In search of neolithic sacred sites, Howard Hallenbeck drags his reluctant wife and bickering young children around the towns and villages of Ireland, but in rural Rathmore he makes a discovery more powerful than anything he could have anticipated which will have a profound impact on his family and the community, the long-forgotten resting place of the mythical Rawhead Rex.
A pagan god long held dormant under the earth, his rest has been disturbed by the local farmers, simple men of the land who have pulled down an ancient stone monolith while tilling the fields, a totem covered in ancient carvings which held the beast in check; initially refusing to bend to their will, in a storm it tumbles, releasing the monster beneath.
Unleashed on the villagers, the presence of Rawhead Rex awakens other secrets buried in the parish, the piercing eyes of the demon depicted in the stained glass window of the church catching a beam of twilight sunlight and falling on the verger Declan O’Brien, a man whose faith switches allegiances to an older god with the terrifying and pious fervour of the newly converted.
Directed by George Pavlou from a script by Clive Barker, Rawhead Rex was their second collaboration following Underworld, also known as Transmutations, released the previous year; adapted from Barker’s own short story of the same name originally published in the third volume of his Books of Blood, it is a tale of folk horror, paganism, fertility, depravity and bloody violence.
Now released on Blu-ray by Arrow films as a 4K restoration from the original camera negative over thirty years past its cinema release of April 1987, the English setting of the story was moved when the film was partially financed by Irish investors, the supposed summer heat also lost as County Wicklow suffered the worst winter storms in a century during filming.
“The weather was savage,” recalls make-up artist Rosie Blackmore, Pavlou explaining that the exterior filming of the first day had to be cancelled entirely and some interior scenes shot instead with whatever cast were available simply in order to keep morale up, the feeling being that to accept defeat so early would be a blow it would be difficult for the production to recover from.
This was not the only significant hurdle facing the production, with Pavlou reluctantly being advised part way through the shoot that a million dollars of the budget had failed to materialise, the result being that there could be no reshoots, that major night shoots had to be stopped at midnight to avoid running up additional costs and that the final day of principal photography was conducted with only a skeleton crew outwith union regulations after the production – and payment – had officially been ceased the day before.
An ambitious script which carries many themes which Barker has explored through his career – old pagan gods who have been buried by new religions who will not tolerate their resurgence (Cabal), the secrets of the land and their powerful lure (In the Hills, the Cities), and the physical violations and taboos which he would later explicitly foreground when he made his directorial debut with the first of the Hellraiser sequence – that intention is compromised by the shortfall.
Regrettably, that cost-cutting is most apparent in Rawhead Rex himself; rendered in a more practical and considerably less provocative embodiment than envisioned by Barker, on set the restrictive foam latex suit was worn by 6’11” Heinrich von Schellendorf but all the close-up inserts were of an animatronic head designed and built to what special effects artist Peter Litten says was “an impossible target” of only a few weeks’ lead time.
Capable of no more than crude facial movement, any life or menace which should be projected by the resurrected pagan god falls flat, the film built around a central presence who is unable to carry the burden and who would have been better kept in the shadow of the surrounding forests, focusing instead on the human actors, particularly Ronan Wilmot, a veteran of the Royal Shakespeare Company who would later be known for In the Name of the Father whose unbalanced presence here creates a more immediate threat in O’Brien.
Despite displaying parallels with An American Werewolf in London in the rural setting, the bodily violations, the bumbling investigation of the Garda and the consciously transatlantic casting and tropes of horny teenagers slaughtered in the woods, Rawhead Rex is very much an also-ran, the daytime television detachment of David Dukes and Kelly Piper failing to convey the necessary denial, anger, bargaining and unexpected epiphany of the role of Howard and Elaine Hallenbeck in the prophetic events.
The children played by musician Cora Lunny and Hugh O’Connor who would play the title role in The Young Poisoner’s Handbook and recently appeared in Pilgrimage, their distant recollections are entertaining in their interview, O’Connor commenting how annoying his character is, and also included are a commentary from Pavlou and interviews with Schellendorf, Wilmot and others, most interesting the artist Stephen R Bissette who provides useful insight into the still-unrealised potential of “the best monster story of my generation… no adaptation has done it justice.”