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Thursday, May 14, 2020

When Rasputin Roared Like Never Before

Christopher Lee Was Great and Belonged To Us

My Pressbook As Acquired in 1967
Hammer pubs are often as not splayed with garlic flowers or Michael Ripper, quaint as doll houses except here when bombast bear Christopher Lee enters as Rasputin, more bad than mad monk who you’d not mistake for real-life character living in pre-revolution Russia, and I’m assured besides that Rasputin himself was dull repast beside this portrayal, Lee bent to pass through doorways and dwelling amidst a Munchkin land of fellow players. He speaks less than roars as Rasputin, spares us any accent other than his own. Lee seemed always bigger than movies he acted in. Maybe that was why they didn’t invite him to bigger movies. Were grown-ups in the 60’s even aware of who Christopher Lee was? He and Cushing and wonderful folks of Hammer seemed to belong best with us of adolescent class, the firm where they toiled a down-market cousin to Britishers who won Academy Awards with A Man For All Seasons or Lawrence Of Arabia. Being tilt toward history made Rasputin, The Mad Monk seem like grasp at classier brass, but no, it was just another horror-dunk via 20th Fox to US theatres, their Rasputin beard a giveaway that gave away fact this was no bid for respectability. If such selling didn’t make that plain, pairing with The Reptile, wherein a girl turns into one, settled all questions of intent.

Christopher Lee was doing too much of our kind of acting to qualify for higher brow company. He was for the matinee and Baby Ruth gallery, like hail-hearty melodramatists dazzled rowdy seats of past century playhouses, Lee a 60’s underground performing treasure. I remember thinking so when Wilder used him in the jumbo Sherlock Holmes picture (but why not as Holmes rather than the tepid lead assigned, for Lee had after all cracked the deadly necklace case some seasons before, albeit on budget and Euro terms). Then Chris was Scaramanga opposing 007, but The Man With The Golden Gun was Bond at a bottom, and some of us wondered if Lee was too good for such proposed august company. He did a TV interview during the flush and recalled tens of millions watching his guest host spot for Saturday Night Live in 1978. Better not to think much about such numbers, said modest Chris (did I say modest?), though it seemed to me at the time he’d been trendily adopted by a crowd told how hep Christopher Lee suddenly was, but had they been there when he was Rasputin or vis-à-vis to Devils Riding Out? I bet not, for Hammers by late 60’s had to be uprooted from one-day bookings or a single night at the drive-in with one, two, or more bunkmates. Rasputin after all had its one/only Winston-Salem engagement outdoors, any hardtop cool by then to Hammers figured too ubiquitous. Besides, they were busy vacuuming carpets to host A Man For All Seasons.

Parent’s magazine had a monthly “service” that rated movies’ fitness for youth. Taking their lead meant keeping kids off anything other than Disney or Island Of The Blue Dolphins, maybe Birds Do It! in a pinch. They warned of Rasputin as corrosive to tender minds, particularly a man’s hand cleaved off where he interrupts heavy-beard Chris and a tavern wench at hey-hey in a hayloft. Mutilation as mainstay was what made Hammers must-sees for me, and here was what looked like reprise of Curse Of The Mummy’s Tomb sword-to-wrist action. Only one household on my street took Parent’s, mother of that brood reclusive enough not to spread warning beyond suppression of her own offspring’s moviegoing, so there wasn’t risk of contagion spread among grown-ups re Rasputin, otherwise I’d have been barred from going as would be case when another neighbor told my mother that She with Ursula Andress was nothing more or less than pornography. What a dance we did to keep parents in darkness so we could watch Hammers in darkness. A few of the UK chillers were beginning to show up on television, but that was never the same, just as James Bond and so much of the 60’s would be gelded once tubes grasped hold.

It was long enough since I watched Rasputin, The Mad Monk to forget that there was also acid pitched in a man’s face --- bonus fun! What sort of sickness makes me always enjoy acid thrown in a man’s face? (high hilarity when ’43 Phantom Claude Rains got his). Hammer’s live action Bad Luck Blackie that was Richard Pasco had dealt to disadvantage with gorgons previous, here knifed in the back for his pains. Rasputin, The Mad Monk yields much from small boy candy box of violence, and more so sex, as we’d not experienced on Hammer terms, let alone in real life. Known quantity Barbara Shelly, having turned out previously to be a gorgon, between that and Rasputin a frigid wife enthralled by C. Lee’s Dracula (as in Prince Of Darkness), so had been enslaved by him before, but not so explicitly as here. Surrender to Chris extends to burning need to be taken by him again and again (branded a “whore” by indelicate Francis Matthews), heady stuff to me and whatever thirteen-year-olds were present also at the Liberty in 1967. 

Were You "particularly susceptible to weird hairdos and the beatnik look" in 1967?

And what of killing Rasputin, a tough commission says history, but Lee and would-be assassins make it joyous as efforts to quell dinosaurs in sci-fi of the era, delight unto now with Chris playing it like high comic opera, an exactly right approach (he relishes poison candy in addition to his poison wine). Theatres better financed and in larger towns gave away free Rasputin beards, “for guys and gals alike!,” trouble being that beards, even cheap, fakey ones, cost something, in this instance $20 per thousand, and the Liberty wanted none of that. Getting our quarter barely kept lights on as it was.  I felt a worse affront for the intended (by Fox) double-bill being Liberty-split and making us come back three weeks later to see The Reptile, so let’s see … that’s fifty cents invested in the pair. Co-features were no salve. We got Waco with Howard Keel out of A.C. Lyles as back-up to Rasputin, but who cared about Keel or Lyles where hands chopped and acid thrown was reason to be there?

