Rawhead Rex (1986) Retrospective

Howard Hallenbeck (David Dukes) travels to Ireland to research items of religious significance. He goes to a rural church to photograph some graves. Meanwhile, three farmers are attempting to remove an ominous stone column from a field. Two of the farmers head home. A thunderstorm appears out of nowhere, and smoke pours from the ground. Lightning strikes the column. The monster Rawhead Rex rises from the dirt.


Howard meets Declan O’Brien (Ronan Wilmot), who directs him to Reverend Coot. The curious O’Brien approaches the altar and places his hand on it. Images flash before his eyes. This experience apparently destroys O’Brien’s sanity. Afterwards, Howard inquires about the church’s parish records. Coot says he can arrange to have Howard look at them.

Later, a man arrives at the home of locals Dennis and Jenny. He discovers a clearly traumatized Jenny. Police arrive. Rawhead drags Dennis’s dead body through the forest and comes upon a trailer park. A teenager named Andy Johnson is trying to make out with his girlfriend. The two teens head into the woods. Soon after, Howard sees Rawhead on top of a distant hill with Andy’s head in his hand.

Afterwards, Howard speaks again with Coot, who tells him the church’s parish records have been stolen. Declan O’Brien destroys his camera. He takes his family on the road again.

On the road, Howard’s daughter needs to go to the bathroom, so Howard pulls over and lets her go by a tree. Hearing her suddenly scream, Howard and his wife rush to her; Howard’s son stays in the van, alone. Rawhead kills Howard’s son and takes the body into the woods. Infuriated by the police’s unsuccessful efforts to track down Rawhead, Howard returns to the church. He discovers that there is a weapon shown in the stained glass window that can be used to defeat the monster. After Howard leaves, Coot curiously touches the altar but resists the temptations and images it shows him.


Rawhead arrives at the church to baptize O’Brien by urinating on him. A bewildered Coot goes outside to investigate the noise and sees Rawhead. Horrified, Coot flees inside the church and into the basement while Rawhead destroys everything inside. Coot finds the missing parish records, showing what appears to be some kind of blueprint of Rawhead himself. The insane O’Brien catches Coot and forces him upstairs to be sacrificed to Rawhead. The police arrive at the church and prepare to open fire on Rawhead, but they hesitate because he is carrying Coot. The brainwashed inspector dumps gasoline around the police cars and ignites it just as they begin to shoot at Rawhead, killing all the police, including himself.

Howard leaves his wife and daughter and goes back to the church where a dying Coot tells him that Rawhead is afraid of something in the altar. Howard goes inside where O’Brian is burning books and is overpowered by Howard. Howard, by using a candle stick, opens the altar and gets to the weapon. O’Brian retreats to Rawhead to tell him, leaving Rawhead displeased. Howard tries to use the weapon, but has no effect. In anger, Rawhead kills O’Brian by tearing out his throat, with Howard’s wife watching in terror.


As Rawhead tries to kill Howard, his wife picks up the weapon, it activates, stopping Rawhead from killing Howard. A ray of light comes out of the weapon and hits Rawhead, hurting him. Howard realizes that it has to be a woman for it to work. Then the form of a woman appears from the stone and shoots electric rays through the stones and into Rawhead’s body, knocking him to the ground. After a few more blasts, Rawhead is drained and weakened to the point where he has no hair, has aged, and is ill and dying. Finally he falls through the ground with Howard’s wife dropping the weapon in with him. Rawhead is smashed under giant stones and finished. Both Howard and his wife cry in light of it being over. In the end, the boy from the trailer park places flowers on Andy Johnson’s grave. As he walks away, Rawhead emerges from the ground and roars.

clive barker “I said to them, ‘Look, this is not a good movie,’ and they said, ‘Well, we know we didn’t get it right but we’ll get it more right next time. Write a screenplay of Rawhead Rex for us.’ So, I was very new to this whole thing and I thought, we’ll give it a go. It can’t be as bad as Transmutations. And by the way, I don’t think Rawhead Rex is as bad as Transmutations. I wrote the screenplay. I’m sure it wasn’t a brilliant screenplay, it was my second screenplay, but I think it was probably marginally better than the movie. I followed the process of the book. I wrote a screenplay which was set in England, in the height Rawhead Rex of the summer, so you could really get the full drama out of this strange, dark, child-eating monster lurking in the pleasant countryside of Kent in mid-summer. They called me up and said, ‘well, we’re going to make the movie, but we’re going to make it in Ireland, and we’re going to make it in February.’ So immediately, a whole counterpoint of this blazing English summer and this ravaging monster just went out of the window. They also didn’t spend enough money on the special effects, so you end up with this rubber mask. I didn’t actually think the design for the monster itself was bad at all, and I love the poster, but I wasn’t comfortable with the picture. The picture tried, but didn’t get there… – Clive Barker


