4/7/10

Rawhead Rex (1986): Thankfully, It's Not Porn

When I hear the words “Creature Feature”, like most folks it brings to mind visions of Godzilla, The Creature from the Black Lagoon, or any number of giant animals. What doesn’t come to mind are any films made in recent memory. While vampires, zombies, and ghosts thrive, unknown creatures seem to have fallen completely out of favor. While tonight's film Rawhead Rex might not have done much to bring back the format, it did revel in the old style. Made in 1986 and based on a script by horror scribe Clive Barker, Rawhead Rex does little to tweak the usual formula of creature features, but it does verge on the silly side of splatter. The question really is did it know it? 

When archeologist Howard (David Dukes) his wife Elaine (Kelly Piper), and two children arrive in a small Irish town, it’s to be their last stop before moving out of the Irish countryside and on to the city of Dublin. Howard is here to research Christian holy sites that have been built on top of older pagan sacred grounds, and he finds the local church to be fascinating especially the strange demonic figure who inhabits one of the stained glass windows. People in the town begin to be viciously murdered and torn apart, and one night while out on a walk Howard sees a massive 9 foot tall creature that looks strikingly like the figure in the stained glass. He decides it’s high time for his family to leave town, but on their way the creature abducts and possibly kills Howard’s son. With the police resistant to believe his claims of a monster on the loose, Howard must take the fight on himself to avenge his son, but the means of defeating Rex might not be within his power.

The story behind Rawhead Rex really begins two years earlier with Clive Barker and director George Pavlou met at a party. It was a chance meeting, but the director, who had only previously made short films, was interested to see what the up and coming horror writer could do with a screenplay. Baker obliged and the result was 1986’s Underworld (a.k.a Transmutations). The film, about mutants who lived in London’s sewers, did fairly well and was even distributed in the United States by Charles Band’s Empire pictures. 
Even though the author was not overwhelmed by the result of his first stint as a screenwriter, Barker began work on another script based on a short story from his third volume of Books of Blood. It would be the last time the director and writer paired up (Pavlou only made one other film and Barker would write and direct Hellraiser the following year), but the process taught Clive an important lesson, be careful who you trust with your work. 

The original tale, which I read some years ago, had quite the sub-text., a marauding monster vs. his only weakness, an idol of a pregnant woman, the sacred feminine. Barker put it more bluntly when he said, “"Monster on the rampage stories are about the phallic principle. Large males run around terrorizing 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.” If any of that piques your interest, then I encourage you to read the story, but if you’re looking for those kinds of themes in this film, then you’ll be sorely let down. 

As I mentioned earlier, Rawhead Rex really sticks to a lot of your typical “monster on the loose” conventions. You get plenty of senseless killings, your dumbass locals that cause the problem in the first place, and the affable, learned visitor who just might be able to defeat the menace. What isn’t typical is the monster himself, and this is where we get into the essential quandary of the film. If Rawhead Rex appeared in the context of one of Peter Jackson’s earlier films, then I would have understood the glowing red eyes that seem devoid of any kind of brain activity, the oversized head with a jagged maw of teeth, and the outfit that looked like he had taken it off an extra in The Road Warrior. However, this was not Brain Damage, this was a film that seems like it’s intended to be taken seriously, but I had a hard time reconciling the shoddy make up and character design with the story. This took a lot away from the film, and left me feeling amused in scenes where I should have been horrified. 

As you may have noticed, I’m five paragraphs in and I haven’t bothered to talk about any of the actors. There’s good reason for that. David Dukes and Kelly Piper make for a very bland pair, and Dukes in his oatmeal colored cardigan wasn’t charismatic enough for the lead role. I was much more interested when Inspector Gissing (Niall O’Brian) was on-screen. His small performance was a standout, and it took me nearly the whole film to realize that I knew him from playing Kay in Excalibur. As I sit here typing this, I’m trying to remember some of the film’s other characters, and I’m drawing a blank. The real star of this film should have rightfully been the monster, but when the star looks like a cross between a Lord of the Ring’s orc and Dauber from the TV series Coach, then there’s a good chance you’re not on the right track. 

As Pavlou supervised the whole mess, there’s very little good to say about him, and I’m not even going to talk about the melodramatic score that is heavily pasted across the whole film. Even though Rawhead Rex was a flawed and incredibly troubled film (as well as being disowned by Barker), I still found it kind of enjoyable watch simply as a creature feature. So if you go in with your expectations low, then you’re bound to find something that you like here. Plus, if there’s another film whose title was intended to reference the personification of a 9 ft tall bloody penis, then I really don’t want to know what it is. 

Bugg Rating 

6 comments:

  1. I enjoyed Raw Head Rex, the monster is revealed very early on in the film, and the film showed that Clive Barker was always interested in religious themed movies, movies where the Pagan and the Christian are put in the spotlight.

    I remember a scene in which a priest turns over to the "darkside of the force", typical move for a movie priest, they always gots to be either loosing their faith or doubting it.

    The monster itself looked pretty cool, beheading people left and right. Havent seen this one in ages. Great review!

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  2. I enjoyed the film too and liked the look of the monster. Even so, it cannot hold a candle to the original story, which is hella fun and one of the most ferocious and exciting things that Barker ever wrote.

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  3. Therein lies the problem, it is so obscure and OOP that I went in assuming that = awesome. Wrong. I did appreciate the creature FX and gore, but this was a pretty lame flick overall

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  4. I loved it. My kind of movie. Like your review. :)

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  5. @ Carl - shut up, Carl. You're wrong ;)

    I loooooove this movie. I admire the atmosphere and the "take-no-prisoners" violence and the beastie is suitably intimidating, even if he does admittedly have goofy, crossed 'Godzilla' eyes.

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  6. Excellent review Bugg. I also watched it some time after reading the story, and the memory of Barker's subtext and gruesome sexual imagery just mars your experience if you're watching this poorly made film. Still, it's a fun-enough watch, even if the protagonists are jerky and uncharismatic and the monster looks like he was purchased from the clearance corner of Spencers Gifts.

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