With horror industry heavy hitters already in place from the 1970s, the 1980s built upon that with the rise of brilliant minds in makeup and effects artists, as well as advances in technology. Artists like Rick Baker, Rob Bottin, Alec Gillis, Tom Woodruff Jr., Tom Savini, Stan Winston, and countless other artists that delivered groundbreaking, mind-blowing practical effects that ushered in the pre-CGI Golden Age of Cinema. Which meant a glorious glut of creatures in horror. More than just a technical marvel, the creatures on display in ‘80s horror meant tangible texture that still holds up decades later. Grotesque slimy skin to brutal transformation sequences, there wasn’t anything the artists couldn’t create. It Came From the ‘80s is a series that will pay homage to the monstrous, deadly, and often slimy creatures that made the ‘80s such a fantastic decade in horror.
One of the lesser celebrated monsters of the ‘80s is that of pagan god Rawhead Rex. Between its limited theatrical release in 1987, and Clive Barker’s notorious displeasure with the film, it’s not a surprise that Rawhead Rex slipped between the cracks. Though he wrote the screenplay, adapted from his own short story that appeared in volume 3 of his Books of Blood series, there’s very little resemblance between Barker’s original vision of his rampaging pagan god and the one that appears on screen. Considering the story’s version of the character was an 8-foot tall slender phallus, and the film’s version was a sort of punk-rock bulked out animalistic beast, Rawhead Head tends to be divisive depending on familiarity with Barker’s story.
Though the film adaptation is nowhere near as gory or depraved as the original story, some of the pagan god’s core values remain; Rawhead Rex still pisses on priests, has issues with women, and prefers to munch on kids and babies for dinner. It’s ‘80s rubber-suit monster meets Irish folk horror, as Rawhead Rex is unleashed from the Earth and tears through the idyllic countryside, wreaking havoc along the way.
As is often the case, the limited budget and very limited window of prep work meant the special effects time had a Herculean task of designing and creating Rawhead Rex. The creature design has often been criticized for being just a big guy in a rubber suit and mask with a fixed expression. That’s not exactly accurate. Based on concept art by Paul Catling (AVP: Alien vs Predator, Guardians of the Galaxy), Rawhead Rex was a big guy in a suit, played by ski instructer Heinrich von Schellendorf in his only film credit, but the mask was mechanized. The fiberglass and animatronic head gave Rawhead Rex movement and the ability to emote, and there were fiber optics and deflectors put in the creature’s eyes to give that glowing movement effect. The creature also had animatronic hands for his retractable claws.
The issue was that the limited resources available to the special effects team meant they didn’t have the time or money to spend on the animatronics to give it the level of detail they would have liked, and its scope diminished. The bigger issue, though, was that director George Pavlou never highlighted the full scope of the creature effects. There was often a handful of animatronics engineers and technicians operating Rawhead Rex, but Pavlou didn’t quite seem to know how to showcase the special effects. It was only his second feature, so inexperience likely played a key role in how wooden the pagan god came across.
The production of Rawhead Rex seemed doomed from the start. The budget promised to Pavlou and crew never quite materialized, leaving them struggling from the onset. The rough weather caused delays in a super tight schedule, and money practically ran dry by the time production was poised to shoot the climactic finale, resulting in a lackluster laser light show ending.
Even still, Pavlou and crew managed to pull together a coherent film that’s developed a cult following despite its flaws. Rawhead Rex exists in that weird overlap between folk horror and a punk rock mentality, perhaps the only of its kind. It’s not the visceral gore fest of Barker’s original story, but I don’t think any film could have been at the time. Giant monster penises is a tough sell no matter what era. If not for Rawhead Rex, Barker might not have been pushed into directing Hellraiser, either. As it stands, it’s a perfect example of the many facets it takes behind the scenes to make memorable creature features.