Friday, 27 January 2012

The Truth About RAWHEAD REX Part II - Awakenings


When The Books of Blood were first published in 1984, to say they caused something of a sensation in the realm of weird fiction is something of an understatement. This first three volumes published by Sphere were very soon attracting praise from some of the biggest names in the field - Stephen King famously said "I have seen the future of horror fiction and its name is Clive Barker", a quote that very soon was emblazoned on the jackets of subsequent printings, and Ramsey Campbell remarked that Barker was "in the best sense, the most deeply shocking writer now working in the field".

And certainly it was a most shocking début - for here was a fresh, highly talented writer who had emerged full-formed out of nowhere; rather the usual route of short stories appearing in a variety of magazines first, Barker appeared on the bookshelves with three top notch volumes of tales, and another three swiftly followed.  Of course initially, the first half of the Books of Blood emerged with little fanfare, however it didn't take long before publishers were spoilt for choice with a host of awards to cite and a forest of glowing review to quote. 

Barker's own stated purpose for The Books of Blood was to show the diversity and flexibility of the horror story - they could be funny, poetic, sexy, mythological, psychological, and provoking a wider range of emotional responses than the usual fear and dread. Now often when an author states he wants to shake up or redefine the horror genre, this often results in dusting off the old guard - vampires, werewolves, zombies etc. - and giving them the dreaded 'new twist'. And while Barker's magnificent set of stories did feature classic genre staples such as the restless dead and summoned demons, it was far more than just making a reanimated mummy 'contemporary' by slapping on a set of Ray Bans on the dusty bandages. By and large, these were unconventional stories that avoided the typical paths and took us into new and delightfully disturbing territory, and when he did set out to reawaken an old terror, he looked much further than the Universal Pictures canon. 

In Volume III, Barker introduced us to Rawhead Rex, a slavering giant unleashed into the modern world, but as we discovered in the first part of this article, this rampaging beast wasn't one of the menagerie of original horrors borne of Clive's imagination, but an ancient British folk devil given a new lease of life. Seemingly taking a cue from earlier weird writers usch as Arthur Machen and HP Lovecraft who postulated that our angels, demons and fairies were distorted legends of pre-human horrors, the Rawhead-&-Bloody Bones of English folklore became a survivor of pagan times, a remnant of a pre-human race of "things which owned this land. Before Christ. Before civilisation". 

Although it is a fantastic monster-on-the-loose tale, this being a Barker story, Rawhead Rex isn't just an old legend on the rampage. Speaking in Nexus #04 Barker noted "Monster on the rampage stories are about the phallic principle. Large males run around terrorising women. Basically, I wrote a story about a ten foot prick which goes on the rampage." And indeed in this darkly poetic tale, the titular ancient king does embody masculinity run amok, with themes pitting paganism against Christianity, the urban against the rural, and enough symbolism to fuel dozens of academic papers. In other words, exactly the kind of material that had The Books of Blood flying off the shelves.

And given the big splash these début volumes had made, it wasn't long before Hollywood came calling. Or rather, a small independent UK film company asked Barker for a screenplay. The result was Transmutations aka Underworld, a project that barely saw the light of day and that all parties involved were disappointed by. However the same folks also had snapped up the rights to the story Rawhead Rex and asked if Barker himself wanted to do the screenplay, assuringly him that the same mistakes would not be made again. And in fairness, largely they weren't, however the resulting movie Rawhead Rex (1986) didn't exactly meet with approval from either Barker or fans of The Books of Blood...



However despite it's poor reception, director George Pavlou's take on Barker's tale has developed something of a cult status. No one is claiming it to be an unrecognised classic yet, but it is fondly remembered by lovers of creature features and hokey B-movies. For this is exactly the flavour of the movie Rawhead's meat; pure burger and cheese.

To it's credit, it retains the infamous baptism scene and much of Rawhead's bloody violence, although as Pavlou acknowledged in an interview in Fangoria #16, they had to tread carefully on the gore front for at this point in the 1980s the censors were paying close attention to even minor independent horror flicks in the wake of the video nasty furore. However, the problem with Rawhead Rex is not that the violence of Barker's vision had been diluted, for it is still rather faithful to Barker's tale, but that the mythic qualities of the original text has been lost.

And so we have a straight-forward monster movie unspooling on screen, and while Pavlou tries gamely to play it straight classic horror style, unfortunately the constraints of the budget shrouds the entire proceedings in B-movie hokiness. Now for lovers of corny creature features, this makes for an entertainingly schlocky hour and a half, however Barker fans will be groaning at at the wandering plot, cheesy not-so-special effects, and the generally dumbing down of the original text. And when I first saw this flick, back in the days when VHS was king, I was very much in the latter camp.

Having seen numerous stills and heard Pavlou talking a good game in the aforementioned issue of Fangoria,  I was quite looking forward to it, however in the end the film itself left me disappointed. Now partly this was because the Rawhead FX didn't look as nearly as impressive when you saw them in motion - he looks great in photographs, but in the movie he's clearly a very large puppet head most of the time. But in fairness, Peter Litten and his crew did wonders with meagre resources and very little time, and the reason Rawhead ends up looking more comical than horrific is more down to the woolly direction.

