Rawhead Rex Can't Be Stopped!!! Transmutations, I'm Not So Sure About...

Clive Barker has essentially disowned the first two film adaptations of his writings, Rawhead Rex and Transmutations, even though he also wrote the screenplays for both. You don't have to search long or hard to find interviews where he talks about their low budgets and general "not getting it" that inspired him to become a director for Hellraiser, so he could make sure his work was represented properly. In fact, let's not mince words.  He's gone so far as to say, "Oh, I hated them with a passion! I haven't seen them for many a long year and hope never to see them again." But, while they're certainly not up to the level of Hellraiser, they're still enjoyable little films for cult and horror fans - certainly better than many - and it's a shame they're so poorly represented in most of the world by low-quality, full-frame discs.

Meanwhile, in France, there's a horror magazine called Mad Movies. I've never read it (it being in French and all), but I gather it's their Fangoria equivalent. And they've written that they have quite a good relationship with Barker based on articles in the past, and so in 2009, they released his first two films on their own line of DVDs. Now, I don't believe it went as far as Barker actually being involved with these releases personally - I don't imagine they actually got him to watch those movies again, and he hasn't provided any interviews or anything for special features. And neither has anybody else, there are no special editions, but they are the first and only releases of the film in their OAR widescreen ratios.

Update 2/5/15 - 10/7/17: Well, Kino has done it.  Later this month will see a brand new, 4k special edition blu-ray of Rawhead Rex.  And it's pretty fantastic.  Read on.

Update 3/26/21: And they've done it again.  Kino has re-released Rawhead Rex as a 2020 steelbook, which ordinarily wouldn't be so noteworthy except to dedicated steelbook collectors.  But in this case, it has all new extras and even an updated transfer?  Read on...er.  Read further on!

Update 4/2/23: Kino just won't stop doin' it.  Now they've re-re-released good ol' Rawhead as a 4k Ultra HD/ BD combo-pack, taking this unstoppable beast into the latest generation of home video.  Read on-est!  Read all the way!
If you've read Barker's story, it's easy to be disappointed in Rawhead Rex. It's a wild, over-the-top story of a mad demigod running amuck in modern times, told from his perspective and full of crazy inner monologue. In the movie, he's a completely non-verbal monster. And the special effects, while a great design, were clearly not meant to be seen by the camera so directly or for so long; and so it looks like a big, phony mask (in some shots they just about get away with it; in others they clearly don't). A few other clever bits of writing in the plot points are lost, too, as well as some social commentary. If ever a movie called for a remake, it's this one.
But if you can get past the coulda woulda shouldas of it, the movie we're left with is still pretty cool. It's a fun, violent monster movie that still retains enough remnants of Barker's script to set it above and beyond the generic monster movie. Not the least of which is the villainous priest character who rejects Christ to worship and serve Rex. Scenic locales, a flush orchestral score, a cool monster even if it is on the cheap, and a collection of respectable performances are all enjoyable. This is the kind of monster movie that's not afraid to take out children, and while this Rex doesn't speak, they do use the opportunity to have his crazy priest speak for him ("he sees what I see!"). It may not be Barker's wild story fully realized, but it's still more cool stuff going on than your average monster movie of the period, a la the recently popular The Boogens.
So the French DVD was pretty neat - I wish I still had one of the old, cruddy fullscreen DVDs, just to show how much farther most people who never tracked down this obscure French DVD are coming - but finally, finally! In 2017, Kino rendered it obsolete by giving Rawhead Rex the proper special edition it deserves.  And I'm not just talking special features (although, we certainly are talking special features as well), but a brand new 4k restoration from the original camera negative in HD on blu-ray!  Forget anything in the past, the slate was wiped clean.  And then they came back with even their newer edition, the 2020 limited (to 4000 copies) steelbook edition.  But even that wasn't enough, as now they're back with their newst 2023 edition, a UHD/ BD combo-pack.
1) 2009 Mad Movies DVD; 2) 2017 Kino BD;
3) 2020 Kino BD; 4) 2023 Kino UHD.
Mad Movies presented Rawhead Rex in an anamorphic widescreen edition that was certainly a nice improvement over the prior discs. It's slightly pillar-boxed to about 1.73:1, whereas Kino's new blu is slightly letterboxed to 1.85:1.  What this ultimately leaves us with is less image along the top, but more along the bottom and left-hand side.  I'd say Kino's framing is better, and probably more accurate, but they're not that different from each other. Mad Movies had gotten it pretty close.  But where Kino really excels is in straight up picture quality.  It's so much sharper and clearer.  It made what I thought was a pretty decent DVD at the time look like a murky mess.  Kino has a cooler, more robust color palette, and I don't see how anybody could be unhappy when comparing this to anything we've ever had before.

