Sunday, December 27, 2009

Medium Rare With a Side of Stale Cheese

Short stories in the horror genre are often prime meat for feature film adaptations. Candyman, Re-animator, The Fly, and even Hitchcock’s The Birds and Psycho are a few glowing examples of how and why 20 or so pages can be expanded into a solidly entertaining 100 minutes onscreen. Unlike novels where readers are deeply connected to a character’s voice who has guided them for hours and days of reading, shorter fiction often tosses out a concept for inspiration, thus providing ample space for a filmmaker to create his or her own world.
And then there’s Rawhead Rex.

Based on a short story from Cliver Barker’s third Book of Blood, this is a film long abused by its original author (and penner of the screenplay) for misinterpreting its source material to make a mere monster movie. Having read Rawhead Rex, I can fully appreciate and sympathize with Barker’s criticisms. On the page, Rawhead Rex is a grungy, male ego-on-the-loose tale about an ancient god whose only weakness is, essentially, female menstruation and fertility. In the hands of George Pavlou, however, Rawhead Rex becomes a haunted house prop set loose on poorly shot screaming actors.

Quick Plot: In a quaint and quiet small town of Ireland, a farmer struggles to excavate a random monolith that has sat in the middle of his land for some time. With a strike of lighting and some fancy technique, he eventually succeeds. Unfortunately, the process also helps to free the long-buried demon god Rawhead Rex, portrayed here as a growling 8’ tall Halloween decoration with a mean six-pack and costume borrowed from a backup dancer for Gwar. 

So what’s so bad about Rex (aside from his wardrobe and laughably glowing red eyes)? Well, mostly the fact that he likes to eat folks (in the story, children are his meal du jour, but men and non-menstruating females make the menu as well). The skeptical police are of little help while the local village priest has switched allegiances to the titular monster himself. The only real hope comes in the form of a visiting historian who, along with his impatient and rather unpleasant wife, watches his son get devoured by Rex as we instead watch his slow reaction to what we assume is a horrific offscreen act. Will the grieving father be able to unlock the ancient secrets as written in stained glass on the church’s windows, or will the world fall prey to a blown up Spencer’s Gift with an appetite for destruction?

Rawhead Rex offers nothing revelatory in its execution, but it’s a solid enough watch for its brief running time. At the same time, it’s a pretty bland disappointment if you’re familiar with the work of Cliver Barker or have read its original story. Not only do those 50 pages offer triple the amount of gore as this 1986 film, they also dig far more deeply into what kind of evil Rex is and how the world he lived--and currently lives--in fosters the reign of a masculine monster. With a misused minimal budget, Pavlou’s Rex is a miniature Godzilla loose on an underfunded and poorly policed town.

High Points
It’s refreshing that the film retained some of the story’s less cinematic storylines--such as the excremental sacrament--but it would have been far more impressive if Pavlou had managed to attach actual weight to the actions
Low Points
Most of the special effects--including the woefully rubber faced Rex himself--feel less impressive than when Days of Our Lives featured a character possessed by a green-eyed devil

It's not that Rawhead Rex is completely devoid of the male-power aesthetic of Barker's original work; it just has no concept of how to use it. There are phallic symbols to be found and men to surrender willingly into servitude to Rex, but Pavlou provides no actual commentary on what makes this killing machine any different--or, for that matter, similar to--any other human-hungry villains.

Lessons Learned
Small red-coated women that resemble Venetian dwarves from Don’t Look Now frown upon public displays of affection from middle aged parents
When watching a gigantic monster hover over your child, it’s probably best to run to the boy’s aid before sighing with resignation

Irish policemen spend an awful lot of time smoking and scowling

Upon being released from several centuries of live burial, a demonic god’s first action will be to trash a kitchen a la Janeane Garfalo in Wet Hot American Summer
To save your girlfriend from being grabbed and eaten by a monster, it’s best to grab her arms and not her top. To get a gratuitous breast shot in a film that has need for nudity, it’s best for a character to grab a would-be victim’s top instead of arm
If your two children are insufferable brats, you, as a married couple, have no right to still be so damn horny
Not surprisingly, baptism by facial urination will make a new follower rather foul-mouthed

I obtained my copy of Rawhead Rex via a convention table sale and while it wasn’t the best $8 I’ve ever spent, I’m not cursing the time wasted viewing it. The film hasn’t had a DVD release and it’s not quite worth the time or mild guilt you would spend in trying to find a copy for yourself. Clive Barker fans will probably be offended by utter lack of artistic merit or any of the real horror found in his text, but those who enjoy mediocre monster movies will have a good enough time.


  1. I personally love Rawhead Rex, but I grew up with it and love it even with its numerous faults. I have not seen it in many years, but I watched it more than enough to remember it very well and I would love to see it again someday.

    I read the story too (after seeing the film) and I thought it was obviously so much better and one of the things that makes it better is the inner thought process of Rex himself. It would seem to me that portraying a monster's thoughts would be pretty difficult without sounding horribly cheesy and just imagine a Rawhead Rex voice over?! Actually, that would be dope.

    I read the book many years ago, but I do remember one part that showed what he was thinking about as he was doing it and it was when he faces off against a car. He sees it as another beast, a beast that also bled, but its blood was fire and could harm him. Stuff like that really added to the story and isn't in the film. Just goes to show you how hard it can be to translate words to celluloid I guess.

    I do also love the films Ireland (I think) setting and that aesthetic is quite pleasing as well as seeing home boy get peed on! Like I said, I love the movie, but for nostalgic reason and I know it isn't very good, but I'm happy that someone wrote about it as I think it will never see the DVD light of day, unfortunately.

  2. The setting works very well, although Clive Barker was apparently pissed (pun way too intended) that it wasn't set during the hot and sweaty days of summer.

    I don't think it was really possible for this particular filmmaker to successfully make Rex into a thinking and speaking being, both due to budgetary and skill limitations. I do believe that this would be more than enjoyable for any horror fan unfamiliar with the source material or the fact that Clive Barker was at all connected to it. It's a fun enough monster movie, just lacking any of the complexity or raw male evil in the short story.

    And you know, I would love a fan edit that gives Rex a voiceover. I imagine some fancy narration from the vocals of Hugh Grant..

  3. Or Carl from Aqua Team Hunger Force! HA!

  4. Fan edit freedom! I would actually love for more films to be recut solely for the narration. Imagine how much better Diary of the Dead would have been had, I don't know, Judi Dench provided the voice over.