In Russia of the first years of the twentieth century, there lies dying an innkeeper's wife: she has the fever, and the doctor attending claims there is nothing he can do for her. As her husband and children gather round her bedside, the mood downstairs among the customers is subdued so when Rasputin (Christopher Lee) barges in and demands a bottle or two of wine he is admonished by them, but when he finds out why they are so quiet he rushes upstairs and into the bedroom, where he announces he can save the patient - and he does, laying on his hands to draw the sickness out of her.
Needless to say, Hammer's version of Rasputin was not the most accurate of historical epics, and it wasn't much of an epic for that matter, being almost entirely studio-bound, but it did have one thing in its favour, and that was the star quality of its leading man. To draw on the Dracula comparisons, not only was the so-called Mad Monk played by Lee, but it was made with the same resources (actors, sets, etc) as the most recent of the bloodsucker's adaptations, Dracula, Prince of Darkness, so if he didn't exactly go around biting on necks, the similarities were there to be seen for those who wanted them.
That in spite of Lee's determination to base his portrayal in as much as he could find out about the real man as possible. He had actually met the villain's assassins as a boy, one of many incidents in his rich and full life which would tie in with his work, so obviously it meant a lot to him to be taking this role. You could assuredly tell, as he threw himself into the part, all wide, staring eyes, gruff barking voice and debauchery as if it was going out of fashion. What this did lead to depict was a strange sympathy for the Russian royal family, not something much shared by observers of the day or indeed in historical record, but here the ones we see - which weirdly did not include the Tsar - are apparently perfectly decent.
Rasputin inveigles his way into their inner circle through their lady-in-waiting Sonia, played by Barbara Shelley in yet another horror role which saw her character come under the irresistable influence of evil - just like that Dracula movie she'd been in right before this. Being a Hammer, they emphasised, and indeed invented, a horrific atmosphere for their telling, so we watched hands cut off, acid in the face, and bloody suicide before the end credits as if the studio were anxious a less sensationalised version of events would fail to bring in the punters. Sonia is like one of those possessed women of many a devil worship movie, starting out level headed and ending up a raving lunatic scrabbling around on the floor.
Her now-mentor hypnotises Sonia to push the young son of the Tsar off a wall, landing the boy in a coma and seeing to it that Rasputin is the only one who can save him with his supernatural power. Then he can bend the royals around his little finger, but he doesn't have it all his own way as there are plans afoot to murder him when he gets too big for his boots, led by Sonia's brother Dinsdale Landen who doesn't like what happened to his sister. Much of this takes itself so seriously for what is actually lurid material (and that's just Sir Christopher's increasingly bright outfits) that it tends to bring down the mood, so rather than revelling in the wickedness you're getting a dose of moral anguish. Helping was the leading man whose vivid essaying of a plum role allowed the drier moments to coast with the possibility that he's only going to get worse. What's amusing is not just Lee's dancing double (couldn't he have done that himself for all the complexity of the moves?) but the way it builds to a rampant climax, again not factual, but entertaining. Music by Don Banks.
[Studio Canal's Blu-ray is the best this has looked in years; extras are two featurettes, one a making of one a documentary about Hammer novelisations, an audio commentary with four of the stars, a World of Hammer episode about costumes, and a stills gallery.]