Tagline: He Lives Again to Feed Again
Director: George Pavlou
Writer: Clive Barker
Starring: David Dukes, Kelly Piper, Hugh O’Conor, Cora Venus Lunny, Ronan Wilmot, Niall Toibin, Niall O’Brien
18 | 1h 29min | Fantasy, Horror, Mystery
When you see the name Clive Barker, you’re pretty much guaranteed a stamp of quality.
A prolific author and scribe of unique and terrifying short fiction, he would also write and direct the original Hellraiser movie, with a screenplay that was adapted from his story The Hellbound Heart. Dark, unique and seeped in the fantastical, Hellraiser would give us one of the most iconic horror villains of the decade, a pin-headed sadist with proclamations of making pleasure and pain indivisible.
With such a confident and inspired debut, Barker seemed to come out of the blue, transitioning from the literary form with such aplomb that you could only assume his stories and characters were made for the silver screen, but then you consider Rawhead Rex, based on a Barker short story of the same name.
Released in the same year as Hellraiser, this was Barker’s second credit as a screenwriter following 1985’s Dr Moreau derivative Underworld, and though the idea is unique and interesting and distinctly Barker, it should never have been allowed anywhere near a screen in 1986. It’s not a badly made movie, but there’s something utterly ridiculous about the whole affair, which at times borders on parody.
In a conversation with clivebarker.com, the author would outline his frustrations with those first two productions, resulting in a more hands-on approach with Hellraiser. “The only way to cleanse my palate, as it were, was to go and do it myself,” he began. “In a way, it did me a round-about favor, because what those people made me realize was that the only way that I could ever get anything close to what I wanted was to take some control myself, and that meant directing and producing, and even then you don’t always get the control you want.”
Whether it was the director’s intention to veer towards the tongue-in-cheek is unclear, although the censorship crusade of the BBFC, then at its ostentatious apotheosis, may have been a factor. It would certainly explain the movie’s diluted adaptation, which, while maintaining much of the violence, lays waste to themes of paganism and Christianity prevalent in Barker’s literary text, instead giving us a straight-up creature feature with a slasher edge.
Still, it is hard to accept a movie of such gratuitous violence as hammy as this one, particularity when it features the death of a child, which leads you to assume that director George Pavlou saw his second feature as a serious slice of horror, a fact further punctuated by an image of a strange lady in a red duffel coat, a transparent nod to the iconic shock finale of Don’t Look Now, giving us the borrowed sense that no one in this movie is safe.
Even with Barker’s controversial components extracted from the screenplay, the movie could have been so much more. The main obstacle seems to be Rawhead himself, both aesthetically and in the character’s watered-down transition to the silver screen. Barker famously released his own concept art depicting the pagan monstrosity known as Rex, a phallic image not dissimilar to H.R. Giger’s Xenomorph which was basically a giant penis with teeth (perhaps Guillermo Del Toro should look into collaborating on a much truer reboot). Rawhead’s eventual design stays loyal to that idea in a sense, but instead of giving us a scrawny, subtle beast with an almost hedonistic approach to cannibalism, it gives us the monster movie equivalent of an 80s Arnold Schwarzegger, beefed-up and bumbling around the set with a docile abandon that makes farcical fare of proceedings.
A schlocky creature design is enough to kill any horror dead, but the movie does manage a kitschy charm due mainly to the cutesy practical effects that went into making Rawhead himself. Imagine an episode of the Power Rangers with bucket loads of blood, but the kind of creature design that makes that particular kids’ show look positively horrifying by comparison. Rex even emerges to a parade of lightning reminiscent of those cheesy Japanese transformation sequences. This is a monster who should have remained largely in the shadows.
Asides from his total ambivalence towards human life, the literary Rawhead comes across as an almost sympathetic figure, particularly when reminiscing about life before mankind, who have managed to eat up nature the way Rawhead devours human viscera, and with a similar toothpick abandon. Of course, this was the scandal-driven 80s, and unless your low-budget foray came boasting the perquisite bucketloads you were almost destined to fail in the VHS arena.
As a consequence, Rawhead Rex seems to adopt popular mid-80s horror traits for obvious commercial reasons, something that gives the film a rather odd blend. Set in Ireland, aesthetically it resembles a British episodic horror show and follows an American writer studying archaic sites for a new book, but when a local worker unfurls a long-dormant monster he unleashes hell on earth, plunging the entire community into deadly turmoil.
Rawhead is your standard seek-and-destroy antagonist with the dubious ability to possess humans and recruit them as his loyal followers, zealots who click into immediate self-sacrifice as if they were hypnotherapy-triggered sleeper cells in an episode of The Police Squad. The movie claims that the monster was a God before civilisation began, but with Barker’s meatier revelations omitted, his sole aim is to savage people with the intelligence and brutality of a wild animal, and all the cheap laser effects and hypnotic glares in the world can’t convince you of the fact that he is little more than a dumb beast on an aimless rampage.
Despite a barrage of pseudo-religious, cod-historical twaddle, this is little more than Jason Voorhees with a dog’s head. If that’s your thing you will lap this one up with a similar canine relish. If you were instead expecting something closer to the vision of the story’s inimitable scribe, you will almost certainly manage a giggle at a whole host of second-rate performances, particularly that of a crazed parish aid who gives the term overactor a whole new meaning.
This is bloody, violent fare, but so preposterous and badly conceived that it’s hard to take the movie seriously, particularly the bumbling Rex, who even at his most devastating looks but a pet away from whimpering subservience. Barker may be a proven master of his craft, but some tales are best reserved for the literary form, and for a movie with ambitions of providing serious terror this is most certainly one of them.
None are especially creative given that this is basically a slasher movie, but one particular death stands out as the most gruesome as a man has his neck savaged by the increasingly unstable Rawhead, resulting in a particularly indulgent geyser of blood.
Most Absurd Performance
That award goes to parish aid Declan O’Brien (Ronan Wilmot), the first of many characters to be possessed by a cheap red light and by far the most ridiculous. Whether he’s extolling the virtues of his animal master or trashing the church in preparation for his arrival, he is never more than adequate as a fictional zealot, and never less than hilarious as an actor.
Most Absurd Dialogue
After being confronted by the parish priest, insane ham Declan O’Brien offers a nugget of sheer lunacy.
Reverend Coot: Declan! Think! Think! He doesn’t care about you! When he’s finished with you, what will he do with you?
Declan O’Brien: Kill me! (shakes his head like a lunatic) I hoooooooope!
Reverend Coot: Declan! For the love of God!
Declan O’Brien: Get upstairs, fuckface! (shakes his head like a lunatic) I can’t keep God waaaaait-innnnnng!