George Pavlou
George Pavlou

There are some minor changes from the short story to the film. Were those changes something you and Clive cooked up, or were they more studio-mandated or budgetary?
George Pavlou: Clive was left to write a draft of his choice without interference. I recently scanned through that first draft and noticed the ending was near enough similar to the short story, whereby Hallenbeck was the conduit for the power of the fertility stone to overcome Rawhead, however, in the second and subsequent drafts his wife was the conduit of that power, which is how the final film ends. I’m not sure how that came about or when it was discussed, but many people have since agreed and told me it does make more sense that a female should ultimately be the force that destroys Rawhead. I personally didn’t want to interfere with Clive’s own adaption of his short story, so as afar as I can remember, he was free to make his own decisions and to change and adapt his story into a screenplay he was happy with, and to create the mythology of Rawhead for the screen

Can you tell me a bit about the thoughts behind the creature’s design, as it differs from the book?
George Pavlou: The creature design was based on concept art created for the production by a very young Paul Catling. I do remember that Clive discussed those designs, and his view was that Rawhead should very tall and be very, very thin, much like the Alien in the first ALIEN movie, amongst other ideas he had, but the makers of the creature argued that to find somebody that tall and thin would be almost impossible to fit into the prosthetic suit. At that time there was no VFX to build creatures as we do now, so the producers agreed with the effects company to go ahead with Paul’s design. There was no artwork based on Clive’s book at that time as source material, other than the words on the pages in Clive’s book.

How did you go about deciding to shoot the film in Ireland?
George Pavlou: The choice was a financial one. The financiers were Irish, and the money had to be spent there. But we hadn’t anticipated that the weather would turn out to be one of the worst on record in Ireland that year, which caused many delays and problems to the already tight schedule.

Paul Catling Concept Artist
Paul Catling Concept Artist

One of Clive Baker’s most memorable creations from Books of Blood, it is pleasing to note that the Rawhead Rex film adheres closely to its source material. With Barker adapting his own tale into the visual medium, the new narrative retains the original’s strengths. And according to Pavlou, only minor alterations were imposed by the production.

“We made more of the family, increased the character of Howard Hallenbeck, but other than that, very little was changed from Clive’s first draft. The ending is now more spectacular than scripted, which is something that happened during shooting,” Pavlou says.

John Metcalf the director of photography, was a godsend as he is very fast and experienced. Without him, I’m sure the film would have run into all kinds of problems. Not only was the weather terrible, the locations were often quite awkward. For example, the hill we used for the opening sequence where Rawhead is unearthed, was high and very windy, a factor that caused difficulties in operating the camera crane. Then, on top of the environmental aspects, was the fact that we needed to build a few sets on location, and that’s always problematical, especially when you’re working with unfamiliar personnel, as we were.”

The locations used were a few miles outside Dublin in County Wicklow, specifically around Bray, the area employed to great effect by John Boorman in Excalibur. One of the main things Pavlou and his producers had to adapt to was the pace of life in Ireland.

George Pavlou  David Dukes Hugh O'Conor Heinrich von Schellendorf Cora Lunny Kelly Piper Don Hawkins
George Pavlou David Dukes Hugh O’Conor Heinrich von Schellendorf Cora Lunny Kelly Piper Don Hawkins

“When you’re in London, everything’s just a phone call away; if you need something, you can get it within the hour. It’s different in Ireland because they don’t really have the experience of making this kind of picture, but the crew made up for it with enthusiasm, sheer energy and hard work,” comments Pavlou.

Rawhead Rex is Pavlou’s first experience working with American actors. “It made a big difference as I feel they understand film far more than British actors,” he observes. “Cinema is the American art form, and consequently, actors from that country seem to instinctively know what is required of them in a film. There is a big difference between screen acting and stage performance. I found that David Dukes and Kelly Piper (who plays his wife) offered more. English actors just seem to do what you tell them. On Underworld, several actors didn’t ask questions about what was happening, whereas David and Kelly questioned everything, discussed ideas, and seemed to rationalize their motivations more. British actors do-all performers do-but I think they tend to internalize the processes involved. So, from the director’s point-of-view, I was less aware of it on Underworld. I got much more feedback on this movie. Maybe it’s a lack of understanding of the genre. David really knew what was required of him in Rawhead and was a big help; saved us a lot of time.”

