Essentially, I think this suggestion comes on the heels of the reality that most who know me well understand what undying respect I have for practical special effects. I’ve long maintained that CGI certainly has its time and its place, but – as a viewer – I tend to disconnect emotionally from watching anything that renders the bulk of its scares with digital trickery. Yes, yes, yes: I do realize that it’s very hard to craft a creature convincingly, but there’s still some old school charm to films that give it an honest sailor’s try. Because Rex is mostly a tall guy in some – ahem – interesting prosthetic makeover, these friends and readers have encouraged me to take it in.
Also, they’ve heaped an inordinate amount of praise on the script: penned by none other than a master of literary Horror Clive Barker – he of Hellraiser and Candyman fame, as well. Generally, I’m apt to warn them that I’ve read a bit from Barker – some of his short stories, mostly – and have found them a bit more confusing than I have scary. Still, his supporters assure me that Rex is a chiller crafted with a solid central monster along with an interesting cast of characters who go through the motions to fight back and survive against the odds.
I’ve finally done it. I picked up a bargain-priced Steelbook and given it a watch. Though part of me wishes I hadn’t (snicker snicker), I’ll concede that the film did hit a few of the right notes. But as a symphony? It’s more than a bit out of tune.
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and/or characters. If you’re the type of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last few paragraphs for my final assessment. If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
From the film’s IMDB.com citation:
“An ancient creature called Rawhead is awakened from its slumber near an Irish village and goes on a rampage killing anyone in sight.”
I’ve always thought it hard to stake out the middle ground when dealing with monsters.
When one tries to classify films exploring such beasts, the flicks are usually one of two types. Either the story deals with some unfortunate soul who finds himself (or herself) trapped by curse, serum, witchcraft, or some other means in the body of a marauding something, or the central behemoth has been, continues to be, and always will be a monster. Scripts that try to juggle both sides of the equation – or a mixture of the two, or maybe even a smattering of something a bit different – rarely find a common thread that successfully ties everything together. Viewers either appreciate being scared silly or somehow wooed to caring for the thing, so it's best to stick to what works and be done with it.
But as monstrous things that go bump in the night travel, Rex is an awkward creation. He’s tall. His face is curiously animated, though giving off a fairly constant (if not plastic) expression. His eyes kinda/sorta twinkle with circling red lights. And he’s got a mouth full of teeth that stay surprisingly pearly white (or reasonably so) for something that dines semi-regularly on the flesh of men. It’s almost as if he’s a lumbering action figure permanently set to ‘kill,’ and his lack of facial expression is a bit of a set-back considering some of the practical effects work of the day.
Also, monsters work much better when they conduct their monstery business at night. Rex, by comparison, is comfortable with both daytime and nighttime office hours; and – sadly – he just isn’t all that scary when viewed under the light of day. He looks more like a costumed theme park character in the midday sun, and – because he’s so damn big – he can’t quite creep around in secret nor conceal himself from being seen the way other beasts conduct their respective hunts. While some might dub this a fresh take on traditional monster movies, that doesn’t mean that it’s all that great a creative decision. In fact, I spent a few moments wondering why the picture didn’t re-shoot these things in the dark, as it all comes off as clumsy more than anything else.
Lastly, there’s really just no story here.
Oh, that’s not to say Barker’s script didn’t make the effort as there are elements which tie together nicely. The problem I have with it is that the whole affair feels more artificial than it does an authentic tale. When newcomers to the city show up “just in time” for Rex to be unleashed and directly tied to the purpose of their visit (investigating the small town’s past history), that’s all a bit convenient, don’t you think? I understand that there was a need to have some discussions about what may’ve been some secret shenanigans from the old days that led to Rex’s creation, but I would think that any number of other potential plotlines could’ve both dealt with those requirements and justified a few new faces. As it is, the flick reeks of inexperience in more than a few places, and I’m honestly surprised anyone found this script up to snuff.
Some of my indifference to it could be tied to its cast of human players.
Everyone here is kinda/sorta thrown together by the premise – Howard Hallenbeck (played by David Dukes) is traveling with his family on a quest to explore local folklore – so the interactions have a predictability that never serves the unpredictable nature of monster encounters. Why, it’s almost like the residents got together and somehow released this thing just so that Hallenbeck could have his mission fulfilled (???), and that vibe cheapens the work when other choices could’ve enriched it. Also, it doesn’t help when the family man and his lovely wife Elaine (Kelly Piper) truly have no screen chemistry: I’ve seen better “pears” grow on trees.
Rawhead Rex (1986) was produced by Alpine Pictures, Green Man Productions, and Paradise Group. DVD distribution (for this particular release) was coordinated by the reliable Kino Lorber.
Sigh. Having finally given in to the wishes of friends and readers, I’m sad to admit that Rawhead Rex (1986) was more imperfect than anywhere near otherwise. As practical effects go, it’s a step backwards – never a good thing unless you’re crafting satire or broad comedy – and the performances by its players don’t quite hit any interesting notes. When it leans toward more traditional Horror themes (i.e. monsters doing their deeds in the dark), it works well enough … but it’s still missing that fateful spark to truly raise the bar from a single viewing to any kind of repeat experience. Again … not awful … but definitely not anything all that special.