Since the 1960’s there has been a slow burning sub-genre quietly smoldering in the heart of horror. Every now and again a breeze will catch an ember causing a small flame to ignite, but moments later the seemingly growing fire settles back to a glistening glow. This sub-genre that seems to ebb and flow with the decades is the fascinating and persistent genre of ‘folk horror.’ While titles like 1973’s The Wicker Man and 1971’s The Blood on Satan’s Claw may immediately come to mind, there is one often overlooked and easily dismissed film that deserves a bit more attention; George Pavlou’s 1986 film Rawhead Rex. The film finally made its way over to the U.S. on April 17th, 1987 and therefore, it’s the perfect time to give Rex a moment in the spotlight.
By now most of us are familiar with the name Clive Barker and images of Pinhead, Candyman and Nightbreed immediately appear in association with it. But back in the mid-80’s, Barker was just rising to prominence as a writer, garnering attention for his wild and vibrant horror stories. He especially became known for his Books of Blood series and it’s no surprise that filmmakers soon came to call upon Barker’s material. George Pavlou was the first director to recognize how well Barker’s stories would translate to screen and adapted Underworld (aka Transmutations) in 1985 and Rawhead Rex in 1986.
Barker has always been vocal about his issues with how his short stories were interpreted for these films. In fact, you could even say that because Barker had so many issues with Pavlou’s execution of these films, that’s why Barker took on the role of directing himself with his next film adaptation, Hellraiser in 1987. However, for the purposes of this article, I’ll be focusing on the film itself rather than the original source material.
Ok, so what exactly is Rawhead Rex about, why is it important and how does it fit into the folk horror sub-genre? First up, a synopsis courtesy of IMDB:
Ireland will never be the same after Rawhead Rex, a particularly nasty demon, is released from his underground prison by an unwitting farmer. The film follows Rex’s cross country rampage, while a man struggles to stop it.
While the guidelines for categorizing a film as folk horror are relatively fluid, there are several general criteria that are nearly always present. One, is the location where the story takes place. To satisfy the ‘folk’ aspect of folk horror, a film needs to have a rural setting. Now, where this setting is can be rather broad in terms of country, but it needs to be rural nonetheless. While early folk horror was most often set in rural England we’ve seen this shift and broaden recently. For example, Robert Egger’s The Witch (2015), The Blair Witch Project (1999) and Ari Aster’s upcoming Midsommar. In the case of Rawhead Rex, the film is set in a rural Ireland and follows the American historian Howard Hallenbeck (played by David Dukes) and his family as he researches historical items of religious significance.
This leads us into the next characteristic of folk horror; elements of witchcraft, the occult, superstition or folklore. The very opening scene of Rawhead Rex shows three farmers struggling to remove a large phallic-like stone from the middle of a field. On multiple levels this sets the stage for what is about to unfold. Historically speaking, stone phalluses have ties to ancient fertility cults and rituals and are regularly found in Europe. The stones not only (and obviously) represent male fertility, masculinity and potency, they were also used as sacrifice or worship points. Such stones were thought to encourage human, agricultural and animal fertility. It is under such a stone that Rex (an ancient folk legend himself) has been trapped and subsequently released by the unwitting farmers.
There’s no buildup in the film to Rex‘s big reveal. There’s no slow, low shots of his legs. No focused close up shots of his back breathing heavily. We are immediately and fully shown Rex and all his gnashing glory as he claims his first victim, the very same farmer who granted him his freedom. Rex‘s physical appearance also helps contribute to its folk horror status as Rex is clearly more than human and very clearly male. His large 8-9ft. stature, his chiseled, rough physique and wild hair bear striking resemblance to other folk creatures such as Bigfoot, The Yeti, etc. And much like the stone from which he emerged, Rex is the walking embodiment of unrestrained, uninhibited male stereotypes. While the psychology of Rex‘s traits are nowhere near politically correct, they will later come into play in an interesting way.
As Rex begins his rampage he comes across a home belonging to a man and his wife. While Rex quickly and easily disposes of the husband, he struggles when it comes to the wife. As he pursues her through the home, corners her in an upstairs bedroom, he tears her dress and reveals that the woman is in fact very much pregnant. It is in this moment that the film begins to develop another very interesting aspect to it; gender dynamics. Rex cannot touch the woman. His claws retract and he backs away from the woman leaving her cowering, terrified, but unharmed. When the local cops respond and find the woman unable to speak from fear, their response is, “Clearly she hid herself.” They simply can’t fathom any other possibility. Time and time again we will see a couple common threads established in this scene recur and run throughout the rest of the film.
