RAWHEAD REX!!! Oh, and Transmutations, Too (DVD/ Blu-ray Comparison)

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.
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! Kino has 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 has just been wiped clean.
2009 Mad Movies DVD on top; 2017 Kino blu-ray bottom.
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.
2009 Mad Movies DVD left; 2017 Kino blu-ray right.
But where Kino really excels is in straight up picture quality.  Wow, this image is 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.   Grain-o-phobes should be prepared for a lot of completely natural, buzzing, un-tampered with grain.  But I don't see how anybody could be unhappy when comparing this to anything we've ever had before.  Seeing the movie like this helps raise the film from its "cheap piece of crap" reputation. With every shot looking better, it feels like a more intelligently created film. Maybe one day we'll even get Barker to acknowledge it's really not so bad.
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). The monsters turn out to be mutations, the result of an evil doctor, played by the always effective Denholm Elliot, giving them experimental drugs, which they also become addicted to. They're 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, 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 new blu delivers.  First it 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.
I've seen the Mad Movies releases referred to as being out of print and hard to find, but I think that's just some confusion about them being available chiefly through Mad Movies' online store. They're actually quite cheap and in stock as of this writing; you can get them here and here. Mad Movies also has a host of other titles at very attractive prices, but I have no idea what their transfers and features are like. These two stood out, because they are exclusive, superior editions.  Now there's no more reason to bother with their Rawhead DVD; Kino has trumped it in every regard; but their Transmutations disc is still the best one on the market.

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