ON DVD & BLU-RAY
Rawhead Rex (1986) Clive Barker adaptation Blu Ray (Arrow)
This adaptation of a short story from Clive Barker’s Books of Blood anthology stars David Dukes as Howard Hallenbeck, an American author who comes to Ireland with his wife Elaine (Kelly Piper), son Robbie (Hugh O’Conor) and daughter Minty (Cora Venus Lunny) in tow. He is performing research for a book examining pre-Christian forms of worship in the country. As part of his travels, he arrives in a rural village to investigate a church which was built on a former Pagan ceremonial site.
Around the time of his arrival, some local farmers try to remove a huge phallic stone column from a field. Unfortunately, their attempts to dislodge it unleash a giant demonic creature which proceeds to terrorise and murder various hapless folk in the area. Its spirit also exudes a malevolent influence over a church verger named Declan O’Brien (Ronan Wilmot), who attempts to obstruct Howard’s efforts to uncover the village’s Neolithic past and the mystery behind the sudden appearance of this ferocious monster.
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A cheesy cult favourite
Rawhead Rex was the second of two Clive Barker adaptations to have been directed by George Pavlou during the mid-1980s. Both it and its predecessor Underworld (1985) were widely panned by critics and disliked by Barker. Indeed, the author decided it would be better if he just wore the directorial hat himself for his subsequent attempt to bring his work to the big screen (the excellent Hellraiser in 1987). However, while Underworld has since remained a largely-forgotten relic of the VHS era, Rawhead Rex has gone on to gain a minor cult following over the years. That’s not to say that it’s any kind of misunderstood masterpiece. Nonetheless, if you approach it, with beer in hand, as a cheesy monster-on-the-loose flick then it is rather entertaining.
The story does have a basis in a genuinely intriguing notion: that of ancient Pagan customs, having been suppressed over the millennia by the Christian faith, resurfacing with a (literal) vengeance. It covers similar territory to The Wicker Man (1973), albeit more in the form of a creature feature than a mystery with a sting in its tail as per the former. However, whereas The Wicker Man remains a consummate example of the folk-horror genre, Rawhead Rex falls down in its execution. It ends up being more comedic (intentionally or otherwise) than scary.
The film’s biggest problem by far is its ogre-like on-screen monster. Its face looks like a rubbery joke shop mask with the addition of poorly-executed mouth animatronics and spinning red lights in its eyes. To make matters worse, director Pavlou insists on continually showing it in close-up throughout the film. Its appearance just kills any sense of terror stone dead and tends to cause the viewer to erupt into laughter.
While the creature effects are Rawhead Rex’s most critical issue, there are other aspects which make it hard to take seriously. The acting is hit-and-miss; David Dukes is fairly decent as the lead but most of the other cast members don’t fare as well. Hugh O’Conor and Cora Venus Lunny are Irish actors playing American children - something which is quite noticeable because their accents frequently slip. Niall O’Brien keeps his range limited to one facial expression as the near-useless police inspector who is assigned to investigate the slayings. One gets the feeling that he didn’t know quite how to play his role. Ronan Wilmot at least seems to be enjoying himself indulging in some wild overacting as the crazed priest.
There are also various details in the story which don’t make a lot of sense. For one thing, what’s with that strange stone column in the freshly-tilled field? If it was standing there for hundreds of years, surely the locals would have been much better off turning it into a tourist draw rather than simply converting its surroundings into arable land? Maybe it magically appeared all of a sudden overnight? If that was the case, surely the farmers who discovered it would opt to look up some paranormal investigators rather than simply huffing away and treating it like a mere inconvenience? In another scene, there’s a sinister short old lady in a red hooded coat who pops up and appears to have some significance - but is subsequently never seen or mentioned again. What purpose does she serve, other than as an obvious Don’t Look Now reference?
Throw in the cheap 1980s optical effects, the laughable dialogue (“Get upstairs, fuck face! I can't keep God waiting!”) and the infamous baptism-by-urination scene and you have quite a treasure trove of bad and bonkers filmmaking here. On the other hand, George Pavlou actually does a serviceable job of handling the film’s atmosphere and action sequences. There’s plenty of prowling camerawork, some technically competent scenes involving vehicles being overturned or blown up (which presumably swallowed up the lion’s share of what little budget the film had) and even some effective use of long shots - especially during a sequence when the family embark on a countryside drive and briefly stop off to allow Minty to relieve herself behind a bush, only to discover that the creature is in their midst. There’s some astutely-implied peril and tension in this particular scene which elevates it above the rest of the film. There’s also a fair amount of gore at times, albeit mostly limited to depicting the aftermath of the monster’s attacks - a severed head here, a severed hand there, plus a few actors covered in bloody makeup. The score by Colin Towns is also appropriately ominous and thunderous.
