Out of the One+One Archive: From Cult to Cabaret: A Conversation with Mink StoleFebruary 14, 2017
COUNTER-INDOCTRINATION #0March 8, 2017
By Benjamin Noys
Clive Barker and George Pavlou’s Rawhead Rex (1986) is laughably bad. While this is not always a problem for a horror film, in this case it seems fatal. Scripted by Barker, from a short story in volume three of his The Books of Blood, the film concerns the return of the monstrous pre-Christian fertility deity Rawhead Rex. At the start of the film, a workman clearing his field releases Rex from imprisonment by shifting an ancient stone column. After that Rex runs amok. Clive Barker envisaged the creature as a nine-foot phallus on the loose. Problems began in production:
I drew this big dick and they said, “it looks like a dark dick to us.” I said “you’ve got it.” They thought more Arnold Schwarzenegger and I knew I was in trouble. They got this German ski instructor who was 6’ 3 with bigger pectorals than Linda Evans – his tits overshadowed his navel. They got it all completely wrong. I whined at them a little bit and they said “get out of our face.” (1)
The monster, in fact, looks like an extra from Mad Max: in leathers, with a Mohican, and the only remaining ‘monstrous’ element being a nasty mouth of poor FX fangs.
That is not the only failure. The film, with its narrative of American academic investigating the persistence of sacred sites and Neolithic fertility cults in rural Ireland, owes some debt to The Wicker Man (1973). It is indebted to the motif of the pagan eruption of sexuality, although in Rawhead Rex the nine-foot phallus unsurprisingly invokes male sexuality in parodically Lawrentian fashion. Once released, Rex induces erotic dreams in the academic’s wife of ‘Big Jake’, and the trope of lifted repression is given concrete, or stone, form in the phallic marker that is shifted at the start of the film to unleash Rex. Whereas The Wicker Man managed dreamy invocation and nice shifts of sympathy from the liberated pagans to the repressed policeman, Rawhead Rex seems clumsy and explicit. Against the usual trope of repressed female sexuality, played on in The Wicker Man, this is male sexuality escaping repression. Rex’s profane ‘baptism’ of his follower, the Church verger, by urination, which on shadowy DVD viewing I took as an even more vulgar blow-job, indicates the kind of atmosphere.
Also, the Irish location seems poorly used. Barker’s script had originally suggested the classic English landscape of the Kent countryside in high summer. He reports:
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.
While The Wicker Man made good use of the Hebridean Islands, the dreary Irish landscape in February is largely left as mere backdrop. There is none of the Celtic Weird of the kind Nigel Kneale achieved with his script for Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1983).
Yet, while I won’t claim that somehow these failures of the film are really signs of success of the ‘so bad it’s good’ variety, I do think the film is interesting in the way these problems challenge some of the conventions of horror or occult cinema. This is particularly true of what Mark Gatiss has called ‘folk horror’. Gatiss is referring to films like The Wicker Man, Witchfinder General (1968), and Blood on Satan’s Claw (1970). They all make evocative use of the countryside, playing on the contrasts between pastoral and bloody horror, modernity and atavistic remnants. What provides some of the tension to these films is that the British countryside is an essential site of the birth of capitalism through the enclosures and clearances that resulted in a landless proletariat. This continues to shape British ‘modernity’, with the persistence of aristocratic landowners, the emergence of agribusiness, and a pastoral imaginary. Placing horror in this context at once reinforces this pastoral imaginary and undermines it.
In contrast, and this is what interests me, Rawhead Rex is a resolutely unevocative film. I want to suggest that this deflates some of the pretensions and aims of horror/occult cinema to evoke some mood of dread or wonder. Part of this unevocative effect obviously emerges out of the film’s troubled production history, including the frustrations of Clive Barker as scriptwriter. Barker, who needed the money, wrote the script but had little or no input on the film. The director, George Pavlou, wanted to create a ‘good, honest’ monster movie, neglecting the more ‘metaphysical’ or psychological elements. Barker noted: ‘Yet adaptations like Rawhead Rex were deeply disappointing, because the filmmakers didn’t give a shit about the story’s underlying psychology – they just wanted to make a monster movie.’ The resulting clash of intentions produces something that doesn’t work.
