Review: Rawhead Rex (1986)

Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #787

Number of Views: Two
Release Date: April 17, 1987
Sub-Genre: Monster Movie
Country of Origin: United Kingdom, Ireland
Running Time: 89 minutes
Director: George Pavlou
Producers: Kevin Attew, Don Hawkins
Screenplay: Clive Barker
Based on a short story by Clive Barker
Special Effects: Gerry Johnston
Cinematography: John Metcalfe
Score: Colin Towns
Editing: Andy Horvitch
Studios: Alpine Pictures, Alpine Pictures, Green Man Productions
Distributor: Empire Pictures
Stars: David Dukes, Kelly Piper, Ronan Wilmott, Niall Toibin, Niall O’Brien, Hugh O’Conor, Cora Lunny, Heinrich von Schellendorf, Donal McCann

Suggested Audio Jukebox ♫

[1] Metallica “Some Kind of Monster”

[2] Colin Towns “Rawhead Rex”

What do you say we address the elephant in the room first? Who the fuck came up with the title Rawhead Rex? Clive Barker you say? Oh… erm… yeah I was just about to say how much I dig it. I’m sorry, I can’t do this, I promised myself I’d always be honest, even if that means being brutal with it. With only the greatest of respect, that’s a ridiculous name Clive. Whatever were you thinking? When George Pavlou presented you his take on one of your short stories from Books of Blood Vol. 3, I understand you wasn’t best pleased with the results. From what I can gather, of everything that niggled you, it was the design of the titular creature that did so most and I believe you referred to it as “a 9-ft. tall phallus with teeth”. Firstly, that’s actually reasonably accurate. Secondly, while it does admittedly look utterly preposterous, it does kind of look like a Rex don’t you think?

Anyhoots, enough of the Barker bashing as I regard the Liverpudlian author as one of horror’s true leading literary lights and would never dream of causing the great man offence. I just figured the sooner we point out the obvious, the quicker we can knuckle down and give Pavlou’s hot mess of a movie a chance to redeem itself.

You see, alongside the rancid Transmutations (which Pavlou also directed amusingly), Rawhead Rex is commonly cited as one of the most inept translations of his fiction to ever have made it from page to screen and its very mention in horror circles is traditionally accompanied by belly laughs and compromised bladders. The general consensus is that it sucks mule nuts and, while I’m inclined to at least partially agree, it’s also not quite the outright travesty people make it out to be.

Indeed, there are a couple of things Rawhead Rex gets halfway right believe it or not, although I’d credit that more to the fact that Barker penned the screenplay than Pavlou’s direction, which achieves par for the course and no better. That said, the fact that he later disowned it suggests that rather a hefty wedge of his original tale got lost in translation, likely to service the studio’s need to churn out a monster movie for the masses. While I understand how infuriating it must have been watching his baby being butchered in such a way, I swore long ago only to judge movies on their own merits and it’s hard to argue there’s not a certain degree of guilt-ridden pleasure to be gleaned here. Is it a good film? Absolutely not and it would take a lobotomy or at least fifty quid to convince me otherwise. But it is rather shameless fun.

Originally set in rural Kent in the summertime, Pavlou relocates Barker’s tale to rural Ireland in the spring instead, like it makes a blind bit of difference. Tax breaks perhaps? American Howard Hallenbeck (David Dukes) has just arrived with his wife Elaine (Kelly Piper) and two children in tow with the purpose of a little religious research for the upcoming book he is writing. We’re not talking anything too heavy, just a few shots of gravestones will do as that seems ample enough reason to pull your kids out of school and drag your family across the Atlantic.

Regrettably, his timing really couldn’t be any worse, as a trio of local farmers are currently attempting to remove an ominous looking stone column from the nearby field and making a real pig’s ear of it. Considering this heinous obelisk dates as far back as the Neolithic ages; you’d think they’d have packed their kit gloves but all those pints of Guinness appear to have gone to their heads and they each wish to be Billy Big Bollocks. What’s wrong with these guys? Have they not heard the ancient legend of Rawhead Rex? You know, the ancient malevolent brute that has been mystically imprisoned beneath the topsoil for centuries now. I take it by the glazed eyes that’s a no fellas.

