In the newest entry of MISBEGOTTEN & FORGOTTEN, Nathan Smith takes a look at Clive Barker and George Pavlou’s fun and frightening monster-on-the-rampage movie, 1987’s RAWHEAD REX
I may have mentioned this before in these parts, but when I was a kid, there was a local affiliate channel that would show horror movies on Saturdays and Sundays. Channel 27 would show all manners of films, mostly ’80s stuff, and sometimes leave its violence and profanity uncensored (I remember distinctly seeing WATCHERS and hearing fuck being tossed around as casually we breathe air). I managed to watch THE CURSE and its snaky sequel, previous entry THE BORROWER, Jackie Kong’s THE BEING, and finally THE BEAST WITHIN, and the subject of today’s entry, RAWHEAD REX.
The latter two films gave me nightmares like you couldn’t believe. THE BEAST WITHIN‘s terror had more to do with the special effects and the stunning atmospheric quality that the film still maintains today. As for RAWHEAD REX, the special effects (more on that later) weren’t the subject of my nightmares. It was a tall, unstoppable beast that couldn’t be killed by conventional means. And because Rawhead Rex lays waste to a trailer park in the film’s last act, I couldn’t help but feel a pang of fear, seeing as how I lived in a mobile home in a secluded area, sleeping right next to a bay window that this monster could break through and grab at me. And that’s why RAWHEAD REX has left a memory in my head, when lesser films have evaporated from my brain.
It’s hard to think of a time where Clive Barker wasn’t a blessed name on the lips of any horror fan worldwide. His story’s been written many times over and told twice as much. He was a playwright, an author, director of two short films (The Forbidden, adapted formally down the road as CANDYMAN, and Salome) and in 1986 he became a screenwriter for the little seen, UNDERWORLD, also directed by RAWHEAD REX auteur, George Pavlou.
UNDERWORLD is a film I’m admittedly not too familiar with, only having a cursory knowledge of reading about in the February 1987 issue of Fangoria, where they discuss the filming of Rawhead Rex and make small mention of Pavlou’s previous collaboration with Barker. I had actually purchased that Fangoria at a horror convention back in 2007, with the hopes that I’d get Barker to autograph it, because when I seek autographs, it’s usually for the ones the authors or filmmakers wouldn’t even think a fan would want autographed. I’ll say I did chicken out and had him autograph the true horror fan’s bible, Books of Blood. So … there. Back to the Fangoria — looking it over, the plot sounds just like something Barker would write (crazy, fantastical ideas mirrored tethered to reality), but the film, also known as TRANSMUTATIONS, isn’t available for anyone to consume right now. But, the IMDb trivia for the film simply states: “Clive Barker hated the film.”
This seems to be the consensus for their follow-up. Though Barker was positive in the article, as least to the best of my recollection, he has disowned this one too. As Clive said to Alan Jones in 1987 —
“There was clearly a misapprehension over what [Underworld] was all about — they told me they wanted a horror movie and then took all the horror out! [I said], ‘Look, if I get involved in RAWHEAD and you take the horror out again, there’s nothing left as this is a monster-on-the-loose movie.’ As they owned the rights anyway, I thought I’d write a first draft, and at least have some control over the project. Frankly, I needed the money at the time as well. I wrote a draft and a half, and that was literally the last I ever heard from anyone. I was never invited on the set, never saw the promised plane ticket for Dublin, and all I kept hearing were pretty lousy things about the way the film was progressing.”
After reading RAWHEAD REX and then comparing it to the film, it seems like they wanted to make a stock horror movie, with a monster mangling across the countryside, and leave out the details that made it a highlight of the Books of Blood. Playing devil’s advocate here for a moment, but it being a monster on the loose movie is what makes it work. Sometimes, you just need that plain, old fashioned horror that goes for the jugular. The way it differentiates from the book, is there’s a sense of Rawhead as a being in the story; its sights, its smells and its existence, whereas in the movie, it’s a stock monster existing to kill and eat. Which is not a bad thing, mind you, but if it had retained the essence of the story, it would’ve been a more Gothic horror story. The story is Rawhead’s, not the tourist. There’s no sense of the scale of this creature’s historical life in the movie, where the book had it in spades. One wishes they would’ve dove deeper into the Pagan/Christian and even fertility ideals that the film hints at, but never fully realizes. As it stands, in the movie, Rawhead just drives the people at the church crazy, as one of the characters are driven crazy by touching an altar and becomes a real Rawhead fanatic. As for Mr. Barker’s complaints, the one part that feels like something he would have written is the baptism by pissing scene, because it’s so goddamn macabre it makes total sense. As I read, he thought the scene would be cut, which kudos to the filmmakers, they didn’t.