Less forgivably on the FX front, and a perfect example of how this movie really loses its way, is the grand finale where assorted electric blue blobs are scribbled over the action to denote the ancient pagan feminine force that is the only thing that Rawhead fears. Now the trouble is not that the less-than-magical light-show is an el cheapo rendition of the ILM lens flare galas that crowned the climatic scenes of '80s blockbusters like Raiders of the Lost Ark or Poltergeist, but more the fact that these unwelcome bad acid visuals are a sledgehammer blow to the plot as well as the eyeballs.

Now I appreciate that the ending as written by Barker may well have been deemed less than cinematic - in the original story, our pagan titan is subdued by a fertility icon and stomped to death by a mob of villagers. However while the replacement light-storm of neon doodles and glow-in-the-dark standing stones that somehow age Rawhead into a senile delinquent and cause him to buried once under the earth, may have looked better on paper, what we get on-screen is less than satisfying. Aside the budget not being up to delivering the fireworks, the trouble is that although the script has a nice twist in the use of this artefact, not found in the original tale, this final confront feels somewhat fudged.

Firstly because while the magna mater statuette seems to drain Rex of his vitality, it stops short of what any lover of monster movies expects - namely that he is not just going to age, but disintegrate before our very eyes. Secondly, and no doubt the reason why he doesn't crumble into dust, is the fact that at the very end he pops up again from the grave (© Carrie 1976) for no discernible reason. Well, other than to deliver a final shock and completely trash the logic of the preceding narrative. Finally there's a nagging sense of cop-out to Rawhead's defeat, with shades of a wizard did it - you can't help feeling that the death by mob ending of the short story would have been far more visceral and fitting. 

And this is the crux of the matter, the dark poetic guts of the story are torn out by rusty monster movie clichés. Now on one hand, I can appreciate Rawhead Rex as a slice of '80s schlock but on the other, you can see there's a better film of the tale to be made, that would be gripping and disturbing rather enjoyably corny. Indeed Barker himself has spoken at length on where the movie got it wrong, identifying in particular that they went in the wrong direction with  the character design -

I drew this big dick and they said 'it looks like a dark dick to us.' I said 'you've got it.' They thought more Arnold Schwarzenegger and I knew I was in trouble. They got this German ski instructor who was 6' 3" with bigger pectorals than Linda Evans - his tits overshadowed his navel. They got it all completely wrong. I whined at them a little bit and they said 'get out of our face'.

However several years later we would see a version of Rawhead that was closer to Barker's vision, when Eclipse Comics adapted the original story 1994.

Rawhead Rex as envisioned by Les Edwards


Now I'm sure you can understand why the film-makers were perhaps a little reticent to go down this particular design route and opted instead for the bestial ancient warrior look. And despite the excellence of Les Edwards' painted panels, I'd have to say that when you have the phallic metaphor rearing up before your very eyes, the story does lose something. The cheeky subtext become just text - Rawhead isn't just a symbol for a penis, he clearly IS a penis - and consequently you are left feeling like you are trapped in the middle of a curiously bloody dick joke. 

Hence I am not entirely sure that changing the design of Rex is the real problem, as the hulking beast-king of the movie is still suitably symbolically phallic to retain the subtext without tea bagging you with it. Rather what the movie is really missing, and whose absence reduces it to a standard creature feature, is Rawhead's point of view - in the story, we see many scene through his red-litten eyes. And without experiencing his interior processes, we are left with a ravenous but empty shell. 

Of course, capturing the flavour of the thoughts of a monster is a tall order for even the most gifted director. However just by the simple means of staging a few flashback sequences to Rawhead's reign in ancient days, or just having more mood shots of Rawhead roaming through his now lost kingdom, would have given our monster more depth and character. And that's what marks out all the truly great monsters: it isn't how fearsome they are or how bloody their exploits, it's their personality, whether it's the humanity we find in Kong, the elegance of Dracula, or sheer otherness of the xenomorph.  

However sadly the Rawhead in the film could easily be replaced by any other monster or even just standard slasher killer. Really the movie needed to build more of an atmosphere of a dark fairy tale, with a greater sense of the rural landscape - in other words, in needed to draw on the very folk-tales from which Rawhead sprang. 

But in another way the movie has been strangely influential. Barker was so disappointed with the way Rawhead Rex turned out, that the next time Hollywood came calling, he insisted on directing and the result was Hellraiser. So then, in a fashion that will no doubt delight students of monsterology, Rawhead Rex could be said to be the progenitor of Pinhead and the order of Cenobites...


4 comments:

Anonymous said...

Leave Raw Head Rex the way it is i think he looks bad ass and more scarier than anyothers but, make him more reallistic like more facial expression and more agile, furocious and more determined to kill, there hasn't been anymore scary movies that i can think of. Make a scary movie out of this RawHead Rex

streets ent. said...

mr clive you really need to do a sequel to raw head rex.please do it for one of raw heads biggest fans since i first seen it in the 80s.raw head lived at the end of the movie so the movie got left open ended.been waiting for a sequel for decades.HE WAS HERE BEFORE CHRIST lol

Unknown said...
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Anonymous said...

I like the roided out muscly movie version with the big nipples. The mask could have been done a bit better though. However, they should have had it nude with a big cock with spike along the shaft :) . I was hoping when he pissed on the nutty cleryman that they would have showed Rawheads cock then.