Some horror films live and die on spectacle. They don’t use fear of the unseen to unsettle audiences. Rather, they go all-in early. The Saw franchise went for spectacle above all else, and it worked so well for them that there are nine films in the franchise as of this writing. Aliens was another film that used spectacle. James Cameron used spectacle so well, compared to the wrought tension of Ridley Scott’s earlier film, that it’s easy to forget that an entire hour of runtime passes before audiences see the first alien.
Rawhead Rex, the 1986 horror flick from director George Pavlou and screenwriter Clive Barker, doesn’t waste much time getting going. The titular monster, an ancient creature from Ireland’s prehistory, shows up early, and it is a spectacle. Just not in the way Pavlou, or certainly Barker, intended.
According to the internet, so it must be true, Barker’s idea (adapting his own short story) for the monster in this film was as a living deity representative of ancient fertility religions. Think the type of religions that made iconography like the Venus of Willendorf. His idea was that the monster would be phallic, representing the opposite of the fertility goddesses.
Pavlou had a different idea:
Also according to the internet, so it must also be true, the effects team had only four weeks or so to put that monster head and outfit together before shooting began. Well, it shows, but having a tight schedule is really no excuse for those eyes. A still image doesn’t do the eyes justice. They blink like a child’s toy. In fact, the lights were probably pilfered from a toy robot or fire engine. The monster head is ambitious, and spectacular, which I have to give credit for, but it’s also hilarious. There’s never a moment in closeup that isn’t comical. There are also plenty of moments in the film where the Rawhead mask wasn’t fitted all that well to Heinrich von Schellendorf, who sacrificed many hours of his day just to get into that latex monstrosity. Playing Rawhead was also his only appearance in film, so I hope he got his thrills.
David Dukes plays Howard Hallenbeck, a historian who has brought his family on a long working vacation to Ireland, where he is researching the repurposing of religious sites throughout time. Basically, sacred sites in Ireland that were used by paleolithic religions weren’t just discarded, but often reused as religions and culture changed, and are now the sites of modern churches, with hints to their prior usage still around, should one know where to look. It’s not a bad idea for the book Hallenbeck is writing.
Unfortunately for Hallenbeck and his family, the latest village he chooses to visit is where Rawhead is being imprisoned underground. An unware farmer releases the beast, and it goes on a tear through town, killing just about everyone it meets.
The Hallenbeck character isn’t strictly necessary to the plot, as focusing on him makes the audience feel just as much of an outsider as is Hallenbeck. There are more than enough local characters to carry the film, but Dukes, a veteran character actor here in the States before his death, did well enough with the material. He’s the perfect blend of exasperation and the American abroad. That does relegate most of the Irish characters to being fodder for Rawhead, but someone had to die in this flick.
The film is boilerplate until the finale, with a howler of a pagan baptism thrown in. Barker may not have had all his ideas put in this film, but history has shown he is into some kinky shit, and this little scene (blink and you’ll miss it) adds to the hilarity of what Pavlou and company filmed.
This is not much of a monster flick. But the Rawhead monster is worth the price of admission. It’s not exactly schadenfreude, yet people aren’t watching this flick because it’s good, either. A little more insanity in the plot, and this film could have been as wild as The Keep. The potential was there. Alas, it doesn’t rise that far up the rankings in the Watchability Index. Rawhead Rex lands at #99, displacing The Shape of Things to Come.