My love of RAWHEAD REX is largely prominent in my life, as I mentioned before. Hell, when I went to Ireland, I wanted to visit the shooting locations, but it was never meant to be. My wife tells me that that was my doing, which is probably true (guess I’ll have to go back). There’s one problem that I have with the film and it’s a common complaint, that of the titular creature itself. The way Rawhead is described in the story is as a nine-foot tall creature with sharp teeth, a full-on phallic beast that assuredly wouldn’t play in the Midwest movie houses. But still, any creature design would play better than what was committed to celluloid.
I mean …
It looks like more like an ogre than a cannibalistic hellbeast. Like, some sort of ape beast that’s better off in the black-box theatre version of whatever low budget films are. I realize that at this point, Barker may not have had much play in offering designs for his monster, but after seeing his paintings and artwork, they’re crazy not to have asked. The man’s uber-talented.
He had designs on how the creature should look in the film, which was closer in concept to his short story. Here are his thoughts on that, told to Brigid Cherry, Brian Robb, and Andrew Wilson in 1987:
“Monster on the rampage stories are about the phallic principle. Large males run around terrorising women. Basically, I wrote a story about a ten foot prick which goes on the rampage. I even put it there in the title — RAWHEAD REX — and there’s a scene about two-thirds of the way through where the vicar has an image of a skinned dick in his head. I thought ‘What’s going to destroy a ten foot dick?’ (This is getting into Woody Allen territory), so I made this guy absolutely scared of vagina dentata: it’ll be bested by an image of rampant female sexuality, and it’ll say ‘get me the fuck out of here.’ Now, the gag only works if you understand the subtext, otherwise it’s about this dumb monster running around. I couldn’t get them to understand that the whole movie had to smell of sex. When this thing appeared you had to think it was a dick, but they didn’t get the joke. And it was a joke. That was the point: nobody’s going to tell me that King Kong climbing the Empire State Building doesn’t mean something sexual.”
The film is short, it’s 89 minutes, and doesn’t slow down once it starts. It moves fast as hell. Rawhead Rex is unearthed from his grave almost as soon as the film begins (under ten minutes), and he begins cutting a swath of terror (killing two in twenty minutes) across the beautiful Irish countryside (thankfully, they filmed there). The scene where he terrorizes a pregnant woman and her husband is truly thrilling, and scared the bejesus out of me as a kid, by virtue of the way Pavlou moves his camera and how it’s staged. I particularly love his use of high and off-kilter angles to give a creepy view of Rawhead’s POV. Similarly, the trailer park setpiece and the murder scenes surrounding it are pretty spooky. Pavlou stages carnage well. The scene where Rawhead holds up the severed head of unlucky teen Andy is a great silhouetted shot, and one that I was reminded of watching the Tales from the Crypt episode, “Werewolf Concerto.” I know I talked down on the creature’s facial features, but what they did get right is the scale of Rawhead. If I saw this beast, played in costume by Heinrich von Schellendorf (ain’t that a mouthful of greek salad) running full tilt at me, I’d be petrified. Plain and simple, ridiculous facial features or not. As a matter of fact, the image of the monster running at the villagers, its taillight eyes gleaming, its maw gaping and its voice roaring, seared my nightmares for years. Still does. And if that’s the mark of a memorable feature, albeit a flawed one.
