Chrisopher Lee was undoubtedly British horror studio Hammer Films’s most popular and versatile performer. Well, perhaps versatile isn’t quite the word for it—even though Lee was equally effective in roles on either side of the good-evil dichotomy, he seemed uninterested in the territory of ambiguity. And again, that’s too hasty a judgment, because there is something truly subversive about Lee’s intense way of bringing similar qualities to roles of both virtue and vice. Fully capable of playing self-righteous Christian soldiers with the most granite of jaws as well as embodying the honeyed seductiveness of evil incarnate, Lee demonstrated how most continuums are less like straight lines with good and evil situated as far as possible from each other, but rather like a circle where extreme behavior is actually closest to exactly the thing it hates. Take The Devil Rides Out, where Lee plays the Duc de Richleau, a modern day warrior-saint against a cult of Satanists (led by the always silken Charles Gray) out to ensnare his surrogate son Simon. From the first scene, where de Richleau arrives to meet their mutual friend, the skeptical Rex Van Ryn, at an airstrip, Lee seems to be sniffing out the evil. Arriving at Simon’s mansion that evening, his eyes are immediately drawn to the astrology observatory. When his suspicions are confirmed (the group of pagans have gathered in the living room and Simon begs the Duc and Van Ryn to call on him another evening because they are interrupting his “society meeting”), Lee books it to the observatory and almost instinctively knows where to find the sacrificial roosters. “I’d rather you were dead than fooling around with this,” he growls to Simon, in full-blown moral outrage. Not to downplay the top-notch work of Hammer’s premiere auteur Terence Fisher (who turns the centerpiece “circle” sequence into an endless nightmare of atmosphere, suggested evil and, finally, terrifying manifestations) and the smoothly structured script by famed genre novelist Richard Matheson, but Lee’s performance pushes The Devil Rides Out from being merely one of Hammer’s better films into the territory of horror classic.
Rasputin the Mad Monk (or, as the hilariously tasteless American television promos for the film pitched it: “Ras-poo-tin! The Maaaaaad Monk!”) depends quite heavily on a fine central performance by Christopher Lee, this time in basso-profundo evil mode as the infamous, social-climbing Russian pseudo-monk, a turn-of-the-century Czarist Eve Harrington. But Lee is unfortunately let down by a haphazard (and often wildly inaccurate) scenario that seems the result of trying to cover too many bases. Playing a bit like Hammer’s Greatest Hits, the film attempts to meld historical pageantry, occult shadings, and a liberal dose of third-act terror and gore (Rasputin’s last stand is re-imagined as a proto-slasher “he just won’t die” showcase). Damned if Lee doesn’t do his best to sell it, and his efforts come off like an offering to the Gods of Camp. Lee heals the sick by clasping his hands down in front of the faces of the afflicted until they drip with sweat, he cuts off a peasant’s hand and then throws a hissy fit when his superiors at the monastery demand an explanation, he hangs around in bars and fancy-dances himself into an effete, toe-pointing tizzy and then, when a drunk lady giggles at the end of the dance, hypnotizes her and snarls blackly, “You will apologize for laughing at me!” Lee’s riotous, low-throated interpretation of the back-stabbing mystic is something to behold, and confirms him as Hammer’s greatest weapon, but Rasputin is nothing more than a relic, a C-grade period-exploitation film from a studio that was Britain’s King of the B’s.
Hammer might have turned out the jams at the same breakneck pace of, say, Roger Corman, but they were also unusually good-looking films with a professional sheen. Anchor Bay's anamorphic transfers for both films are pretty good. Struck from nearly flawless prints, the only major problem appears to be some blocking, and often times the bright boxes of windows will jump around a bit against the darkness around them. But colors are rich and solid. The Devil Rides Out disc was saddled with another in Anchor Bay's long line of unnecessary but nevertheless well-produced 5.1 surround sound mixes, otherwise both discs have perfectly fine mono tracks in English and French (but, unfortunately, no subtitles: also par for Anchor Bay).
Both discs feature Christopher Lee chatting it up with his respective co-stars on commentary tracks. The recordings leave something to be desired, as it often sounds like the entire group is only speaking into one mic, which means that some voices come off as a good deal louder than the others (Lee is, unfortunately, sometimes difficult to hear in the background) and there's a definite problem with reverb. Also included on each disc is an episode of the 1990 UK television series of docs "The World of Hammer." Nicely narrated and thoughtfully assembled, one almost wishes that Anchor Bay would put together a disc with all 13 episodes of the series. Rounding out the sets are theatrical trailers, including the aforementioned classic campaign for Rasputin ("Come early and get your free Rasputin beard to ward off evil!").
Regardless of whether he was playing a sinner or a saint, the deep throat of Christopher Lee made the battle between good and evil never sexier.