It’s just as well that Hammer magnet Christopher Lee adds both talent and terror to this controversial adaptation based on the life of Russian monk Grigori Rasputin. For otherwise, this cliché-laden tale of one of history’s most mysterious figures would be laughable. Actually, it is.

While historians and experts could never quite decide whether Rasputin was saint or sinner, psychic mystic or faith healer, or simply just a personality larger than life, one thing he was not: mad! Strongly in favour with the last Tsarina of Russia, Rasputin came to fame and notoriety not only for his womanising ways and heavy drinking, but for his alleged ability to cure the haemophiliac son of the Tsar and Tsarina. This led to the peasant Rasputin gaining great influence over the Romanov family in a pre-revolution Russia, while to this day it is argued that he also helped discredit the tsarist government.

Hammer doesn’t pay too much attention to the historical fact / fiction malarkey, instead, emphasis here is on Rasputin’s terrifying power to work dark magic and drive the Tsarina’s lady-in-waiting, Sonia (Barbara Shelley), into physical and psychological dependence – with devastating consequences.

Enter Hammer’s vision of turn of the 19th century Russia – a place in which landlords daughters were dressed like picture book babooshkas and merrily danced in taverns despite an ongoing food shortage amongst the poor. A place where peasants spoke with Cockney accents and appeared way too groomed, and wine replaced Russia’s all-cure: vodka. Cor blimey!
As for Rasputin’s assassination scene, if reality is to be believed than our monk was made of stern stuff indeed, what with being still breathing after having downed large quantities of poisoned candies and liquor, being tortured and then shot several times before being dumped in a river. In Hammer’s version, death comes relatively swift and thus makes for an anti-climax, but it also has its good side: with Rasputin’s swift death also comes a swift end to the movie!

Main players Christopher Lee, Barbara Shelley as well as Francis Matthews have their impressive acting talents wasted in this admittedly gloriously restored flick (original from 1966). Most likely, this DVD/Blu-ray release will appeal to die-hard Hammer fans but hardly anyone else.

The bonus material is considerable more interesting than the actual movie and contains the brand new documentaries ‘Tall Stories: The Making Of Rasputin The Mad Monk’ and ‘Brought To Book: Hammer Novelisations’. It also contains an episode from the ‘Word Of Hammer’ series titled ‘Costumers’ (who obviously didn’t do their research on fashion and peasant clothes in late 19th century Russia!).