Film and TV

British Horror Cult Classic Club: Rawhead Rex

As serious Anglophiles - that's people who are heavily into British culture, not some kind of white power thing - Jef With One F and I are taking a look at some lesser-known British films this month. As the month happens to be October, they will all be horror films. We'll examine and discuss them for your education and general betterment. Cheerio.

This week, we're taking a look at the first film out of many to be made from Clive Barker's material, and also the first one to be disowned by him. The original story of Rawhead Rex comes from Barker's short story collection Books of Blood, and is based on a beastie from British mythology named Rawhead and Bloody Bones who would wait in dark cupboards and attack insubordinate children. The 1986 film's creature isn't so much a gremlin, though, as he is a musclebound gladiator-type who could probably punch the Predator through a brick wall. The entire film is on YouTube for now.

This is the least English film we've looked at so far; it's set in the Irish countryside and centers on an American family. Still, it was written by an Englishman, Ireland is part of the United Kingdom, and American protagonists are - unfortunately - a staple of British films. Rawhead Rex lies dormant beneath a very phallic obelisk, and when the local farmers try to pull it out of the ground ("Bloody obelisks!"), they awaken the ancient creature, who expresses his gratitude by immediately embarking on a killing spree. David Dukes - thankfully a different person from David Duke - plays Howard Hallenbeck, an American photographer who has settled his family in Ireland so he can research some old churches. Naturally, he becomes the key to settling this whole monster business, as once again the beleaguered Yanks must step in and sort out these hapless Euro-burdens' problems for them. Finally, the monster is shriveled up by Hallenbeck's wife with the help of a talisman in the shape of a pregnant woman and some decidedly low-caliber special effects. Rex is then buried beneath several tons of stone and dirt, where he will remain for all time, which translates to approximately two minutes before jumping out of his grave just in time for the standard pre-credits jump scare. The Irish version of SWAT guest stars, and they are just adorable.

JSG: If you were to accidentally unleash ancient evil upon the world, what kind of ancient evil do you think it would be? Keep in mind: this hypothetical scenario is by accident.

JEF: Hard to say... people in these Clive Barker stories always seem to find them by wandering off the beaten path to some weird remote hamlet or into the desert. I don't do any of those things, so I'm guessing it would have to be much more in keeping with The Ring. Evil you can summon through television is more my speed.

JSG: List three names more Irish than "Declan O'Brien," the name of the film's crazy priest.

JEF: Well, if I had been a girl my name would have been Elizabeth Fitzgerald, which is pretty damned Mickey. I love the short story this is based on, but I haven't read it in a while. I certainly don't recall every single person named in it to be some sort of Irish stereotype.

JSG: To be fair, though, the American hero's name is "Howard Hallenbeck." It's always disappointing to me when I see a film set in the United Kingdom and the main character is an American. It seems like a lazy tactic to try to get the U.S. audience to root for the hero out of jingoism, bypassing all that complicated stuff like "relatability" and "character development." I mean, seriously, considering the success of James Bond, why do movie studios still do this, even to this day?

JEF: You, my friend, are thinking like a Houstonian, not like someone who lives in Utah. You can hang onto a regular English cast just fine, but they have to make their money scaring people that need subtitles for an Irish accent.

JSG: This, Sleepy Hollow, and The Relic are the only horror films I can think of at the moment that actually had the balls to kill a small child, and in neither of those was it a child of the main character, as in this film. What's your opinion on this story tactic? I'm not sure it worked so well here. When the most shocking death of the film occurs at the midpoint, the rest of the killing seems anti-climactic by comparison.

JEF: I think the main problem with it was that they didn't think Hallenbeck had enough of a reason to go hunt the monster down, and when you think about it they're right. Sure, he's seen the damage Rawhead can do, but he was ready to leave the town to its murder until tragedy occurred because THE LITTLE GIRL FORGOT TO PEE BEFORE SHE LEFT!

That's the lesson I take from this film. Pee before you leave or the monster will eat your brother.

JSG: Oh man, no wonder Dad was always so stringent about that. The makeup effects in the close-up shots of the monster aren't all that bad if you're studying technique alone, but there's something about Rawhead Rex that just isn't scary. What is it? His professional wrestler physique? His mohawk-mullet? His inability to close his mouth all the way?

JEF: No, it's his body language. If you look at great costumed performers like Kane Hodder or Kevin Peter Hall, they bring a touch of mime and expression to their movements that add realism to the characters they portray. So much of Rawhead's movements were purposeless and obvious excuses to just look at the make-up that it was hard to take him seriously as a monster.

JSG: Being based on a Clive Barker short story, what we see on the screen is actually quite toned down. For instance: would it surprise you to learn that the Rawhead Rex of the original story resembles a nine-foot phallus with teeth? (If you want to see an illustrated version of the creature which is more true to the source material - and maybe read an excellent in-depth analysis of the film while you're there - click here.)

JEF: NOTHING in a Barker story surprises me. Rawhead is tame compared to stuff in "Skins of the Father." Barker has two motifs at this point in his work that baffle me. One, that defilement must be represented with urine. Two, that everything is secretly about fucking. Rawhead is supposed to be a mockery of creation. His antithesis is a pregnant woman, so yeah, it makes sense for him to walk around being a giant rape-y dick.

JSG: I see what you did there. What's the most laughable misuse of Rawhead Rex's mighty powers? I'm gonna say "suddenly annihilates trailer park out of nowhere."

JEF: I just thought it was unnecessarily mean to crush a kid's toy. He was all like, "Yeahhhhhhhh! Fuck you, whimsy and hope!"

JSG: In the final act of the film, Rawhead Rex pulls a pretty young lass out of a window and a guy trying to hang onto her effortlessly tears her entire dress off of her body. How unnecessary was that boob shot?

JEF: I think it depends on what you consider unnecessary. Did we absolutely have to see What's-Her-Name topless and screaming. Well, no. On the other hand, the film had already hit about as many cheesy tropes as it could, so why not throw a couple of pert boobs in the mix and see if it sells a few tickets?

JSG: Okay, so. Did I seriously just fucking see a demon-to-disciple golden shower?

JEF: Yes you did. Perversions of baptism are a common thing in anti-pagan propaganda, and Ireland was absolutely lousy with the stuff during the witch scares. A lot of what went into the source material is actually pretty accurate depictions of the accusations of what went on from consorting with devils at Black Masses. Be glad they didn't push the envelope of making a Eucharist out of feces.

JSG: Gross. By the way, I like how you're being extra analytical and informative this week to help compensate for my overall "I SAW BOOBS AND PEE PEE" childishness. So, that ending... hoo boy. Bit of a mess, huh? Any suggestions on how we could have made that any more needlessly complicated and theologically unclear? I mean, I liked that the creature was ultimately defeated by a woman, but how and why it happened seemed muddled and badly executed.

JEF: You know what I loved? That they were totally trying to play up the life-is-the-opposite-of-death thing, Woman as creator is greater than Man as the destroyer, and yet Rawhead isn't beaten until Howard Hallenbeck beats him with a hard pole with a flared tip. Seriously, they go so hard to reveal that fertility and birth is the demon's kryptonite, but why stick with that when you can hit him with a shovel?

I think I see why Barker disowned this flick.

JSG: Yeah, I think I do, too.

That's all for this week. Join us next time on Halloween for our final look at another cult classic from our chums across the pond.

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John Seaborn Gray