Worse slap in the face was a pressbook Colonel Forehand kindly gave me, which was a stapled-at-top, flip-book affair with its “Publicity” section simply a blank page, the rest cold type not enhanced by font variety or merest effort at presentation. Contrast was stark beside other pressbooks I took home from the Liberty, color covers or oversized manuals for such as Casino Royale or Is Paris Burning?, two that were pushed lots harder than Hammers on a down slope. Fox seemed fed up by these. Posters and lobby cards for Rasputin/Reptile were duotone and dull as dishwater. TCF had scored nice with One Million Years B.C. a previous year, but since-then combos went undernourished by those of us still loyal. Domestic rentals for Rasputin/Reptile could not individually touch even $250K, so like with other Hammers of late, it took television to make them US-viable. Herewith, however, are highlights of the pressbook, waiting fifty-three years on my shelf to regale us now. As for Rasputin, The Mad Monk, there is a Blu-Ray of nice scope dimension with good a color as achievable. Someone told me that Hammer used old Cinemascope lenses lent them by Fox, wide work improved upon since the process was new, so these relics gave off scope “mumps,” with figures off to sides disfigured by back-to-‘53-54 technique. Maybe there was nostalgia in that for a few. It certainly makes Rasputin that much more a joy to revisit now.

UPDATE, 5/14/2020, 12:35 pm: Griff sent along this first-run image at Detroit's fabulous Fox Theatre. Thanks, Griff!


Blogger Beowulf said...

Chris gives one of the best examples of body, gesture, and eye acting in THE MUMMY. He never gave more or less than a part demanded. Barbara Shelley was gorgeous but it warmed my heart that a fellow Penn Stater warmed the bed of Hazel Court.

I am a robot on the weekends....

2:21 PM  
Blogger DBenson said...

I remember seeing the Rasputin poster (sans Reptile) with the free beard offer at the Granada in Morgan Hill, CA, but never saw the film. It stuck with me, because it looked like one of those "mature audiences only" films and I had a vision of a mature audience wearing fake beards. Read somewhere that the beards were not as nice as the one on the poster; your pressbook image seems to confirm it was just a paper cutout.

My father, in his youth, worked a few summers at Yellowstone Park during the 30s. He was part of an employee show in a sketch titled "Rasputin and the Empress", playing Rasputin. He often recalled the entire dialogue, which was as follows:

RASPUTIN: (slaps Empress on behind) Hey, Queenie!
EMPRESS: Oh, Raspy. Can't you be good for five minutes?
RASPUTIN: Hell, Queenie, I'll be good for twenty years yet!

I know the real history was heavy stuff, but that always affected how seriously I could take the mad monk.

3:08 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Now THAT'S a sketch I'd like to see.

3:46 PM  
Blogger Dave K said...

Oh, man! What a Hammer blast from the past, John! I was just a couple of years older when I caught this double feature at the E.M. Loew's (or was it the Allyn? Can't be sure... they were the two grindhouses next door to each other on Asylum Street in Harford, CT). I knew at the time I had I seen much better movies. Hell, I had seen much better Hammer movies! Didn't matter. I loved this particular double header, one of the favorite afternoons in my misspent youth. THE REPTILE had a typical Roy Ashton monster design that, I'm sure, probably looked a lot scarier in Mr. Ashton's sketchbook than on poor Jacqueline Pearce. Not to worry. Creepy enough to satisfy us. But RASPUTIN! RASPUTIN had Chris Lee at full tilt, groping, hypnotizing and mutilating all over the place. Never mind the poison candy... he was gobbling up all the scenery in sight, enjoying every bit of his MAD MONKey business.

Pretty sure my parents didn't know who the hell Christopher Lee was, even when he wandered into an AIRPORT movie. These days, I think super fan Laraine Newman is claiming at least some credit for snagging Lee for that SNL gig. As to the coupling of a scary movie with a low budget cowboy flick... took in plenty of those too! My kid brother was particularly partial to Glen Ford cheapie westerns, and as often as not those were hooked up with a British, Japanese or Italian horror import. Everybody happy!

5:09 PM  
Blogger rnigma said...

I think "The Night They Killed Rasputin" came out around the same time or a few years earlier, which starred John Drew Barrymore in "the role made famous by his father" - actually, it was his uncle Lionel (in "Rasputin and the Empress"). Perhaps my favorite portrayal of the "mad monk" was by Tom Baker (yup, Doctor Who #4) in "Nicholas and Alexandra."

9:35 PM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

This is one I did not take to as I knew a lot about Rasputin, more than enough to know way too much had been left out.

Still, what you have captured here is the joy of lost generations of young moviegoers determined, despite all the forces working to keep us safe, to see what we were judged too young to see.

In my case in New Brunswick I had to hitch hike miles away to another town where the theater showed the films I was determined to see. Then, late at night, I froze my butt praying those headlights I saw approaching in the distance would stop.

Was it worth it? Yes.

This is something kids trotting off to video stores or downloading off the web in the safety of their homes can never know.

By the time RASPUTIN came out I was living in Toronto. No need to wait hours after for a ride home.

So, while this is far from my favorite Hammer you describe the experience perfectly.

Rasputin, for me, was best served up by Alan Rickman in RASPUTIN: Dark Servant of Destiny.

While THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN may be low on the Bond pole it was/is great to see Lee in it. It was also great to see him in CANDY. His appearance was unexpected and fun. He and Cushing were our Karloff and Lugosi. Not only that they got to appear in more movies together.

In these days of multi-plexes and mini-cinemas the movie going experience ain't what it used to be.

While Hammer's RASPUTIN is not as high on my list as it is on yours this post captures everything about GREENBRIAR PICTURES SHOWS I love.

I expect Covid-19 has shattered the mold.

We ain't going to be able to gather in thousands again to hoot and holler our way through the latest film our parents feel we'd be better off missing.

8:14 AM  

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