Ahh, creature flicks. In this day and age we’re either bombarded by bad CGI versions of these (the SyFy Channel is my submitted evidence) or we for the most part have to revert back to the old days for our “monster movie” fix. Now, that’s not to say that the old-school movies were all that much better; there’s was only so much one could do with a low-budget, a bulky suit and latex appliances. Still, there’s a certain charm to those old beasties, and the 1980s was a bumper decade for them.
From out of this magical time came a little movie that is largely either loved or hated, without a lot of middle ground: 1986’s Rawhead Rex.
American historian Howard Hallenbeck and family are travelling in Ireland on a “working vacation”; Howard is working on a book about the “persistence of religious sites”, the phenomena of sacred places being built and rebuilt upon the very spots of older ones, over and over again throughout history. He’s come to Ireland because of both his wife’s roots there, and the rich history of the country. Unbeknownst to the yank, a local farmer clearing debris from his field has inadvertently released an ancient horror from its prison within the earth; a horror that strongly resembles an image from an aged stained glass window in a small church that Howard is investigating. The creature begins a path of carnage across the small village, farmers and poor mobile home tenants being savaged mercilessly. During one such bloody assault, Howard sees the beast standing in the moonlight, but the local constabulary (understandably) believes he imagined it. Only when his own son is killed by the monster and his wife sees it as well is Howard able to get the cops to believe him; however, in his anger he mounts his own pursuit of this inhuman murderer, using knowledge he’s gained from his research to aid him in finding a means to stop it. However, the beast still has followers amongst the village; descendents of those who worshipped and sacrificed to it eons ago (who subject themselves to a pretty goddamn weird sort of baptism; you’ll just have to see for yourself).
Making matters worse, the creature has a hypnotic power that it can use to dominate the will of hapless townsfolk…will the American be able to survive and bring an end to this reign of terror, or will first Ireland and then perhaps the world be plunged back into prehistoric servitude?
The flick actually has some things going for it; Clive Barker wrote it, the acting isn’t terrible across the board (all right, some of the bit characters are flat, but you don’t see enough of them for that to matter, really), it has a fairly engaging story and some genuinely scary moments (watch for the farmhouse scene; a taut, nicely-done exercise in suspenseful terror). The whole gist of the plot is very Lovecraftian in its theme; an ancient pagan-worshipped being, older than Christianity itself, rising from exile, aided by human servitors. I felt the ambiance and setting served that theme pretty well; while there are some pacing issues, there’s definitely a feel of something sinister in the air throughout the movie. Of course, it’s still quite campy; some scenes are damned cheesy, and I can see why some folks find this flick laughable. The biggest issue, sadly, is Rawhead himself. In the darkness, the prosthetics can be intimidating and spooky; there’s a shot where he’s staring down from a rise, the night sky behind him, that (if you’re really into the movie) evokes a kind of primal awe. Unfortunately, in the daylit scenes, (which total about half of his screen time) the limitations of the effects are painfully apparent; he often looks very fake and rubbery. The director should have taken more note of his limits and not shot as much in direct light, and certainly not as many quick movements. Still, it happens, folks; I could list off a page of movies that have some extremely sad make-up moments that were still good flicks, and so could you.
Personally, I’m one o’ those that likes the film; I won’t deny that maybe some of that’s nostalgia. I can be objective enough to tell you that sure, it has shortcomings; it’s certainly not Barker’s best work, it’s sorta slow, and it has the aforementioned effects issues. Unless you’re a collector, I sure as hell wouldn’t advise going out and spending twenty or thirty bucks on a special edition of it…but there is something about it I can’t help but enjoy. I guess you just have to take it for what it is: a B-movie throwback to when horror flicks were somewhat less heavy in their themes, and when a monster movie had to carry itself without CGI.
It’s not a masterpiece by any means, but it still beats the hell out of a lot of stuff that’s being peddled as horror today.
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