The film, as I’ve suggested, mainly concerns Rex running amok in the village – trashing a caravan park, attacking various (mainly male) locals, and trying to reclaim the local church for his cult. The visiting American academic Howard Hallenbeck (played by David Dukes), his wife, and two children, really function largely as witnesses. Hallenbeck sees the monster near the beginning of the film, and we see it in the first few minutes. This denies any sense of revelation, opting for exposure. The usual tropes of building threat and creeping reveal are denied us. Instead we know from the start what is going on, with Rex revealed in all his ‘glory’.
Hallenbeck reports his sighting to the police, who display the appropriate incredulity. Of course they don’t believe the story and Hallenbeck tries to flee. In a deliberately shocking moment during that flight Hallenbeck’s young son Robbie is killed by Rex. This is not shown in explicit detail, leaving a bloody shoe to do the work. The relatively casual killing of a child is, of course, to break a taboo, even within the conventions of the horror film. Hallenbeck tries to take revenge by recovering the device from the church altar that can return Rex to his entombment. This is a stone, which resembles the Venus of Willendorf – the famous exaggerated stone image of a woman that is 22,000 years old. Hallenbeck’s attempt to wield the statue fails and it is only when his wife turns up, for unexplained reasons, that Hallenbeck realizes ‘it had to be a woman’. Adapting Carol Clover, we could speak of the ‘final mother’, rather than the ‘final girl’.(2) Releasing what is presumably ‘female energy’, Rex is defeated. Although in the final scene of the film, where the brother of one of the other victims visits his grave, Rex appears roaring in one of those ‘final return’ or ‘I will go on’ moments.
The important issue to think about here is the relationship between the vulgar and the visceral. Although Barker was angry the film didn’t do justice to the tensions of his vision of sexualized monstrousness – phallic and vaginal – that subverts organized religion, the film does remain oddly true to his materialist vision. The monster is never hidden, from the start, and is defiantly material – even if this fails. This materiality, contrary to the ‘monstrous feminine’ often associated with the horror film, turns on the ‘monstrous masculine’.(3)
Typically, for Barker, the film subverts the Catholic Eucharist, replacing communion wine as Christ’s blood with Rex’s piss. After this obscene parody, Rex’s follower proclaims to the local priest that Rex ‘is God’. What’s interesting is the reversal of the usual correlation of paganism with a female principle or anima, and the correlation of organized religion with a repressive male principle, which tends to structure ‘folk horror’. The creature cannot attack a pregnant woman and in the church the description of Rex reads ‘death goes in fear of what it cannot be’, i.e. in fear of the (pro)creative power of the feminine. This pagan deity is male sexuality on the rampage. Even with its Mariolatory – the central role of Mary as virgin mother in imagery and doctrine – it seems hard to identify the Catholic Church with the female principle. The film, in fact, suggests a continuity of repression of the female form from paganism to Christianity, with the female outside, beyond, and contrary to these expressions of male sexuality.
This play of released and constrained male sexuality confronted by the feminine conforms to what Diarmuid Hester calls Barker’s queer aesthetic, which explores the tensions of ‘gay identifications.’(4) Barker, himself gay, explores both the experience of homophobia and the constraints of gay identity. While his later work is more affirmative of queer possibilities and the embrace of the weird, I would argue his earlier ‘horror’ works are more uneasily poised. Male invasiveness and absorption is, in this early works, often deadly, shattering the self at the expense of the self’s existence. Much of this nuance is obviously lost in the film version of Rawhead Rex, but the vulgarity and directness of the adaptation to what we could call, with irony, ‘straight horror’, doesn’t abolish the tensions. While the phallic monster will be much better realized in the Pinhead of Hellraiser (1987), the clumsiness of ‘Rex’, played by a macho man with feminine breasts (recalling Barker’s dismissal) generates some suitably ambiguous effects.
