"Rawhead Rex" is a demon, alive for millennia, trapped in the depths of hell, and waiting for release. He is held by an ancient seal, imprisoned for centuries in a barren field near the hamlet of Rathmore, Ireland.
In time, this gruesome legacy has been forgotten, dismissed as an odd pre-Christian myth until Tom Garron decides to plow the field his ancestors knew better than to disturb. The seal is broken and an unspeakable evil is unleashed - on a rampage of blood and lust.
Howard Hallenbeck, an American historian on a working vacation in Ireland, discovers on the stained glass windows of a local church a series of scenes illustrating the reign of terror of Rawhead Rex. But the one piece of glass depicting the defeat of the monster is missing. Howard is desperate for an answer - for Rawhead Rex is on the loose, and he is insatiable!
"But you don't believe in the Devil."
"No, I don't believe in the Devil! But something started the rumor."
Some movies are simply beyond criticism. Not necessarily because it's the best film ever made, but more because it's so bad it's endlessly entertaining. Such is the case for George Pavlou's 1986 production, Rawhead Rex. Loosely based on the works of Clive Barker and his screenplay, a tale of demonic Irish folklore horror is comically undermined by some cheap rubbery monster effects, dramatic overacting, stunted pacing and is all the more entertaining because of its faults. It's creepy, silly, and wildly entertaining. A childhood favorite is finally given the glorious Blu-ray treatment it has long deserved.
It was supposed to be a simple working vacation through Ireland for Howard Hallenbeck (David Dukes), his wife Elaine (Kelly Piper) and their two children. They stop in peaceful, rainy Rathmore to look at an old church as part of Howard's research project about fertility cults. When a farmer attempting to clear his field of a particularly phallic stone, he unwittingly unleashes Rawhead Rex, an ancient evil that had been entombed in the earth for centuries. Aided by the deranged verger Declan (Ronan Wilmont), Rawhead traverses the countryside slaughtering and devouring people wholesale. With the police powerless to stop the monster, the key to the demon's destruction may lie in clues found in Howard's research.
Rawhead Rex is far from being a great movie - let along a great horror movie. While there are some genuinely creepy moments like shots of the creature standing in a field with fire-red eyes holding up the head of his most recent kill, the rest of the movie is an over-the-top underfunded mess of B-Movie schlock horror. And I love every single second of it! I love the cheap attempts at drumming up scares through poorly-timed jump scares. I love the creepy but underused sense of atmosphere. I love the goofy rubber monster face with glowing novelty eyes and the cheesy shredded monster suit. I love how when the monster makes a kill, blood erupts like a geyser of red dye and corn syrup. Heck, I even love the overly dramatic music that plays whenever our hero and his family boringly drive through the countryside. It's 80s B-movie schlock at its finest.
A number of issues with Rawhead Rex rest with director George Pavlou, his producers, and their relationship with Clive Barker and the author's story collection "Books of Blood." In short, the guys pulling the strings and making things happen behind the scenes just didn't get what they were working with. They saw a means to jump on the rising popularity of horror flicks in the 80s and wanted to make cheap B-movies and reap some tidy profits. While popular, Barker's work was the wrong choice for that sort of cinema. By contract, Barker had to supply the screenplays but was then shut out of every creative decision. Like 1985's Underworld (better known as Transmutations stateside), Rawhead Rex floundered and went nowhere. As a result, Barker disowned the film and took creative control over all film projects based on his books and thus Hellraiser was born.
Warts and all, Rawhead Rex is one of my absolute favorite movies from when I was a kid watching my favorite Detroit TV station on Saturday mornings. Along with repeated viewings of Halloween II, Friday the 13th, Terror Train and Tales from the Dark Side: The Movie, Rawhead Rex was a repeat offender on WXYZ TV 20 "Thriller" double feature. I have great memories of watching this movie with my older sister and loving every minute of it. We used to have a game of counting the loud beep sounds used to cover up curse words in horror and I remember Rawhead had a particularly high score. At the time we thought it could be any number of bad words, but the funniest thing is that this movie isn't all that profane, they were merely beeping out words like "hell," "damn," or negative usages of "god." Which when you're dealing with a monster flick about a murderous demon you can imagine those words were used a lot.
As an adult, Rawhead Rex is simply a very guilty pleasure. In truth, the film isn't well made, but it's damn enjoyable. The clumsy use of odd angle steady-cam trying to depict the creature's massive height and speed just adds humor to tension. When Ronan Wilmont's bananas verger Declan goes from 0-60 at the drop of a hat, you can't help but give a giggle. Then you have the titular monster with the ever-open maw of bloody rubbery teeth and crazy red glowing eyes. I tip my hat to German actor Heinrich von Schellendorf for doing his absolute best to give this monster life. But when all of his scenes were from long shots or middles and an animatronic puppet was used for close-ups, the poor guy got the shaft. You really can't do much with a prop head resting on your noggin like that. The rest of the cast does their best, David Dukes, in particular, is giving everything he's got, but it's not enough to surmount the film's numerous issues.
