Rawhead Rex

Color, 1986, 89 mins. 52 secs.
Directed by George Pavlou
Starring David Dukes, Kelly Piper, Hugh O'Conor, Cora Lunny, Ronan Wilmot, Niall Toibin, Niall O'Brien
Kino Lorber (Blu-ray & DVD) (US RA/R1 HD/NTSC) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9), Artisan (DVD) (US R1 NTSC), CMV Laservision / Edel Media (DVD) (Germany R2 PAL), Opening (DVD) (France R2 PAL), Prism (DVD) (UK R2 PAL), Quadrifoglio (DVD) (Italy R2 PAL)

Most notorious as Rawhead Rexone of two films (along with Transmutations) that spurred up-and-coming horror writer Clive Barker to direct his own material with Hellraiser, this Irish-shot adaptation of one of Barker's Books of Blood short stories is more of a daffy rubber monster movie than its darker, weightier source material. The tale basically plays around in the same rural pagan sandbox that Ken Russell would explore more outrageously in Lair of the White Worm two years later, and on its own terms, it's an entertaining slice of hokum with enough cheap, slasher-inspired thrills to keep fans amused.

While exploring an Irish church for a study on ancient religious practices, Howard (Dukes) finds himself at the scene of uncanny developments when the removal of an ancient stone column unleashes a hulking, fanged monster during a lightning storm. Soon the locals are being slaughtered by the head-removing beast, an altar possesses the capability of driving people mad, and local priest Reverend Coot (Toibin) finds himself locking horns with a local, O'Brien (Wilmot), who seems to be under the monster's sway. Determined to save his family from a violent fate at the hands of the fiend, Howard realizes the clue to its destruction may lie within the church itself.

As with most of Barker's early stories, this one was originally a far more extreme, sexualized work with the title monster described as essentially a giant, rampaging, fanged penis. Needless to say, that imagery Rawhead RexRawhead Rexwouldn't have worked in a horror film designed for mainstream consumption so viewers ended up with a latex-heavy, more traditional creation with glowing eyes and a sharp snout. Some perversity still remains here, mainly via some hilariously memorable dialogue and a surprising bit of blasphemous urination; however, for the most part it sticks to the '80s stalk-and-slash template with the obligatory effects-heavy climax as the forces of good and evil collide. Barker wrote the screenplay for this film and Transmutations (a.k.a. Underworld), both helmed by George Pavlou, though it's safe to say that the results are a bit different than what the author had in mind. On the level of pulp it really is something else at times though, with Wilmot's performance in particular blasting so far over the top it's quite glorious to behold.

Released theatrically by Empire Pictures in the United States in a handful of theaters, Rawhead Rex found a fair amount of success on VHS from Vestron and laserdisc from Image Entertainment thanks to Barker's growing fanbase. However, the film wasn't treated terribly well on video for decades after that with a very dated, fullscreen broadcast master used for an Artisan DVD in 1999 that quickly went out of circulation and started commanding ridiculous amounts of money. A handful of European releases didn't fare any better, including a strange French double feature paired up with William Malone's Creature.

Rather miraculously, horror fans waiting for a watchable Rawhead Rextransfer of this film were more Rawhead Rexthan rewarded with separate Blu-ray and DVD special editions from Kino Lorber in 2017 featuring a new 4K scan(!) of the original negative and an intimidating roster of extras. The transfer looks pretty stupefying compared to the film's dismal appearance in the past; gone is that soft, dark look we've come to know, replaced here with razor sharp clarity. The original grain structure appears to have been left intact, and it has a nicely textured look common to many indie '80s horror titles. It hasn't undergone a massive amount of digital clean up with some occasional white specks popping up, but it's barely noticeable. The DTS-HD MA audio options on the Blu-ray include the original 2.0 stereo track and a 5.1 mix that mostly shoves the dialogue and most of the sound effects to the center channel; to these ears the stereo one sounds more natural and authentic to the era, but your preference may vary. Optional English subtitles are also included. A third track features a low-key but informative audio commentary with Pavlou and moderator Stephen Thrower (author of several brilliant books including Nightmare USA: The Untold Story of the Exploitation Independents), with the focus remaining almost entirely on the production aspects of both Barker films (this one was intended to be shot first, but it didn't work out that way) and the extensive second unit work that had to pick up, not to mention the choice to retain the most taboo moment of the story in this adaptation.

On the video side, things start off with an interview with Rawhead Rex himself, actor Heinrich von B√ľnau, with "Call Me Rawhead" (20m57s), in German with English subtitles. He's quite fun as he remembers how "supercool, rad!" it was to appear in a horror film as a youth, explains the extensive physical training required to play the role and wear the extensive costume, and even reveals how the production tied in to members of the band U2! Of course, this wouldn't be a complete edition without Wilmot, who gets his own interview, Rawhead Rex"What the Devil Hath Wrought" (11m15s), Rawhead Rexabout how he did this after a Royal Shakespeare Company gig and ended up giving "150%" after being cast as "this character who was a bit on edge," to put it mildly. "Rawhead FX" (22m34s) compiles multiple interview subjects including creature effects supervisor Peter Litten, special effects supervisor Gerry Johnston, cameraman Sean Corcoran, special effects mold maker John Schoonraad, and makeup artist Rosie Blackmore. As you'd expect, it's a very detailed piece about the challenges of the extensive physical effects including animatronics, the impossibility of Barker's original creature designs of "an eight-foot cock dancing around," and the two Rawheads (one the guy in the costume, the other a model operated by the crew) that ended up in the final production. Finally, "Rawhead Rising" (20m54s) features legendary horror comics artist Stephen R. Bissette explaining the impact of Barker's Books of Blood in the '80s and the innovative method in which he pushed himself and his readers far beyond their comfort thresholds, an example Bissette carried into his own work. He also calls the source story "the best monster story I had ever read in my life," a consensus shared by many fans, and notes the elements in the story that always end up being sidelines when it's adapted into other media. Best of all, you get to see some of his unflinching sketches for a graphic novel version that ended up being scuttled. Amusingly, all but one of the featurettes add lots of ëxträneous umlauts to everyone's names, heavy metal style. Also included are an animated behind-the-scenes photo gallery and the original red-band theatrical trailer, while the reversible art packaging (the first pressing is a limited edition with an eye-catching slipcase featuring new poster art by Sean Phillips) also has an excellent liner notes essay by Kat Ellinger, "I Don't Believe in the Devil: Rawhead Red; A Folk Horror?," tying the film and story to the folk horror cinematic tradition set by Blood on Satan's Claw and The Wicker Man as well as past child-eating figures in English folklore. In short, it's a packed edition as lovably excessive as the movie itself.

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Reviewed on October 8, 2017.