Rawhead Rex (1986)
Studio: Kino Lorber
Release date: October 17th, 2017
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
During his illustrious career, Clive Barker has inspired numerous landmark films with his work, many of which plumb to Lovecraftian depths, tapping into deeply unsettling, resonant horrors: Hellraiser, Nightbreed, Candyman, and Lord of Illusions form a veritable murderer’s row of tremendous adaptations. And then there’s Rawhead Rex, an earlier adaptation about a preposterous looking pagan demon that resurfaces to terrorize the Irish countryside with a schlocky, gore-soaked rampage. Granted, Barker’s original short story (and script) dared to be more than such empty pulp, but, as has also often been the case during his career, this adaptation doesn’t quite do the original work justice. However, does that preclude Rawhead Rex from being an awful film that deserves to be disowned by Barker himself?
Well, obviously, I am really in no position to argue with the esteemed Mr. Barker, but I would respectfully disagree with him on this matter. While Rawhead Rex obviously isn’t anywhere the pinnacle of works associated with the author, it’s a rip-roaring little monster movie whose purity is admirable. It’s got an irresistibly simple hook that’s delivered swiftly: no less than eight minutes into the movie, the titular Rawhead inexplicably rises from the grave and begins his killing spree in and around a small town, a brief but violent reign of terror that unfolds over the course of a couple days. The pretense of a plot forms around him, most of it involving Howard Hallenbeck (David Dukes), an American photojournalist pursuing a story about the land’s ancient pagan roots. With his wife and two kids in tow, he makes his way to a local church adorned with some interesting stained glass and other cryptic items that might eventually explain why an 8-foot tall monstrous demon is suddenly on a rampage.
As you might expect, the movie is mostly about that carnage—I mean, the movie is titled Rawhead Rex, not An American Photojournalist in Ireland, you know? This, of course, is in no way a criticism since watching monsters tear people apart is a perfectly acceptable form of entertainment around these parts. For the most part, director George Pavlou delivers what’s expected on this front: Rawhead Rex is gory as hell, as the title creature romps through trailer parks and surrounding fields, allowing the film to contend with the era’s splatter output. Even if you wouldn’t lump this in with traditional slashers, its aim isn’t too terribly different: you watch Rawhead Rex to see people die horribly, and Pavlou consistently absolves you of having to feel too terribly bad about it. By the time you see a girl’s completely disrobing right in the middle of the attack, you realize to what base levels this movie is aspiring—and that’s fine, of course, especially since the effects are gruesome and ample.
The only problem here—and one might consider it a huge problem depending on what you want from something like Rawhead Rex—is that it’s hard to take this thing seriously when it decides to, well, get serious. A little over halfway through the film, Rawhead Rex seemingly abducts Hallenbeck’s son from their car in what should be a positively nightmarish sequence: we glimpse a trail of blood and watch Hallenbeck flee into the woods, overcome by anguish and rage…only to see the scene abruptly cut to the family sitting in the police station, processing the turn of events with all the somberness of someone who may have lost their dog. Pavlou finds no sense of weight here, as Hallenbeck’s grief quickly dovetails into his thirst for revenge against the creature that murdered his son. Given the film’s generally glib tone, the lack of gravitas, and the fact that we don’t actually see Rex kill the boy, it’s easy to assume that the son was actually just abducted and will miraculously turn up before the credits roll.
But nope! The rest of the film does play out as a fairly straightforward revenge plot, albeit one with some interesting flourishes screaming in from the margins, desperately trying to capture the utter weirdness of Barker’s original text. It’s here that Hallenbeck also fully plunges into the lore of Rawhead Rex, particularly how he forms a cult from a scattering of followers, including one of the church’s priests (Ronan Wilmot). In the film’s standout scene, Rex even initiates his new subject in a rather unique fashion: I’ve heard of baptism by fire, but baptism by urination is something only Rawhead Rex can claim. It can also claim one of the most random, psychedelic climaxes this side of Susan Strasberg shooting lasers from her eyes in The Manitou. The resolution here should probably be taught in Deus Ex Machina Screenwriting 101: sure, Barker scatters some hints about it here and there throughout the film, but it’s fair to raise your eyebrows as you watch it unfold.
I’m left wishing the rest of the film were as deliriously strange as the last 30 minutes or so, especially since Rawhead Rex is a wicked (one might even say even more blasphemous) update of the rural British occult movement that helped to define the 70s. Shooting on location in Ireland lends an immediate authenticity to the proceedings—there’s something almost preternaturally ancient about these locales that taps into an old world mystique this sort of tale needs. Rawhead Rex is based on actual Irish folklore, and setting the film right in the heart of the country’s wild moors and small, almost cultish towns results in some fantastic atmospherics. If you squint hard enough, you could almost mistake it for one of those genuinely unsettling occult films, especially when the screenplay dares to indulge the actual lore behind Rex, a pagan god who represents untamed male aggression and rage. Barker’s original tale is a legitimately frightening parable about the dark, primal forces that these tales once hoped to restrain and curb when they were told around campfires centuries ago.
The same can’t really be said about this adaptation, not consistently anyway. For one thing, Rawhead Rex himself is too silly looking to inspire any real terror; for another, Pavlou clearly isn’t interested in inspiring much of it anyway. For better and for worse, this is an Empire Picture joint through and through: low-budget, junky, and looking to deliver the cheapest thrills imaginable. Perhaps under those auspices only would anyone be bold enough to survey the British occult tradition and asserts, “you know what, this genre could definitely use a giant monster pissing on a priest.”
Despite the natural intrigue surrounding Rawhead Rex, its lone DVD release (from 1999!) has been remarkably out-of-print for over a decade, meaning it was damn near impossible to even watch during that time. Thankfully, however, Kino-Lorber came to the rescue last fall with an outstanding Blu-ray release featuring a transfer sourced from a restored camera negative and an abundance of supplements. Not only does Pavlou provide a commentary, but a quartet of interviews tackles various aspects of the film’s production and beyond.
Heinrich von Schellendorf, who brought Rawhead Rex himself to life beneath that big, rubbery suit, appears on camera to share an assortment of anecdotes, from his casting to his preparation (believe it or not, U2 played a role here). Another interview with Wilmot provides some more recollections about the shoot, including, yes, the infamous piss scene itself—you sense that, like Barker, Wilmot also wasn’t too terribly thrilled by how the original story was pared down to such nonsense. In the next interview, various members of the effects team provide their insight into what was ultimately a tumultuous production, which perhaps explains why the ending is so slipshod in nature. Finally, artist Stephen Bissette appears to detail the Rawhead Rex comic book that never came to fruition in the late 80s.
A trailer, an image gallery, and liner notes from Kat Ellinger complete a pretty astounding package. Obviously, Barker’s absence is quite notable, if not expected—when he disowned this film, he meant it, though he has been on record in the past advocating for a redo. I can’t help but agree with him: while this Rawhead Rex is largely successful at what it sets out to do, it’s easy to imagine an updated version that’s more faithful to Barker’s original story, meaning it might actually be scary in addition to being gross and blasphemous. comments powered by Disqus Ratings:
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