‘Rawhead Rex,’ Folk Horror Classic
The 1986 Clive Barker adaptation Rawhead Rex spent decades derided by critics, and more famously, Barker himself. But the two chief complaints—that it’s a schlocky monster movie and that it lacks the socio-cultural and psychological underpinnings of the short story—don’t hold up to a critical viewing. In fact, Rawhead Rex is an excellent horror film because it works both as a B-movie creature feature and because its folk horror underpinnings suggest something much deeper.
Rawhead Rex is about an ancient god accidentally awakened by farmers in Ireland. Writer Howard Hallenbeck (David Dukes) is in the town of Rathmore researching pre-Christian sacred sites when he blunders into the resulting chaos. He’s forced to piece together the mystery of Rex’s only vulnerability by solving a riddle posed by the local church’s improperly assembled stained glass windows.
Even if you accept Barker’s complaint that all the subtext has been stripped away from his short story, you can still appreciate Rawhead Rex on a purely surface level. It’s a perfect drive-in movie about a big-ass monster who goes around tearing Irish people’s arms off. It’s a nimble 89 minutes, chugging along at the pace of a runaway train, only slowing down now and then to let Hallenbeck contemplate the windows. Ronan Wilmot as verger Declan O’Brien spectacularly overacts while Rex’s influence slowly drives him mad. “God?! Ah-hahahah! He IS God!”
It’s valid to criticize the design of the Rawhead creature. It’s overly stiff, keeping his expression frozen in a rictus of rage. And yet, what other expression would an avatar of destruction and death wear? When his eyes glow red, or when cinematographer John Metcalf captures him triumphantly backlit by the moon, you’re reminded what Rex means in Latin. He looks mighty, that massive horse noggin and frizzy metalhead mullet swinging back and forth, his teeth permanently soaked in gore. Rawhead also likes to strike in broad daylight—the boldness of his savagery itself is a bit terrifying.
Much of Rawhead’s brutality from the short story is toned down, but he still murders a child right in front of the child’s father. The camera turns away here, a classic case of the imagined being far more explicit than anything the filmmakers could get away with on screen. Not that there’s no gore—there are sufficient severed limbs and splattered entrails to satisfy Saturday night popcorn munchers. So if you’re just in the mood to watch a latex monster chomp victims 80s style, put the Jiffy Pop on the stove and fire up the Blu-ray player.
But Barker, whose opinion of the movie soured more and more over the years until he stopped talking about it altogether, felt bitterly aggrieved that the director, “didn’t give a shit about the story’s underlying psychology.” This frustration famously inspired Barker to write and direct Hellraiser (1987) himself rather than let anyone else take the reins. So we can thank Rawhead Rex (and an earlier misfire, 1985’s Underworld) for that much, at least.
Let’s back up for a minute. The producers and even director George Pavlou have outright said they were just making a monster movie. So how can I argue that it’s full of folk horror subtext? Because by taking out Barker’s overt discussions of masculine and feminine power, they made viewers dig for it and created a mysterious backstory that’s never fully explained. That ultimately becomes more compelling than the version written by Clive Barker, which was of a slasher satire with Rawhead representing negative aspects of masculinity (what we’d call “toxic”) in a grotesquely literal way. As Barker put it in a 1987 interview, “Basically, I wrote a story about a ten foot prick which goes on the rampage.” And he was mad that they didn’t make Rex resemble a penis.
Now, the monster does look a bit goofy at times, but imagine how ludicrous that would have looked? Making him massive, muscular, and driven by perpetual rage, they let him embody masculine destructiveness without him wearing a little sign on his forehead reading, “I AM A SYMBOL FOR PHALLIC ENERGY.” The viewer has to piece together Rex’s motivations from odd clues, like his refusal/inability to murder a defenseless pregnant woman after slaughtering her husband, or the way he devotes extra attention to trashing a kitchen, a symbol of domesticity and a locus of traditional feminine power.
One of the key elements of folk horror is the undermining of modern Christian values. The dawning realization that what you thought was the immovable bedrock of law and Christianity has something beneath it—something older, darker, and more powerful. Pagans! Witches! Demons! Or whatever it was that people worshipped before the Romans came along (or before the Augustinian Mission around 600 AD, anyway). “He was here before Christ. Before civilization. He was king here!” Declan screams.
Rawhead’s rampage overwhelms modern order. Not even a squad of police officers can stop him. The church has no hold on him either—Rex walks right into the chapel and attacks the Reverend, batting away objects of holy power that would stonewall your average Dracula.
In what might be cinema’s most revolting baptism scene, Declan—and then later Detective Gissing (Niall O’Brien)—becomes a Rawhead acolyte. This offers another mystery to decipher, as it isn’t entirely clear why or how certain men become Rawhead thralls. Reverend Coot places his hand on the altar the same as Declan did when he was taken over by Rex, but Coot stays true. Gissing’s partner doesn’t become a thrall, nor does Hallenbeck.
What do the thralls have in common? Gissing displays a short temper and an inflexible approach to his work. We barely meet Declan before he’s enthralled, so there’s little to go on beyond perhaps a lascivious glance with a parishioner. Toxic masculinity? Could be. Like I said, the movie leaves us on our own for much of this—to its benefit! One wonders why teen Andy—who seems perpetually angry at his girlfriend’s younger brother and relentlessly pressures her for sex—didn’t become an acolyte, as he’s clearly toxic as hell. Perhaps he would have if Rex hadn’t torn his arm off.
Gissing meets his end on his knees before Rex, crying out, “For you! For you!” even as he’s burning to death. It’s a very folk horrorish sacrifice, and a bold callback to The Wicker Man (1973).
“Death goes in fear of what it cannot be,” states the very loose translation of the Latin on the church window. Hallenbeck interprets this, finally, as Rawhead’s vulnerability to the act of creation itself, embodied by the feminine power to create new life. Rawhead Rex is an avatar of destruction. It’s all he does. It’s literally all he can do. In the pagan era, he was a god with a limited, yet potent, purview. But notice that the Christians hid away the feminine power totem as well.
Rex is finally undone by Hallenbeck’s wife Elaine wielding said feminine fertility totem. Only other Old God stuff can stop Rex, not Christianity. The ending stinger of Rex popping up from his grave is much maligned as a pointless jump scare, but let the idea play out. Rex wasn’t truly defeated because Mrs. Hallenbeck simply wasn’t feminine enough. Remember, Rex’s worldview is inherently conservative, with his version of masculinity based on violence, hunting, death, and war. By his standard, modern women are utterly corrupted by sexual and economic equality. They are insufficiently feminine to truly be his antithesis.
Rawhead Rex’s unexpected depth is the product of its own twisting genesis, the child of a script with a little too much meaning and some producers intent on carving away as much “meat” as they could shave. Maybe Rawhead is big, dumb, and blank enough that I can project meaning onto the entity when I need something more than Big Monster Go RAWR. Or maybe his vision of a savage old world ruled by unstoppable bestial fury gets under my skin. In the end, I may never know for sure if this is because it scares me or enthralls me—and which response bodes better for future fans of the film.