The monstrous masculine attacks men, it emerges as central and marginal to organized religion, and it kills a male child. Unlike the male witchfinders of folk-horror here, we have the male monster finally, although equivocally, ‘repressed’ by the feminine. Contrary to occult cinema’s equivocal valorization of the feminine as monstrous and hidden, shadowy and powerful, liberating and mysterious, we have a vulgar cock on the loose. We are used to the linking of the feminine to matter, usually via one suggested Latin derivation of the word ‘matter’ (materia) from ‘mater’ (mother, origin, source). The threat here is the Oedipal one of absorption by the maternal, or regression into the pre-Oedipal. When James Woods breaks down in Videodrome (1983) one of the results is the ‘vaginal’ wound in his stomach, onto which a video cassette is thrust with the line ‘You must open yourself completely to this.’(5)
Rawhead Rex breaks with this common trope of body-horror, by suggesting that materiality is associated with masculine penis, urine, and blood, rather than the more usual linking of the ‘abject’ – those substances lying between subject and object, theorized by Julia Kristeva – to the mother/feminine.(6) Here the merging lies between men, notably the verger and Rex. After failing to stop Hallenbeck recover the stone the verger welcomes death at the hands of Rex with ‘take me’, ending in an embrace. What must be opened to is a gay, or queer, absorption in the masculine.
My contention is that Rawhead Rex’s figurative and formal ‘failures’ rupture with the usual discourse of ‘occult’ horror. First, the film is an uncomfortable generic hybrid of the slasher film and occult horror, with Rex as much in the role of Michael or Jason or Freddy, as he is in the role of Satan. In terms of the conventions of the slasher film, identified by Carol Clover, Rawhead Rex is at a tangent.(7) The victims of fatal violence are men, although the usual convention of woman-as-victim is retained in two moments: early in the film when Rex threatens, but cannot kill, a pregnant woman, and in a later exploitative scene where a young woman is dragged from her caravan leaving her breasts exposed, but only knocked out and not killed. Also, David Hallenbeck plays the usual role of the ‘final girl’, tracking down the monster, expressing horror at his son’s death, being pursued and taunted. The intervention of his wife as the ‘final mother’ restores, briefly, the usual ‘balance’.
Similarly, as I have traced, in terms of the ‘occult’ film the emphasis shifts from the girl or woman as possessed subject. It is not a matter of the woman being open, but the verger and Hallenbeck being receptive to male power. Carol Clover suggests the usual pattern of the occult film (she has in mind films like The Exorcist) is an outer spectacle of an ‘open’ female body and an inner story of a ‘closed’ male psyche, with the female body needing closing and the male psyche opening.(8) Rawhead Rex reverses, or at least alters, this patterning. Male bodies are as opened as are male psyches, while female psyches are affected by the erotic power of Rex’s emergence. This film puts front-and-centre what Clover calls the ‘male-opening story’, but changed (queered?) to open the male body sexually.(9)
The formal failures of the film – its vulgarity, its failed special effects, its brutality or clumsiness, and its unevocative staging – have something to do, I’m suggesting, with this masculinization and shifting of terms. While Barker was obviously unhappy with the various decisions of the filmmakers, and viewers often concur, there is something that actually emerges more strongly in this vision of vulgar male sexuality ‘on the loose’. Against the dreamy stereotypes of women’s bodies as sites of possession and power, matched with nature in the form of the exploited countryside, here we have male bodies on the line. Opening and exposure reveals a cock and not a vagina, piss and not menstrual blood, and butchered and seduced men rather than women. It’s unfortunate, but not surprising, that it is an experiment that has not been repeated.
(1) Clive Barker, ‘Clive on Rawhead Rex’, Revelations: Clive Barker, http://www.clivebarker.info/rawheadrex.html Further quotes from Barker are drawn from this source.
(2) Carol J. Clover, Men, Women and Chainsaws, London, 1992, p.35.
(3) Barbara Creed, The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis, London, 1993.
(4) Diarmuid Hester, ‘Beasts, Visions and Everything: Clive Barker’s Queer Ethics’, schoolboy errors blog, 5 September 2011: http://schoolboyerrors.wordpress.com/2011/05/09/clive-barker-nightbreed/
(5) Clover, 1992, p.53.
(6) Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror, New York, 1982.
(7) Clover, 1992, pp.21-64.
(8) Ibid., p.90.
(9) Ibid., p.94.