Clive Barker has had a lot of success on the screen. But then, of course, there are the movies that came early in his career. Barker was so disappointed with his early work in film as a screenwriter that it led to him directing Hellraiser himself. And even though Transmutations is truly a feature just as bad as its made out to be, Rawhead Rex is not without merit.
Based on a story from the third volume of Barker’s wonderful Books of Blood collections, Rawhead Rex is an old fashioned monster tale about an ancient primordial deity resurrected to ravage the Irish countryside. By and large Irish horror is a rarity, and while the film takes many liberties with the short story, the roots of Celtic lore and legend inherent in the fiction do survive the process of adaptation.
In the short story, Rawhead is described as essentially a nine-foot phallus. He kills everything he comes across, eating most of them, including two children. He is an ancient, Celtic being, a possible deity. He is a representative from a barbaric past set forth to demolish the civilized present. While the film gets a lot of flack for altering the look of the monster—as here Rawhead looks more like a cross between Pumpkinhead, Conan and the front man of a death metal band—most of the important and darker story elements are preserved. Including the death of a child.
Most of Barker’s work deals with religion, usually in overt and un-subtle ways. He wants the point to be clear. Rawhead Rex is an early example of this. This is a movie about Paganism versus Catholicism. Rawhead is a relic from a chaotic, primal past. He is the furthest thing from the order and structure of a religion that is very much what drove him into the ground in the first place. In that manner, Rawhead Rex is a revenge story. As much as it is a bloody, gory monster flick, it’s a tale of a king reclaiming his kingdom. Hence the title.
While Barker may be English, this is inherently an Irish monster story. Rawhead Rex is unique in the way it explores Celtic horror simply in that it brings Celtic horror and Celtic ideals and beliefs back to the forefront. The fact that these ideas and beliefs were lost, stolen and adopted by the religions that took their place, is a major theme running throughout the feature. As much as it is a silly B-Movie, there’s still a point to it. For that we probably have Barker to thank, given that he wrote the script for Rawhead Rex himself, even if he wasn’t entirely happy with it.
Maybe the most infamous and yet also the most poignant scene in Rawhead Rex comes when the creature urinates on the head of a priest, who takes this as a baptism, renounces God and then begins to serve the monster. This is the perfect example of Rawhead reclaiming his kingdom. He’s taking back what was taken from him; he’s destroying the civility of the modern world and especially of the religion that has come to rule since his time. Rawhead is the face of the old world, of old religion, and so instead of eating the priest he causes him to simply change his faith.
It’s an obvious idea to watch Leprechaun or even Irish horrors like Boy Eats Girl or Wake Wood on St. Patrick’s Day. But in some ways Rawhead Rex really is the perfect film to watch to celebrate the holiday. It’s about the present colliding with a dark past it tried to bury. And even if you’re not wanting to check it out for Barker’s ideas on paganism and old world religions, it’s still a neat monster movie that will at the very least keep you entertained, and that makes it recommended holiday viewing.