Yes, the character work is a little lacking. The family as the center of the film is as vanilla as they come. The only true horror I felt for them was when the son is killed. As a parent, it’s truly the most horrifying thing you could ever imagine. And the scene where the son is taken by the monster, in full practical view of the father (he’s unable to reach over there in time and frankly, would’ve died too), it’s a damn fine scene. Because it makes the viewer feel the true weight of loss, and allows a character to feel the absolute impotency in trying and failing to prevent a major loss. It’s ultimately skirted over, but still resonates deeply and shows that the film pulls no punches, again being another thing Barker thought the film would lose.
The religious stuff is still sketched but never fulfilled. The baptism scene is a highlight, as well as the most amazing dialogue from any film ever:
“Get upstairs, fuckface! I can’t keep God waiting!”
It’s great. Simply great. Ronan Wilmot’s performance as O’Brien is so over the top compared to the other performers, including the mild, but personable performance by David Dukes. The performances are more in service of the film, which is to keep the mayhem flowing until the credits spool.
They changed the ending for the film, but it’s for the better, despite not being as strongly written as it could have been. There could have been more to the knowledge of Rawhead’s fear of pregnant women, or alluding more that the wife would ultimately be the secret victor in the film. In the books, it’s ultimately the lead character, Ron, that does the monster in, but having the female character defeat Rawhead is all the better. Because the ultimate phallic creature is destroyed by the ultimate personification of woman, the fertility stone. It works better than perhaps the writer or the director anticipated. And maybe the Carrie ending seemed trite, but it terrified me, because the fucking monster was still alive. And that meant he could be outside my house, right then and right there.
RAWHEAD REX was released on April 17th, 1987 by Empire Pictures, and released on VHS by Vestron Video. It looks to be getting a Blu-ray release and theatrical re-release by Kino Lorber this year, around Halloween. The reviews were not favorable. It holds a 33 percent negative response consensus via Rotten Tomatoes. I did find this positive review by Jon Gregory in 1991:
“RAWHEAD REX is often cited as a favorite BoB story. The film however is another matter. It has frequently been dumped upon and pretty much disowned by Barker himself… Similarities with other Barker work abound, the most notable being the continued theme of the inherent power of the female. The ancient stone talisman that wreaks splashy optical effects upon Rawhead at the film’s finale, will do so only for a woman…However, the film itself is far less pretentious in its assumptions, and is satisfied with using Rawhead as a vehicle for some great crowd-pleasing scenes of decapitations, disembowelments and general bloody mayhem. It passes what is probably the only test of this type of film, and that is that it’s not boring. You may not be leaning forward clutching your seat, but it’s doubtful you’ll be clutching the fast-forward on your remote either… RAWHEAD REX delivers. It may not be a great film, or a great representation of Barker’s story, but it’s fun. What more is there to say except; Clive, if you’re reading this — and I suspect you are – well… er, I liked it.”
We know how the story goes once the tale of RAWHEAD REX is over. Clive Barker, dissatisfied with how his films were being mangled, looked to his seminal novella, The Hellbound Heart and would make his major calling card, HELLRAISER (the less said about most of the sequels, the better). He would only make two more features after that, NIGHTBREED and LORD OF ILLUSIONS (and seriously, hopefully will make another one), but they are beloved films in their own right, but still are uniformly futzed with by the studios, but in NIGHTBREED’s case, treated with respect years later. The adaptations have gotten better, CANDYMAN (ditto sequels) being the pinnacle of respected adaptations alongside THE MIDNIGHT MEAT TRAIN and DREAD (I haven’t seen BOOK OF BLOOD). He does want to remake RAWHEAD REX, though there’s no idea of when that will happen, or when my script will be done. George Pavlou has only made one feature since RAWHEAD REX, a film called LITTLE DEVILS: THE BIRTH, released in 1993. It’s a shame he hasn’t made more features, because he could’ve done some great things.
That being said, for all the drubbing it received by its writer and its critics, RAWHEAD REX is a phenomenally solid entry in the 80’s monster movie pantheon because it is both effective as a gory monster movie, and as one you’ll have a lot of fun and a lot of beers with. It’s a film that knows what it is, does a good job of keeping the audience entertained for an 89-minute runtime, and succeeds as a memorable creature feature.
That’s great, isn’t it?