Years ago, I remember some of my horror fanatic friends casually dropping the name “Rawhead Rex.” I recall thinking that it sounded like some bodily torture technique your brother would use to gain control of the television remote, not unlike an Indian Burn, Purple Nerpal, or Wet Willie. The larger question is, of course, why up until a few years ago I had never seen this movie. Simply put, Rawhead Rex has always gotten pretty shafted with distributions. Now most people know it vaguely as “the film where the monster pees on the priest.”
Made in 1986 in the British Isles, Rawhead Rex is based on a short story penned by Clive Barker in his Books of Blood series. Directed by George Pavlou, Rex marks Pavlou and Barker’s second and last collaboration. Their first was on 1985’s Transmutation which Barker has disowned. He also has harsh feelings about Rex, stating publically that he hated the way the monster looked and Pavlou didn’t take advantage of his story’s true potential.
Rawhead Rex begins with a farmer removing a huge stone from his field, thus accidentally awakening a tall, lumbering and pissed-off monster. He is never given a name in the story, but judging by the title film’s title, I’m guessing he is Rawhead Rex.
After Rex’s arrival, the rest of the movie functions in standard “monster on the loose” fashion. We later find out Rex is some type of pagan demi-god with a thing about pregnant chicks. His path of terror has some slaying, but largely consists of thuggery as Rex seems fond of busting furniture, breaking plates, and punching windows. Rawhead Rex smash! While the townsfolk panic and the police believe there is a roving band of hoodlums, visiting American Howard Hollenbeck is on his own to defeat the behemoth.
Though the movie follows Barker’s short story rather closely, it leaves out some of the more important elements like a back story. The film has no explanation of who Rex is, why he was imprisoned, or even what he is attempting to accomplish. The most interesting and memorable plot point is the church’s verger who becomes Rex’s lackey. In the book, his transformation and acts of defilement are well splayed out in all their pee-covered glory (I’m getting to that). But in the movie…not so much. The film opens with the verger (named Declan) leading the world’s most boring church service. Seriously, they sing “Hallelujah” over and over for 15 minutes. By the end, I was ready to side with the monster as well. Then there is the aforementioned peeing scene. Though the evil baptism is lavishly detailed in the book, in the movie it’s a passing glance and a very awkward looking one at that.
I must admit, much of this film could be described as “awkward”. The actors are dull, shots are drab, the sound-editing is abysmal, and the plot features nothing outstanding aside from 10 seconds of watching a guy in a rigid latex suit piss. So why all the love for Rex then? Fans love the monster… who is himself ridiculously awkward. Rex is perhaps the silliest part of the movie, and we love him for it. The costume looks rubbery and stiff. Rex’s taut latex skin offers no facial expressions which is a shame because his receding hairline makes his face huge! Then the filmmakers added Rex’s teased-up Mohawk, Mad Max-ish costuming, rippling WWF-style pecs, and totally rad 80s lightning effects. In most cases when a film monster needs a bit of work, the director might try to mask the imperfections with the cunning use of shadowy lighting, long shots, and maybe fog. Nope, not director Pavlou. Not only does Rex roam the country in broad daylight, but most of his shots are in extreme close-up, showing all the gloriously gawky imperfections.
All this said, I love this movie! I have no idea why he is called Rawhead Rex. Doesn’t matter. I don’t know his back story. Not important. I have no clue why a stone carving of a pregnant woman brings on a storm of 80s-style neon lasers that force him underground. Who cares? Neon lasers kick-ass, and Rawhead Rex rules. Somewhere in all the silliness of this 8-foot-tall graceless titan, a group of horror fans found an endearing quality that we love. Rex holds cult-like status in the horror community. Most fans acknowledge his faults, but still want to give him a big hug regardless. Hell, even the horror-cloth gods over at Fright Rags recently released a Rawhead Rex shirt which is now sold out. This creature is very much loved.
Rawhead Rex is a great example of why I write this column: horror community’s love for a film does not dictate its release or availability. Rex did a VHS release back in 1987 via Vestron Video, and it was on VHS that most of us saw it. In 1999 Artisan Entertainment did a limited DVD release. Now long out-of-print, DVDs of Rawhead Rex go on Amazon for over $200. Even a used VHS tape in so-so condition will run you around $25.
For years, there have been rumors that Rawhead Rex is slated for a Blu-ray release. So far, nothing has come to fruition or even been officially announced. Likewise, Clive Barker has long talked about remaking Rawhead Rex himself, harvesting the visceral edge that was lost in the movie. But again, these are just rumors. For now, Rawhead Rex is sleeping, but horror fans continue to rally for his rebirth and re-release allowing him to smash and pee once more.