Rawhead Rex

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Far from being another John Grisham who sits idly by while his books are bought up by every major studio, Clive Barker has always favored a more hands-on approach. He has tried to have a major role in most of his projects as they are adapted to the big screen.

Barker began in college, making experimental short films which are now available on DVD. He finally hit it big in 1987 with HELLRAISER, based on his novella "The Hellbound Heart." That was a classic approach to his take-charge attitude. He not only adapted his own work for the screenplay, he took the director's chair as well, and created a modern horror masterpiece. The work continued sporadically, through CANDYMAN, GODS AND MONSTERS and such underrated gems as NIGHTBREED and LORD OF ILLUSIONS. When a Barker project goes south, it's usually due to his lack of involvement.

And not everybody has been eager to make these films. I once had the chance to interview Barker, a fascinating, humorous and very kind person. He was currently planning three film projects that he talked about, including WEAVEWORLD, THE BOOKS OF BLOOD and an original work called AMERICAN NIGHTMARE. All of these works came close to being made. So far, none of them have been.

I think people must get cold feet when they read his work. Barker is an openly gay writer who has long painted some truly grotesque pictures, which are at the same time beautiful and sometimes erotic. They see the name, without realizing that Barker is not Candyman or Pinhead, and they chicken out. It's a shame.

RAWHEAD REX is, in itself, a mixed bag. This is an earlier Barker film. He adapted the screenplay (from his short story of the same name), but did not direct. Apparently, he wrote a couple drafts but was then locked out of the actual filmmaking process. He was never even invited to the set.

It's a British-American co-production, distributed in some circles by Charles Band's Empire Pictures, bearing some of the company's touches. There are times when you can sense Barker's trademarks and times when it feels completely absent. When it's there, the film shines. When it's gone, it's very, very poor.

Rawhead, sometimes referred to as "Rawhead and Bloody Bones" is a creature rooted in some obscure corners of mythology. In this film, Rawhead is an ancient monster that is accidentally raised from its tomb in a small Irish village. The beast is strong and starts slaughtering the townspeople, ripping them to shreds. Pretty mediocre stuff.

A local priest, receiving the call, has fallen under the spell of Rawhead. The weak-minded leave their faith behind in the face of brute power. The beast itself a representation of demonic evil from a time before religion. Hmmm, getting there, but still...

A writer (the late David Dukes - ROSE RED, GODS AND MONSTERS) gets caught up in the crisis when he suffers an incredible personal loss that transforms him into a driven and vengeful man. Ahhhh, now that's more like it.

There are times when RAWHEAD REX is clearly trying to be more than your garden-variety monster movie. The Irish setting with a nod to Celtic lore is a step in the right direction. As is the effect the beast has on some of the townspeople. Colin Towns creates a pounding, thunderous orchestral score that successfully makes the film seem more sweeping and epic than its budget allows. When Dukes' character is finally allowed to grow, he goes at it with gusto, creating a great role for himself. It's a shame Dukes passed away so suddenly a few years ago.

There are also times when the film cannot overcome its meager origins. Rawhead himself has to shoulder most of the blame, or at least the people who designed him. From a distance, he looks menacing. But up close, he looks far too cartoonish. His face is barely animated at all. The eyes and nose are exaggerated and the mouth is in a continuous snarl. The drool that emanates from his mouth does nothing to lessen the phoniness of this construction. Just look at the pics and let the giggling commence. You can can get away with this on an Iron Maiden album cover. But if you try to make it a living, breathing monster, people are going to snicker.

Perhaps the film shows too much, when it just doesn't have the goods. Rawhead has the appearance of a hulking, ape-like, red Berkerzer with glowing red eyes. An interesting challenge for the right effects crew. But it seems like they just didn't have enough to work with here. Hence, when we see the monster up close, he isn't nearly as intimidating as those shadowy shots of him standing alone in a field, contemplating his next move.

It's no slow-moving monster, however. Rawhead moves with strength and purpose, easily overtaking his prey, without having them trip every other step. If the intention of this monster was to have their victims underestimate him, mission accomplished. Just when we have his methodology down, Rawhead finds new ways to show the town how merciless he is. Silly face notwithstanding, he is a very frightening foe that takes the appearance of the various demons from ancient illustrations. As one character so aptly puts it, "No, I don't believe in the devil. But something had to start the rumor."

Some poor 1980s-style visual effects are also apparent. You know the kind. The school of thought that said a film looked 5 million dollars bigger if they just showed some blue laserbeams at every opportunity. Not surprisingly, it increases the hokiness factor.

And this is a shame since the second half of the film is absolutely incredible. Rawhead has us fooled, thinking he is a systematic killer who just offs people one by one. Yawn. But then comes the shocking twist in the middle of the film - an unprecedented and terrifying event. The rest of the film is all smiles as far as I'm concerned. Getting impatient with the "one at a time" approach, much of the second half is a complete massacre.

But above all else, the most frustrating thing is that the film never explains what the purpose of Rawhead is. Where did he come from? Why is he killing? Is there any aim besides instilling fear in people? If you have knowledge of the mythological origins of Rawhead as well as Barker's original short story, you are ahead of the curve. But I would wager most of the audience would not know the backstory going into the film. Therefore, without any explanation into Rawhead's motivation, we're left with this emptiness.

Whether Barker's original script explains Rawhead's origins, who knows? Based on the successful parts of the film, I wouldn't doubt it. But the film needed more work than the producers were willing to give it. Creating a successful film is the accomplishment of several dedicated people. RAWHEAD REX has a very talented and very dedicated few. It's their ideas, and only their ideas, that make RAWHEAD REX worthwhile.

Reviewed by Scott W. Davis