And the 2020 blu?  Well, naturally it isn't such a drastic bound ahead, but it is different.  And not just different; it's an improvement.  It's absolutely a better encode.  Where grain was patchy, it's now more consistent.  But that's the sort of thing you'll only notice in a comparison of close-ups like we do here.  Just watching it on your TV, the only difference you're likely to spot is that the newer version is darker.  And I'm not sure if that's any better or worse honestly; it's just a slightly different look.

If you're here for the real upgrade, you've got to take the extra step to the 2023 UHD (the BD in the combo-pack is just a copy of the 2020 disc).  This is a new 4k restoration from the OCN, not just the previous one slapped onto a 3840 disc.  The framing is still matted to 1.85:1, but pulls back to reveal more around all four sides, and grain is now really strongly captured, definitely a big boost even over the 2020 BD.  The color palette's a little warmer, splitting a bit of the difference between the DVD and previous blus.  Bold colors like Rawhead's eyes pop like never before without the rest of the image looking over-saturated.  Honestly, I felt a bit let down by the 2020 BD, at least in terms of PQ, but this absolutely makes up for it.  This is how Rawhead Rex should look.
Transmutations (aka Underworld) is more of a mess. Rawhead Rex disappointed audiences by over-simplifying, but this film could've done with a bit of that. It's full of Clive Barker themes, though, which should please fans at least. You've got a noir-ish detective as the lead, investigating the supernatural (a la Lord of Illusions). And he stumbles upon an underground collection of unique monsters who at first appear menacing but turn out to be the good guys (a la Nightbreed). These monsters are actually mutations, the result of an evil doctor, played by the always effective Denholm Elliot, giving them experimental and addictive drugs. There are also some British mobster types and a prostitute who's so beautiful everyone falls in love with her and who happens to have magical powers... or something. It makes enough sense to follow the story, but when you start to ask detailed questions, its internal logic kinda falls apart. Plus it looks cheap again. But it's energetic and entertaining enough for a casual viewing, and it's got a colorful 80s music video look.
Transmutations is once again slightly pillar-boxed to 1.73:1 and looks pretty nice. Sure there's room for plenty of improvement in an HD release, but it's pretty attractive for DVD. It helps that the film was shot with so many bright, neon colors that have a soft, smoothing effect. Unfortunately, I don't think this is as good as a movie even as Rawhead Rex, so I don't think there's as many fans interested in this film regardless of what's presented here. But if you are keen to watch this movie, this is certainly the version to see.
Since these are French discs, they both have French audio dubs and French subtitles. But the subs are removable, and the original English audio tracks are also present in stereo.  For Rawhead though, Kino of course conquers (on the 2017, 2020 and 2023s), offering both the original stereo track and a new 5.1 mix, both in DTS-HD.  And they also include optional English subs.

Neither DVD has any extras, not even trailers. But Kino's blus deliver.  First, the 2017 edition has an audio commentary by director George Pavlou, and it's great to finally hear his side of the story, after years of only reading Clive trash the early films.  Then, there's a series of great interviews, including Heinrich von Bunau, the actor in the Rawhead suit, spoken in German with English subtitles.  Then there's an interview with Ronan Wilmot, who played the priest who serves under Rex.  Next, is a featurette editing together separate interviews with all of the effects artists who worked on this film: Gerry Johnston, Peter Mackenzie Litten, John Schoonraad and Rosie Blackmore.  And the final interview is with artist Stephen R. Bissette, who adapted Rawhead to comic book form in the 90s, and who also has a lot to say about how the movie compares to Barker's original story.  There's also a nice gallery of original concept art, the original theatrical trailer, and a stylish booklet with notes by Kat Ellinger of Diabolique Magazine.  Kino's blu has features reversible cover art and comes in a cool slip box, pictured below.
And the 2020 steelbook?  It has everything the 2017 disc has (including the booklet, though not the outer slipbox and obviously not the reversible artwork) and more.  Crucially, it has two new featurettes, one with the two child stars, now of course grown up, which is a lot of fun as they have some unique memories of the shoot.  The other one is good, too, a cheerful and engaging interview with the film's composer.  Are they worth upgrading for?  That may be a tough call, but they do make the special edition even more special.

There's nothing new for 2023, but it does include all the extras from the 2020 steelbook... after all, the 2020 disc is the second disc of this set.  They've dropped the booklet, but reversible artwork is back, and this latest release comes in a slipcover.
I've seen Mad Movies' Transmutations DVD referred to as being out of print and hard to find, but I think that's just some confusion about it being available chiefly through Mad Movies' online store. It's actually pretty cheap and in stock as of this writing; you can get it here.  There's no more reason to bother with their Rawhead DVD, of course; Kino has trumped it in every regard (three times, even); but their Transmutations disc is still the best one on the market.  I vaguely recall Kino announcing a Transmutations 4k disc around the same time they announced their Rawhead release, but I've yet to hear anything further since.

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