Rawhead Rex, 1986.
Directed by George Pavlou.
Starring David Dukes, Kelly Piper, Hugh O’Conor, Ronan Wilmot, John Olohan, and Heinrich von Schellendorf.
A farmer unleashes a demon known as Rawhead Rex, who proceeds to go on the rampage across rural Ireland.
There is an unwritten rule in horror filmmaking that you don’t reveal your monster too soon or too suddenly. All of the best horror movies take their time and, in a lot of cases, leave their villains lurking in the shadows so their dastardly deeds have more impact and shock value. In Rawhead Rex, based on the short story by Clive Barker, who also wrote the screenplay (or was at least credited with writing it), it takes approximately seven minutes for the titular monster to appear in all of his awkward, Halloween store costumed glory, which should give you an indication of what the filmmakers were going for seeing as most of Barker’s original ideas and descriptions were ignored in favour of low-rent creature feature thrills.
Well, perhaps thrills is the wrong word to use as Rawhead Rex does suffer from having a distinct lack of excitement about it. Not that it is boring – far from it – but the joy that is to be taken comes not from what director George Pavlou (who directed the movie adaptation of Clive Barker’s Underworld before this) intended when he was planning his shots and exactly how he was going to show a resurrected Pagan god running amok in the Irish countryside. Instead, the joy that this 4K restoration brings comes from a) the fact that somebody decided a 4K restoration of this particular film was warranted and b) the fact that somebody actually took the time and effort to restore it so painstakingly because Rawhead Rex, despite having a reputation as a shoddy piece of work that has been ill-served by horrible pan-and-scan VHS/DVD releases and disowned by its original creator, actually benefits a great deal by being tidied up and supported by positive supplementary features, making it due for something of a reappraisal some 32 years after it was originally made.
But before we get too carried away by the splendid job that Arrow Video have done with a film that is very much the definition of a cult movie, let us not forget that there are reasons Clive Barker does not like this movie and one of those is the sheer dumbing down of the religious/folk horror aspects of the original short story. Barker’s works are always full of nuance and symbolism, especially with regards to religion and the corruption of it, and as Rawhead Rex the film begins with its main character Howard Hallenbeck (David Dukes – Gods and Monsters), an American visiting rural Ireland with his wife and two young children, there is a hint – just a hint, mind – of a ‘stranger in town’ vibe reminiscent of The Wicker Man, a place where the locals know something that the visitors are so far unaware of but will soon find out to their peril. So far, so Summerisle but the subtly ominous feeling is soon dropped as the initiation of local verger Declan O’Brien (Ronan Wilmot – In the Name of the Father) into the hypnotic power of Rawhead (he’s never referred to as Rex in the film) sets things up for later but this is handled so clumsily and scenery-chewingly big that any sense of understated danger is soon cast aside in favour of a marauding monster wearing a shag pile carpet, mouldy biker boots – oh yes, this deity has footwear – and with a mask that doesn’t really move properly, giving it the look of a prototype Mr. Snuffleupagus from Sesame Street, only without the trunk and not quite as traumatising. And that’s not mentioning the glowing red eyes that look ever so slightly lazy, like they didn’t quite fit inside the hood properly and one kept dropping slightly but it was too late to take it back to the shop so they had to go with it.
So Rawhead Rex is basically a monster movie with a naff monster and a script with little to no sense of cohesion. Things just seem to happen for no real reason that we are given and the filmmakers rely on B-movie tactics to try and distract you from the fact that they have no real idea on how to make the film flow. However, for all of the laughably bad moments this film has it does have some good things going for it; the gore effects are handled well, especially the decapitated heads that get flung about that, thanks to the magic of Blu-ray, we can see do actually look like the actors they are supposed to represent, spookily so in one case. The acting isn’t too shabby either, especially considering the dialogue that most of the actors had to deliver is mostly nonsense. David Dukes is a likeable enough lead and seems to have something of a twinkle in his eye as he shouts at the locals, and the Irish cast mostly play it straight, except for the brilliant Declan O’Brien who hams things up to absurd proportions as Rawhead’s disciple, his delivery when confronting his priest Reverend Coot (Niall Toibin – Far and Away) near the end of the film hilarious for all the wrong reasons, but hilarious all the same.
Overall, Rawhead Rex is one of those horror movies that has often been labelled as ‘so bad it’s good’ and over 30 years later it still is, only thanks to the 4K restoration and a post-modern sense of irony it can now be enjoyed to the full. The widescreen presentation and sharp(ish) image do make it a different movie to watch if you’ve spent decades looking at those awful old prints, and for a bit of no-brainer monster madness revisiting the film proves to be a very rewarding experience, although it probably wasn’t the intention of George Pavlou and this restoration to have people make fun of his movie (in a good-natured way) all these years later. Extras come in the shape of an audio commentary by Pavlou plus a very funny commentary by The Hysteria Continues podcast team that only enhances the experience, especially if this is your first watch. There are also interviews with various cast and crew members, the best being an interview with Declan O’Brien who appears to be as large a character in real life as he is in the film, and the usual Arrow Video trailers, reversible sleeve and collector’s booklet. So is Rawhead Rex a good film? Not really but look at this way – if it wasn’t for Rawhead Rex turning out the way it did we wouldn’t have got Hellraiser as Clive Barker was adamant nobody would ruin his works in the future, and so for that alone Rawhead Rex deserves a little bit of respect but despite not being objectively very good it is a huge bundle of fun if approached in the right way and this Blu-ray package is well worth picking up, especially if you’ve ever wondered how a Pagan god monster baptises his followers (and it isn’t with holy water).
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★