A recurring image that relates to both the folklore and gender aspect of the film is a stained glass window in the local church. In it, we see Rex, held down and contained by a shining light seemingly controlled by a hooded figure holding a mysterious something over their head. A piece of the window is missing, replaced with a blank tile. The figure, surrounded by children would seemingly represent the way to defeat Rex and yet, no one seems to pay it any notice. Howard, the historian, is the first to really observe the image and even he struggles to make sense of it. Translating the words on the window he realizes it says “Death goes in fear of what it cannot be.” So…here we have a rampaging, hormonal beast who brings nothing but death, who seemingly can’t touch a pregnant woman. And then we have a window, with a figure, surrounded by children who would appear to hold the key to defeating said beast. While the answer seems obviously to involve a woman, time and time again the male characters in the film struggle with this idea. This is interesting.
Howard, after a horrific personal encounter with Rex that results in his young son’s death, begins a quest to defeating Rex. He returns to the window and asks the priest “What does this window represent?” To which the priest responds, “Nothing. You can think of windows at a time like this?” Howard continues to dig noting that the “guy” in the picture appears to be holding something and that the missing piece must show it. A knife, a sword or a weapon of some sort. Here again, we see interesting gender stereotypes in the way that Howard thinks about the image. Automatically he assumes the figure is male. Automatically he assumes that the solution, or item the figure is holding has something to do with a physical advantage or an item of power. It’s not until he finds the missing piece, mistakenly placed in another window does he see the full image and the item the figure is holding.
Even this intelligent, educated and worldly man fails to see the image for what it is. Is this perhaps because historically men have failed to see women and acknowledge their worth, contributions and unique power? Is it because the natural abilities and power (specifically childbirth) that women possess remain elusive to men? Something to think about.
While Howard continues to search for answers, Rex has been busy causing chaos and exhibiting inflated traditional male characteristics. He’s attacked a young teenage couple, eliminating the young teenage boy and ignoring the teenage girl. While the teenage boy’s younger brother stumbles across Rex, he poses no sexual threat (despite his sweatshirt boasting Muscle Power) and is therefore ignored. He attacks a trailer full of adults, singling out a single, voluptuous young woman, ripping her clothes off in a sexually aggressive manner.
Soon, he gains a disciple of sorts from a young verger at the church, baptizing him with literal piss in the church graveyard. This primal and physical approach to marking territory doesn’t leave much open to interpretation. Rex murders the elder priest, showing no regard for the church. He is after all a pre-Christian pagan creature over which the church would hold no sway. Rex finds another man to control in the police chief. By mesmerizing the chief with his glowing red eyes, Rex is able to control the chief causing him to turn on his fellow officers. Both the verger and the chief represent symbols of historical patriarchal authority and therefore it makes sense that Rex would hold power over these two men.
Finally, all the pieces come together in the final scene of the film. Howard discovers the elusive “weapon” hidden in the alter of the church; a curvy stone figure representing femininity. Cornering Rex in the church’s graveyard, Howard tries to wield the ancient weapon doing his best to mimic the figure in the window. And yet…he fails. After all this he still doesn’t get it. Luckily, Howard‘s wife Elaine, concerned for her husband’s safety appears just in the nick of time. As Howard is forced to physically battle Rex, she picks up the figure, holds it over her head, and begins to channel the ancient feminine spirit. The power comes to her naturally as it is innate in her being. This energy, this divine feminine energy, is the only thing that can defeat Rex. Despite all his strength, all his masculine energy, the only thing he cannot control, the only power he cannot possess is that which belongs to her. The energy overwhelms and contains Rex and he simply can’t fight back. His power subdued, his aggression drained, and Rex is once again trapped beneath a stone and buried in the ground.
Now, to be fair, this movie has its issues. Pavlou wanders all over Barker’s original story and leaves helpful plot elements out of the film entirely. Rex‘s costume is bulky and at times very mechanical, but time has given his appearance a whole new appeal and charm. And while the gender dynamics are interesting to look at now, I’m not fully convinced they were all intentional at the time. For example, even after Elaine has embodied this ancient powerful spirit and defeated this creature that countless men could not, she immediately crumbles and runs to her husband, bursting into tears. She leans against Howard as he physically holds her upright and escorts her out of the graveyard. It would have been nice if Elaine had taken more ownership of her feminine power and her role in defeating Rex. But alas, was not in the script I guess. However, despite some of the dated perspectives and practical effects, Rawhead Rex remains an interesting piece of film. It is a movie that deserves to be entered into the folk horror hall of fame and an early glimpse at the genius of Clive Barker and what was soon to come. While he may not be god like the young verger proclaims, Rawhead Rex is indeed a pretty fun romp in the Irish countryside.
What are some of your favorite folk horror films? What do you think about Rawhead Rex? Sound off with the Nightmare on Film Street community over on Twitter, Reddit, and in the Horror Movie Fiend Club Facebook Group!