
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Rasputin the Mad Monk (Blu-ray Review)

Director

Don Sharp

Release Date(s)

1966 (February 18, 2020)

Studio(s)

Hammer Films/20th Century Fox (Shout!/Scream Factory)
  • Film/Program Grade: B+
  • Video Grade: B+
  • Audio Grade: C+
  • Extras Grade: B+

Rasputin the Mad Monk (Blu-ray Disc)

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Review

Made in the midst of Hammer’s newfound success with the Dracula, Frankenstein, and Mummy films, Rasputin the Mad Monk was a definite change of pace. Not an out-and-out horror film by any means, it was more of a chance for Christopher Lee to stretch his acting legs, ultimately giving one of his finest performances. Originally released in 1966 on a double bill with The Reptile, the film made a decent profit and is looked at years later as one of Hammer’s best.

Grigori Rasputin (Lee) is a Russian monk of questionable morality, often going to the nearby village to drink, dance, and fraternize with the local women. He believes that he is offering God sins worth forgiving, a practice looked down upon by his fellow clergymen. One night after healing the local pub owner’s bed-ridden wife with the mysterious power in his hands and subsequently perceived to be an instrument of Satan, he leaves and makes his way to Saint Petersburg where he takes up with the disgraced but accommodating Dr. Zargo (Richard Pasco). Hoping to gain favor with the royal family, Rasputin influences one of their ladies-in-waiting (Barbara Shelley) to do his bidding. Gaining power by healing their youngest boy, his motives are called into question by Dr. Zargo, who sees through his plans to be absolute evil and feels that he must take action.

Released the same year as Dracula: Prince of Darkness, The Plague of the Zombies, One Million Years B.C., and The Witches, Rasputin the Mad Monk is certainly the odd duck of the group in terms of its genre expectations—particularly from a production company known for its blatant use of sex and violence. Directed by Don Sharp, who also helmed The Kiss of the Vampire for Hammer (as well as the strange, but affectionately remembered Psychomania), it certainly had a keen pedigree behind it. Getting it before the cameras also proved difficult as it had to be rewritten in order to avoid possible interference from those who were involved with the real events, including Prince Yusupov who was still alive at the time and whose name had to be changed to Ivan in the final script.

Rasputin the Mad Monk doesn’t offer an honest portrayal of the real person or a thoroughly true account of his exploits, but it is compelling and well acted. Christopher Lee’s take on the character, playing him as larger than life, gives the film a central performance that's worth appreciating. Though the budget was purportedly cut during production and faced censorship issues before its theatrical release, it remains a potent, if dramatically licensed, interpretation of the notorious figure.

Scream Factory brings Rasputin the Mad Monk to Blu-ray in the US for the first time utilizing what appears to be the same transfer utilized by StudioCanal in 2012 for their UK Blu-ray release. Shot in Cinemascope, the film was matted down to 2.35:1 for its theatrical exhibition. However, this release also provides the full 2.55:1 presentation for the sake of reference, though it carries a lower encode than its UK counterpart. The main 2.35:1 presentation, however, is given a higher encode, getting the most out of the material. It’s a sharp and colorful presentation that’s true to its source, appearing natural with healthy grain and high levels of fine detail. Blacks are deep while brightness and contrast levels are satisfactory. Everything appears stable with little to no visible damage leftover, aside from minor speckling.

The audio is provided in English 2.0 mono DTS-HD with optional subtitles in English SDH. Unfortunately, it’s not as impressive as its video counterpart, but is given more room to breath than the audio included on the StudioCanal Blu-ray, which was a horribly narrow mono track. It’s often too quiet with dialogue sometimes getting lost in the silence, though it doesn’t happen on a regular basis. Most of the time it’s perfectly audible, but like the sound effects and score, lacks any punch or sonic clarity. The 20th Century Fox and Cinemascope title cards at the beginning feature fanfare that sounds like it was recorded in a public restroom through a garden hose. Granted the opening Fox fanfare of the era wasn't always flawless aurally, but it sounds so thin and shoddy here. On the positive side, the track is free of any leftover hiss, thumps, crackle, distortion, or dropouts.

The following extras are also included:

  • Alternate Version of the Film, Presented in the 2.55:1 Aspect Ratio
  • Audio Commentary with Film Historians Constantine Nasr, Steve Haberman, and Ted Newsom
  • Audio Commentary with Christopher Lee, Barbara Shelley, Francis Matthews, and Suzan Farmer
  • Tall Stories: The Making of Rasputin the Mad Monk (HD – 25:23)
  • Brought to Book: Hammer Novelisations (HD – 15:09)
  • The World of Hammer – Costumers (SD – 25:50)
  • The World of Hammer – Hammer Stars: Christopher Lee (SD – 24:59)
  • US Double Feature and Theatrical Trailers (HD and SD – 5:49)
  • US Double Feature TV Spots (SD – 2 in all – 1:25)
  • Still Gallery (HD – 46 in all – 3:23)

Scream Factory has also carried over almost all of the bonus materials from the film’s previous DVD and Blu-ray releases. Adding to the package is a new audio commentary with Constantine Nasr, Steve Haberman, and Ted Newsom. Their discussion is exuberant and full of interesting information about the making of the film, its cast and crew, comparisons to the original script and what was cut out of it, and facts about the true life events involving and surrounding Rasputin himself. The vintage commentary with Christopher Lee, Barbara Shelley, Francis Matthews, and Suzan Farmer is also a lively discussion, but more screen-specific as the four watch the film and comment upon it. Tall Stories and Brought to Book cover both the genesis and the making of the film, as well as the various tie-in novels based upon Hammer’s films. They include interviews with authors Denis Meikle, Jonathan Rigby, Andrew Cook, David Huckvale, Tom Lebbon, actor and writer Mark Gatiss, author and publisher Johnny Mains, and actors Barbara Shelley and Francis Matthews. The Costumers and Hammer Stars: Christopher Lee episodes of The World of Hammer feature narration by Oliver Reed while the double feature trailers and TV spots feature The Reptile as the co-headliner. The animated still gallery features 46 posters, lobby cards, behind-the-scenes stills, and promotional photos.

It’s worth noting that the Anolis Entertainment DVD from overseas featured an interview with Francis Matthews, as well as footage of him signing autographs. The latter Blu-ray release from the same company also featured two additional German audio commentaries: one with Dr. Rolf Giesen and Gerd Naumann, and the other with Uwe Sommerlad and Volker Kronz. None of this material has been included on this release, but honestly, it isn’t missed.

A long overdue addition to any Hammer fan’s home video library here in the states, Rasputin the Mad Monk makes for a mostly pleasant and rewarding Blu-ray experience with a wealth of great bonus materials and excellent picture quality. The audio is in need of improvement, but it’s still an excellent package overall. Highly recommended.

– Tim Salmons

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