Rawhead Rex is, in many ways, an ideal companion piece to the likes of Bruno Mattei’s Rats: Night of Terror (1984) and Juan Piquer Simón’s Slugs: The Movie (1988). As with those films, it’s ridiculous and inept but at least it delivers on the crudest B-movie level.
Runtime: 89 mins
Dir: George Pavlou
Script: Clive Barker, based on his own short story
Starring: David Dukes, Kelly Piper, Hugh O’Conor, Cora Venus Lunny, Ronan Wilmot, Niall Tobin, Niall O’Brien, Heinrich von Schellendorf, Donal McCann
Blu Ray Audio-Visual
Despite the 4K restoration job, Rawhead Rex still has some grain and a few specks of dirt in certain shots. Otherwise, however, it looks and sounds as wonderful as a horror cheapie like this could do so. Colour and contrast are spot-on.
Highlights amongst the extras
Audio Commentary with Director George Pavlou and Stephen Thrower
A highly enjoyable gab track featuring director Pavlou and horror fan Thrower. The former gives us plenty of interesting insights into a production which was originally intended to be one of five Clive Barker Books of Blood adaptations. It was planned to be shot in County Devon, England but was moved to County Wicklow in Ireland because the funding came from the latter country. One of the original investors dropped out, reducing the budget from $2.5 million to $1.5 million and necessitating that night shoots ended at midnight to avoid paying the crew extra fees to work later. This meant that most of the night-time action had to be quickly captured in one take. This even included a complex and dangerous scene where 13 stuntmen were set on fire simultaneously - a world record at that time. In fact, the producers were so tight with money that they even refused to fly Barker across to Ireland when Pavlou requested that he work on-set with him!
Pavlou also talks about the 15th century origins of the Rawhead myth which inspired Barker’s creation, as well as briefly discussing both his earlier adaptation of the author’s work, Underworld, and his subsequent film Little Devils.
Call Me Rawhead
Actor Heinrich von Schellendorf (here credited as Heinrich von Bünau) talks about his experiences making the film. As a 19-20 year old at the time he enjoyed the opportunity to play a monster but hated taking 2 hours each day to put on the costume. He had a bodyguard with him at all times to ensure that he avoided damaging the suit and to protect him from getting jumped by anyone wanting to steal it. He also recalls that his costume scared the child actors on the set, and that he met U2 who were staying at the hotel during the time of filming.
What the Devil Hath Wrought
Actor Ronan Wilmot, who played the crazy possessed priest Declan O’Brien, is a good-humoured interviewee here. He reveals that he got the part because he terrified the director during auditions. He also mentions that he was ideal casting because he was a bit, as he put it, “off the wall” himself at that time.
Rawhead FX: A Cock and Bull Story
The FX team discuss the difficulties of working within the tight time and budget constraints that the film faced. Peter Litten reveals that he had just 4 weeks to design and construct the suit and animatronics for Rawhead, a task which would normally take months. Despite the short timescale for developing the creature FX, Litten mentions that there were quite a few animatronic movements created which weren’t used in the final cut. Barker had originally conceived the creature as something resembling a giant penis which would have needed a tall and skinny man to play. However, since Litten felt that audiences wouldn’t have taken to such an idea, it was modified to the form which we see in the film. Interestingly, Paul Catling who designed the creature went on to work on a number of Harry Potter, Marvel and Star Wars films.
Growing Pains: The Children of Rawhead
Hugh O’Conor, and Cora Venus Lunny who played the two Hallenbeck children in the film talk about it as well as their subsequent careers as a director and composer respectively. Hugh mentions that, when he later watched the film, he found his young character annoying and wanted the monster to get him!
A fascinating interview with comic artist Stephen R. Bissette of Swamp Thing and Taboo fame. He worked on an aborted graphic novel adaptation of the short story with Michael Zulli. We get a few glimpses of his fearsome creation as he discusses the concepts he used in its design (which was more phallic than that seen in the film, and thus truer to Barker’s original idea). Unfortunately, the project was permanently stalled as the Books of Blood rights owners Arcane Publishing suffered from financial difficulties and had to sell them onto Eclipse Comics. It’s a shame since the version of the creature that we see here is immeasurably more striking than the one in the film.
We also get a collector’s booklet featuring an article by Kat Ellinger, a brand new but disappointingly dull Arrow-exclusive interview with composer Colin Towns, an audio interview with George Pavlou, a second commentary with The Hysteria Continues, an image gallery and a theatrical trailer.
Ultimately, Rawhead Rex is both something of a wasted opportunity and an undeniable guilty pleasure. The accompanying interviews are (for the most part) a lot of fun and highly recommended.