Thursday, October 13, 2005

Day 13: Rasputin: The Mad Monk

Rasputin: Careful, Peter. There are acids in here.

Clocking in at 92 minutes, Rasputin: The Mad Monk is a lean Hammer Horror film of little consequence. It plays out inoffensively; it hits its plot points with efficiency, but doesn’t go anywhere altogether interesting along the way. To its credit, there’s a hammy, fun performance by Christopher Lee as the title character and it’s a jollier movie than I would have expected. The movie traces Rasputin’s life from his time at a monastery through his ascent to a life of privilege and influence in the Russian government. As this is a traditional horror film, there are a few deaths and mutilations along the way.

Rasputin lives as a monk in a monastery, but, like a naughty boarding school student, sneaks off on the weekends to get drunk and party down at a local tavern. When the movie opens, the tavern owner’s wife is ill and Rasputin, wanting nothing more than to drink wine, heals her with his magic hands so that the tavern will reopen. After throwing a party to celebrate the wife’s recovery, Rasputin gets caught making out with the owner’s daughter. There is a fight, Rasputin cuts off someone’s hand, and flees back to the monastery. He is soon after forced to leave the monastery due to his bad behavior and for unapologetically using the special healing powers in his hands that, according to the other monks, could only have come from Satan. So, Rasputin takes his special healing powers and his hypnotic eyes to the big city. Here, he uses his magic eyes and hands on several people high up in the Russian government to gain access to wealth and luxury. Eventually, he takes things too far and subjects loyal to the government plot to take him out – with extreme prejudice.

The title of this film should really be Rasputin: The Hedonist Monk since Rasputin isn’t so much mad as desperate to have a good time, whatever the consequences may be. He hypnotizes women for sexual purposes, heals those who will give him the most stuff, and drinks a lot of wine. It’s fun to watch Christopher Lee play him. He belly laughs when he gets his way, dances with gusto, and eats food like every meal will be his last. When he hypnotizes someone, the movie cuts to Lee in a close-up, his eyes get as big as a giant squid’s. “Think only of my eyes,” he intones to his victim in an icy cool voice, sounding like someone who’s just eaten 40 breath mints. Lee is always a compelling actor, but I’ve never seen him so gluttonous and bawdy before. It’s utterly charming.

If only the movie wasn’t so moralistic. Rasputin upsets the natural order of things by being so manipulative and greedy, and so, of course he has to die for this reason. Though lip service is paid to the idea of Rasputin messing with the government, the movie glosses over any political implications of a hypnotist in a position of power. Instead there’s a rather boring subplot of some military officer’s sister being seduced by Rasputin and so, naturally, revenge must be had. I don’t know anything about the historical Rasputin (though I’d be very interested in learning: from what I do know, there’s a good movie in his story somewhere) or how he died or what exactly he did. What I do know is that this is too ignoble a death for Lee’s character. He gnaws on some poisoned chocolates and sips some poisoned wine while waiting for his next sexual conquest to show up. He screams and clutches his stomach as the poison kicks in and, eventually, falls out of a window. Yawn. The food poisoning makes sense for the character, but the Rasputin we’ve watched for the previous 85 minutes or so would have, upon realizing he’s been poisoned, scarfed down more poisoned chocolates and guzzled the poisoned wine while laughing and, probably, dancing.

It’s funny, watching this movie after Carnal Knowledge. Rasputin is the person Jack Nicholson’s character wanted to be: heedless, irresponsible, and selfish. There’s a breakup scene between Rasputin and one of his paramours that was eerily similar in tone and consequence to one in Carnal Knowledge. The main difference here was that Rasputin felt nothing was wrong about the fact that he was emotionally hurting the woman in question. He was bored with her and ready to move on. I realized that one of the interesting things about Carnal Knowledge was that Nicholson’s character, Jonathan, felt exactly the way Rasputin did, hated himself for this, and hated the woman for, as he saw it, putting him in a position where he hated himself. Part of the fun of watching a character like Rasputin is that he feels no such boundaries. It’s undeniably fun to watch him or, for that matter, Diabolik shuck all of society’s rules and conventions to get what they want. Indeed, Rasputin gives a justification for his hedonism to the head monk that is priceless: God is able to forgive Rasputin more than the other monks, because he sins bigger than they do! I think the key to making a movie about a character like this work is to make the alternate voice of society as compelling and interesting as the impish destructor. But those who plot against Rasputin are boring. Because of this, Rasputin: The Mad Monk is slight and, except for Lee, pretty forgettable.

an experiment in dancing

While watching Rasputin: The Mad Monk last night (review up later today), I was miffed that the movie missed two opportunities for a dance-off. I go crazy when I see a two or more people resolving conflict via dance. It's so stupid. But, you know, I guess it's no more ridiculous than people hitting one another or writing scathing letters to the editor about one another. The setup usually goes something like this:

Guy 1: "She's my girl!"
Guy 2: "No she's mine!"
Guy 1: "We'll see about that!"

Then, Guy 1 busts a move, right in Guy 2's face, as if to demonstrate to Guy 2, that if Guy 2 does try to woo Guy 1's girl, he will have to contend with Guy 1's dancing while they date, ruining any chance Guy 2 has of setting the mood! (Girl: "So, I've never been to this restaurant before, it's really... is that Guy 1 dancing over there?") Guy 2 responds by dancing back at Guy 1! This escalates until they've danced away their troubles or one of them throws a shoe and has to be shot.

Besides West Side Story or Strictly Ballroom, anyone know of any good dance-off scenes? And if there are any featuring monsters?