Never mind that buzzcocks, here he is in all his foul glory. I’m not sure whether it’s a chill running down my spine right now or sciatica in transit but after looking at this manky mugshot for two seconds straight, I reckon it’s the latter you know. The Rawhead Rex from Barker’s ancient scripture was overbearing and fearsome; this rubberized tool looks like A.L.F. on his way out to a Sigue Sigue Sputnick gig. Here, tell me you don’t spot the similarity and I’ll lick the pile of rain-sodden horse shit we passed earlier in the meadow.

Uncanny ain’t it? I know what A.L.F. would say if her were here now – he’d say “no problem” and shrug his sorry excuse for shoulders. I’m not really getting the “no problem” vibe from Rex or should that be R.E.X.? This dude looks mighty pissed off to have been relinquished from his eternal purgatory, either that or he’s really excited. It’s hard to tell as he only has one expression. Whatever his mood, my guess is that the good people of this small town are positioned right alongside the high jump with their feet nailed down. That is to say, they’re well fucked.

I’m just speculating wildly here but it looks like the local church has something to do with this ancient evil being unleashed. Firstly, one of its stained-glass windows depicts a creature that bears an uncanny likeness to Rex. Secondly, since touching the altar, the church verger Declan O’Brien (Ronan Wilmot) appears to have gone a dash doolally, almost as though he’s been placed under some kind of malevolent spell. And thirdly, Reverend Coot (Niall Toibin) is having a hell of a time locating the parish records and it would seem that they’ve been stolen. A trio of coincidences maybe? Perhaps, but if I were Howard, I’d be on the first plane back to the States before you could say “what the fuck is that ropy looking eyesore on top of the hill, clutching a severed head?”

There’s not a great deal else to say with regards to the story as anything from Barker’s source fiction resembling thematic depth has been watered down, in favor of the usual B-grade monster movie shenanigans. His short story was known both for its graphic depictions of brutality and underlying sexual subtext. Indeed, parallels are regularly drawn between his fable and Ridley Scott’s Alien, and certainly aren’t unfounded. Other than the slither of deeper meaning in the cinematic showdown, Pavlou’s film essentially boils down to a guy in a rubber suit that looks suspiciously like it’s been recycled from the fifties, mincing around the lush greens terrorizing all whom he encounters, for no other reason than being Rawhead Rex.

This is where I would strongly advise the application of extreme caution. You see, should you be at all precious about Barker’s original short story, then you’ll likely be left outraged by the liberties taken here. Even if you’re willing to accept Rawhead Rex as a cheesy B-movie and nothing else, it struggles to reach its quota with regards to quick wins such as bloodshed and nudity. This leaves a miniscule demographic for whom Pavlou’s film may still hold a slither of interest and I actually happen to fit that criteria rather snugly. Try as I may to be miserly, I just can’t bring myself to stick the boot in, almost as though under the enchantment of an ancient evil. This has me decidedly on edge as I’ve witnessed Rex’s baptism method and don’t much care to partake in his particular brand of purification. I wonder what A.L.F. would do in my shoes.

Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 5/10

Grue Factor: 2/5

For the Grue-Guzzlers: One look at the titular arch-fiend and you should know full well that it’s going to be slim pickings on the gore front. The inability to nail Rex’s design effectively wipes out any hopes of sustainable suspense and a melange of substandard kills offer little in the way of pay-off. Given how gruesome the original story was, it would be easy to come away here feeling short-changed. Alas, a solitary decapitation is all Rawhead Rex can muster. It’s still a great deal gorier than A.L.F. though.

Read Hellraiser Appraisal
Read Candyman Appraisal
Read Book of Blood Appraisal
Read The Midnight Meat Train Appraisal

Richard Charles Stevens

Keeper of The Crimson Quill

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