Those going into Rawhead Rex expecting thoughtful and engaging examination of demonic horror and folklore will be left out in the rain. I say that as a defender of the movie. I've spent hours watching my Laserdisc with love and reverence, but not because it's good, but because it's such a silly and entertaining movie. If you're a lover of pure 80s schlock horror, the unintentional hilarity will make the journey worth it. The film's "baptism" scene alone should be enough to have you howling if the rest of the movie hasn't won you over.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
Rawhead Rex finally at long last makes it's U.S. debut on Blu-ray in one hell of a special edition package courtesy of Kino Lorber and their Studio Classics label. In truth, after The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly this is quite possibly the most elaborate release yet from Kino Lorber Studio Classics. The film is pressed onto a Region A BD-50 disc that comes housed in a standard sturdy Blu-ray case with a slipcover featuring newly commissioned artwork - if you order from Kino Lorber's website you can order a poster of the new cover artwork. As if that wasn't enough, the Blu-ray case features reversible artwork with one side replicating the original theatrical poster artwork and the other side replicating the home video artwork found on the old Pioneer Laserdisc and out of print DVD. The disc loads directly to a static image main menu with traditional navigation options. Also included is a booklet containing a great essay by Kat Ellinger.
Given that Rawhead Rex was less than anything resembling a box office success, I wasn't expecting much for this release. But I'll tell ya, Kino Lorber studio classics really did a bang-up job with this 1.85:1 1080p transfer. Minted from a fresh 4K scan of the original camera negative, this is honestly better than anything I could have hoped for - especially for a film of this vintage and stature. The elements are in pretty terrific shape with the only visible damage being some very slight speckling. Film grain is intact without being noisy or intrusive - some scenes that look like heavy grain is actually rain as the filmmakers had to shoot around the weather. Detail levels, for better or worse, are strikingly clear allowing you to see and appreciate all of the textures of the clothing, the production design work, and yes, even the titular Rawhead's rubber head and fake hand with retractable claws. Colors are generally very good allowing for terrific primaries, especially the red blood and the creature's glowing red eyes to pop off the screen. Flesh tones are also spot on. Black levels are inky and deep without any contrast blooms allowing for a terrific sense of depth. Some slight banding popped up towards the end, but really that's not much of a quibble compared to the rest of the film - you're hardly going to notice. Barring a full and expensive restoration, this is likely to be the absolute best presentation we'll see of Rawhead Rex on home video.
Rawhead Rex arrives with a pair of audio options to choose from and both have their strengths. Between an English DTS-HD MA 5.1 or 2.0 stereo mix, you really can't go wrong. The 5.1 mix is well designed that spreads out the elements and gives the mix a great sense of atmosphere and space - especially during the quieter conversation segments. When the action kicks in and Rawhead attacks the mix really picks up and there is a lot of great surround activity. However, if you're a traditionalist, the 2.0 mix is also very effective. As one would expect, it's a bit more front-loaded but it's got plenty of punch and presence where it counts. Dialogue exchanges in both tracks are spot on and come through crystal clear - it's all the more obvious when and where certain actors had to loop their lines in. Screams of terror also get plenty of extra attention in the mix. Sound effects and scoring are fine without any interference. Both tracks are free of any damage or age-related hiss or pops.
Truth be told, when this title was announced, I was happy that I was going to have a new copy of this film as my Laserdisc has started to show signs of rot. I never expected Kino Studio Classics to pull out the stops on the bonus features department. With a new audio commentary featuring director George Pavlou as well as a slew of cast and crew interviews, this is a hell of a great bonus features package. The only way this could have been made better is with an interview with Barker himself - just so we can hear what he really thinks of the film, but that's likely never going to happen.
Essay by Kat Ellinger - a great read if you're a fan of the film.
Audio Commentary featuring director George Pavlou and moderated by author Steven Thrower. Overall this is a solid, informative commentary if a bit languid. Thrower keeps firing away questions and Pavlou offers up some fine production details but he's not a dynamic or engaging presence. It's like listening to a casual conversation.
Interview with Heinrich von Bünau (HD 20:57) Heinrich covers a lot of great ground in this interview from being cast as the titular monster when he was 19 to the uncomfortable costume to the infamous "baptism" sequence to working with the rest of the cast and crew.
Interview with Ronan Wilmot (HD 11:15) This is a solid informative interview about how the actor got cast as the mad verger. He offers up a lot of details about shooting the movie but he never misses the chance to say he took the job because it was a job.
Special Effects Crew Interview (HD 22:34) This is a terrific interview with the effects crew Peter Mackenzie Litten, Gerry Johnston, Rosi Blackmore, John Schoonraad, and Sean Corcoran. They talk a great deal about their respective roles in bringing Rawhead to life through a stunt suit, animatronic head for close-ups. They also talk about moving away from Barker's original design ideas of Rawhead being a bit more phallic in appearance, which was probably a good idea.
Interview with Artist Stephen R Bissette (HD 20:54) Bissette offers up a lot of great material about the sadly aborted graphic novel adaptation and provides a look at the creature designs as well as sharing his thoughts on the "Books of Blood" series.
Behind the Scenes Image Gallery (2:11)
Theatrical Trailer (HD 1:05)
I honestly never thought that Rawhead Rex would be given a truly great Blu-ray release or at least one that generally took the film seriously as a fan favorite and a cult classic. Rawhead Rex isn't a genuinely great movie but it provides great entertainment value. It's got a couple good scares and a nice creepy sense of atmosphere and mood, but everything else is so hammy it borders on hilarity. I've loved this movie ever since I was a kid. I owned the DVD from Pioneer, and I still pull out my Laserdisc on cold rainy nights just for the fun of it. This Blu-ray release from Kino Lorber Studio Classics is the best fans could have possibly hoped for. From the exceptional video transfer to the outstanding audio along with a robust bonus features package, this Blu-ray of Rawhead Rex deserves to own shelf space in your collection. Now, the movie may not be for everyone, but for fans, this is a must own. For everyone else who either hasn't seen the film or barely remembers it, this set is highly recommended. The Halloween season is the perfect time to rediscover this classic piece of 80s schlock horror.