In direct contrast to David Dukes’ acting experience was the minimal screen work of German performer Heinrich Von Schellendorf, the seven-foot-tall man chosen to play Rawhead in the action scenes. “It was complicated as I had to balance a performance between an actor and an animatronic creation.” elaborates Pavlou. “Overall, the elements have fused together very well. I don’t think audiences will be able to tell the differences between the two.


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“The main problem I faced was how to make this creature act. Rawhead’s not like the monster in ALIEN. He is the main force in this movie. Rawhead is a creature with feelings, memories, a sense of history. He’s a thinking monster, and he’s featured in the film a great deal. He’s not only a monster, he’s a warrior. And my main concern was how to get that across on screen.”

“Rawhead proved to be a more difficult movie than Underworld in almost every ea, particularly in terms of effects,” explains the British director George Pavlou. “We’re dealing with one creature and the whole movie depends upon him. To make him credible, totally believable, is quite an undertaking. We only had eight weeks to prepare the film, and to create an animatronic creature within that period of time is incredibly demanding. Action wise, there’s much more going on in this one. We have several explosions. And we even beat the world record for setting men on fire at the same time! In one scene (when Rawhead causes the pyrotechnic destruction of a camper site), we have nine people covered in flames.”


Peter Litten, also a veteran of Underworld, was the makeup FX artist responsible for bringing the cannibal king to life without a huge budget. For the previous Barker movie, Litten had to create a number of humanoid, drug-induced mutations. For this new film, his task was to design and supervise the building of a highly active and violent monster. Rawhead also had to blend with the look of the latest film. Stylistically, each project is far removed from the other; Underworld is a hi-tech, high fashion horror thriller with film noir elements, Rawhead Rex is a pastoral horror film set against a countryside backdrop and dealing with the dark side of nature.

clive barker“I think, generally speaking, the movie followed the beats of the screenplay. It’s just that monster movies, by and large, are made by directorial ‘oomph’ rather than what’s in the screenplay. I’d like to think the screenplay for Rawhead Rex had the possibility of having major thrills in it. I don’t think it was quite pulled off. The admirers of the movie, and actually there are quite a lot of them, like it as a sort of sixties movie made in the early eighties kind of deal. I don’t think the movie is bad, it had a lot more potential. I just don’t like it very much. It didn’t take any risks at all. It was a very, very straight down the rope movie. Rawhead Rex as an idea, if you’re going to do it, you go for broke. You kill little children in it. That’s what you put on screen because that’s what’s in the book. The whole thing should have been visceral. But the interesting thing for me was that when I actually started to think about it I thought, ‘okay, at least I know why this doesn’t work.’ So when we came to do Hellraiser I was determined to compensate for that. And maybe the visceral qualities of Hellraiser are exacerbated…” – Clive Barker

This may sound like intellectualizing on the director’s part, implying Rawhead Rex is an “art” movie rather than a horror flick. Not so, says Pavlou: “Much of the original story is quite poetic. But when you translate that into cinematic terms, there is a risk you may defuse the threat if you rely too strongly on poetic images. With a monster movie, your objective is to scare the audience.

“It’s intended to be a rollercoaster ride,” the director emphasizes. “It’s relentless, both physically and dramatically. Gorewise, I had to pull my punches in some scenes. Often I feel, the Hitchcockian or Val Lewton approach-suggestion, suspense-is far more effective than continually showing blood and people’s guts hanging out. Gore isn’t intrinsically frightening, it provokes disgust. Personally, I find many horror films lay themselves open to ridicule by showing too much and consequently lose tension. What’s the point if many members of the audience spend their time looking away from the screen, not watching the movie you’ve made, because it disgusts them?


“I do regret a couple of scenes where I would have liked more blood,” Pavlou adds. “The deciding factor, however, was not creative or financial, it was a question of time. There wasn’t enough time to orchestrate as much carnage as was required.

George Pavlou

Kevin Attew
Don Hawkins

Clive Barker

David Dukes as Howard Hallenbeck
Kelly Piper as Elaine Hallenbeck
Ronan Wilmott as Declan O’Brien
Niall Toibin as Reverend Coot
Niall O’Brien as Detective Inspector Isaac Gissing
Hugh O’Conor as Robbie Hallenbeck
Cora Lunny as Minty Hallenbeck
Heinrich von Schellendorf as Rawhead Rex
Donal McCann as Tom Garron

Dread, No 6, 1992

One thought on “Rawhead Rex (1986) Retrospective

  1. Totally agree with Clive about Underworld, but disagree a tad with him about Rawhead. Though it seems he has moderated a bit with time. Yes, it can’t hold a candle to the original story, one of Clive’s best, but it is a perfectly serviceable monster film. Whenever I think of Rawhead’s appearance, I think of how he looks here.

    Liked by 1 person

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