Throughout, the mad monk is portrayed as a demonic country bumpkin, endowed with superhuman gifts but in the end brought down by a combination of greed and complacency. It's a bit of a shock, seeing the debonair Christopher Lee parading around in a great thatch of long black locks and beard (and grinning maniacally as he jigs his way through Russian folk dances). But once you get over it, this is actually one of his more layered and thoughtful performances, by turns gruff and silky, intense and louche. A lot of the time he wears a po-face of messianic self-belief, but he also lets out gusts of coarse peasant laughter as he sees the funny side of his unstoppable rise to power.
For modern audiences unimpressed by the wild and woolly look, Rasputin probably isn't the most instantly charismatic of Hammer villains, but, on this evidence, he was certainly the life and soul of the party in pre-revolutionary Russia. And he's not just about groping girls and knocking back bottles of wine. There's also a counter-cultural agenda, a satisfying sense of the tail wagging the dog, in the way he delights in shocking and humiliating the vapid St Petersburg aristos who make the mistake of getting in his way.
To really do Rasputin's excesses justice would call for the talents of someone like Ken Russell, but director Don Sharp delivers a reasonably racy film by the standards of mid-Sixties Hammer. There's a titillatingly perverse vibe to Rasputin's seduction of Sonia, stripping her bare in his grotty garret, then allowing one of his cronies to catch an eyeful of her huddled in bed. He's using her to get to the Tsarina, but meanwhile his sexual interest is pricked by the younger, prettier lady-in-waiting Vanessa (Suzan Farmer). He makes no secret of this, and Sonia acknowledges it with what is almost a masochistic thrill.
Nor is this a simple tale of good versus evil. The toffs who eventually join forces to oppose Rasputin are a grubby, unlikeable lot. There's Sonia's pipsqueak of a brother (Dinsdale Landen), who attempts to make her see the error of her ways (“You slut! You're behaving like a common whore!”) And then there's Zargo (Richard Pasco), a disgraced and drunken doctor whom Rasputin first sponges off, then keeps as a querulous pet, with plans to promote him to high office as a joke on the rest of his profession.
Where the film lets itself down is in capturing the Russian milieu. The extras wear smocks instead of lederhosen and kneel in front of icons instead of hanging up strings of garlic, but you still feel as if you're in the Carpathians – the vastness of mother Russia is nowhere to be seen (an absence that's all the more noticeable as the 2.35:1 aspect ratio braces you for the spectacular). Still, Rasputin the Mad Monk deserves to be recognized as one of Hammer's more interesting and individual offerings, and this fine Blu-ray release, with its dazzling picture quality and generous host of extras, should go a long way to accomplishing just that.