‘Rawhead Rex’ is a low budget British/Irish production. The first draft of its screenplay is by the renowned fantasy and horror novelist and film director Clive Barker, still credited as the sole screenwriter but has since disowned his involvement with the project. The filmmakers butchered it so it would service the needs for a typical monster movie rather than being a faithful adaptation of Barker’s own short story of the same title from ‘Books of Blood Volume 3’ first published in 1984.
The original source material is a surreal tale with a misogynistic sexual sub-text that its author carried over to his own script. Not to dissimilar in this respect to Ridley Scott’s 1979 sci-fi horror masterpiece ‘Alien’ except it is set in the summer of rural Kent, England and dealt with an ancient ferocious malevolent demon like creature. With a toothed head and a long black slim body it represents a phallic symbol much like H. R. Giger’s Xenomorph in Scott’s film although of an obviously uniquely different design. The title speaks for itself - “Rawhead Rex.” However, unbeknownst to Clive Barker as he was not involved in the production, as the producers did not want him anywhere near opting for their own vision rewrites during filming completely stripped away all this and all was left was the bare bones of a monster on a rampage yarn. The story was also relocated to Ireland where it was shot and set in the springtime. There is a smidge of the sub-text left up on screen though in the climatic showdown with the title villain featuring a female triumph over misogyny but for any of you readers who still have not seen it I am just going to leave it there to prevent spoilers.
Judging it as a singular work, structurally it has all the makings of a good cheesy B movie creature feature with potential for all kinds of monster mayhem entertainment. Although it fails miserably with its imagery thanks to the shoddy practical make-up effects of its evil title character that also completely deviates from Barker’s original conceptual design and a lack of visceral intensity in its murder set-pieces. This is in contrast to the writer’s initial take on the story that was full of graphic depictions of the horror to scare, shock and disturb but the filmmakers wimped out and gave us something watered down instead.
American Howard Hallenbeck (David Dukes) and his family - wife Elaine (Kelly Piper) and two young children son Robbie (Hugh O'Conor) and youngest child daughter Minty (Cora Lunny) - travel to a small Irish town as Howard is doing research for a book he is writing about churches that have been built on pre-Christian sacred sites going back centuries to Neolithic times. As they arrive, three local farmers are trying to remove a stone column from a field. Proving to be very difficult, two of the farmers give up and head off home. Then suddenly a thunderstorm appears, smoke comes out of the ground where the stone column is, lightning strikes it falling to the ground and the monster Rawhead Rex rises from the dirt. The verger of the town’s church Declan O'Brien (Ronan Wilmot) hears an eerie sound coming from the alter. Curious he approaches and places his right hand on it. Images race through his mind and he sees the abomination that has risen from the ground. Coming under the control of Rawhead Rex, he loses his sanity. The vile creature murders some locals, after which that same night Howard sees Rawhead Rex on top of a hill holding a head in his hand. The vicar Reverend Coot (Niall Toibin) tells Howard about parish records he was enquiring about has been stolen.
Later, Declan destroys Howard’s camera after he takes some pictures of a stained glass window in the church featuring an image of a monster not dissimilar to Rawhead Rex. While out on the road in a car with his family, Howard pulls over to let his daughter, go to the bathroom behind a bush. Hearing her suddenly scream Howard and his wife run over to her only to find she was just scared by a dead rabbit. Left alone in the Car, Robbie is attacked and murdered by Rawhead Rex taking his body. Infuriated with the police’s incompetence in catching the fiendish creature - one of them Detective Inspector Gissing (Niall O'Brien) also later comes under the spell of the monster - Howard returns to the church and realizes that a weapon shown in that same stained glass window can be used to defeat Rawhead Rex. Coot reveals later after he found the missing records stolen by O’Brien that the weapon is concealed in the altar.
So there you have a good set-up for some monster fun but it is severely lacking in certain areas of its execution and this is a shame because it has a lot of good stuff going for it in all other departments. The director George Pavlou moves the film along nicely hitting all the right beats with a well-paced screenplay. Pavlou’s previous directorial credit was 1985’s little seen ‘Transmutations’ that was from an original script by Clive Barker making his screenwriting debut. It is well acted all around especially with a solid turn from Dukes. I am guessing an American protagonist with an all-around wholesome family was one of the screenplay’s re-writes to appeal to the stateside market. There is some decent humour as well whether it is intentional or unintentional from some ham-fisted dialogue. Despite the sequences of horrific murder lacking the gory viscera, they are actually well executed in terms of timing. Well shot and edited the build-up of the suspense and tension and then the payoff is all handled effectively. All of this is encapsulated in an effective moody atmosphere thanks to some great lighting techniques.
All this counts for nothing though in a monster movie when it does not have a good monster to be a good monster movie. Although it is far removed from Barker’s original concept and loses much of that original source material’s aforementioned misogynistic sub-text with it, there is actually nothing wrong with the design of the creature here in this 50’s B-movie like context. It is just that not enough money was spent to realize that design. The close-ups of Rawhead Rex’s face are laughable with just a rubber mask used looking more like a Spitting Image puppet. For non-UK readers ‘Spitting Image’ was a very rude and hilarious very smart satirical puppet TV show in my native homeland. You can watch it here. Other than that though, from a distance the great big hulking monster does not look too bad at all. Seeing the cover of the VHS tape (see above) in my local video store back in the late 80’s it was one of my most vivid horror film memories growing up. The picture is a screenshot from Rawhead Rex’s resurrection scene and it looks fantastic. But boy do those close-ups (and there are a lot of them) really take the audience out of the movie distracting the viewer from the fact that this is supposed to be a vicious monster.
Furthermore, the filmmakers just did not take any risks in the murder set-pieces. They could have done it balls to the wall going for broke on the material with the mean spirited potential it had as it was what was called for. This was the genre’s bloody ‘80s era but that did not have the courage to see it through. Take the scene in which Howard’s son is killed it is well directed but nothing is actually seen of the murder. It is just a cutaway to the father in distress and then the camera goes to the body being dragged away. There is some blood splattered around and body parts seen in the aftermath of the other murders but that is it. Very weak stuff.
'Rawhead Rex’ is not a bad film but it is not particularly a good one either. There is a lot to like here but it is let down by its cack handled imagery and is ultimately a disappointment. There are rumours of a remake with Clive Barker having more creative control. Whether he will make a much welcome return to the director’s chair remains to be seen but at least it sounds promising that the original short story might get the kind of faithful adaptation it deserves. Oh yeah, look out for an hilarious scene here in which Rawhead Rex baptizes Declan by pissing all over him. Worth watching for this alone.
** out of ****
Dave J. Wilson
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