Tagline: For each of man’s evils a special demon exists…
Director: Stan Winston
Writers: Mark Patrick Carducci, Gary Gerani
Starring: Lance Henriksen, Jeff East, John D’Aquino, Kimberly Ross, Joel Hoffman, Cynthia Bain, Kerry Remsen
18 | 1h 26min | Fantasy , Horror
Budget: $3,500,000 (estimated)
Horror grew increasingly tepid during the latter part of the 1980s. The censorship hysteria of previous years had long since faded, but a precedent had been set. Some filmmakers continued to bask in gore-heavy horror. Slashers such as Scott Spiegel’s Intruder would take a tongue-in-cheek approach that attempted to add censor-defying levity to proceedings. Such directors invariably had their work hacked to pieces, their original visions only deemed fit for consumption decades after the film’s original release. Others bit the bullet and attempted to avoid the splatter altogether, offering blood-free productions with a thematic twist. 1988‘s horror/fantasy Pumpkinhead is a prime example of a Medusa’s head bereft of venom.
Pumpkinhead was the directorial debut of practical effects maestro Stan Winston, who with his eponymous villain gave us a rather peculiar looking monster who would act as the visual draw in a movie that is somewhat reminiscent of William Shakespeare’s Macbeth, featuring witches, macabre actions and ultimately regret. The film was promoted as ‘A Grim Fairy Tale’ and aesthetically it lives up to that proclamation to a degree, the occasional hue of primary colours reminiscent of a smouldering Bava palette. Sadly, that is where the comparisons end in a movie that is little more than a platform for the director’s striking creature design. That design often looks dated but is still fairly impressive when shot sparsely enough and certainly holds up better than the majority of prosthetics from a period when widespread CGI was very much in the pipeline.
The film stars Lance Henriksen as Ed Harley, a salt-of-the-earth father pushed to the brink when a gang of city outsiders head to the backwoods for a little beer-fuelled mayhem. After parking near Harley’s convenience store to show off his prodigious motocross skills, douchebag renegade and group alpha male Joel (John D’Aquino) accidentally runs over and kills his preteen son, a kid so cute he eclipses the Milky Bar Kid for adorability. It’s a cheap bit of casting that is matched only by the production’s laughably melodramatic early staging, the movie treading direct-to-video Stephen King territory during a set-up that is mercifully short-lived.
By this time we have already had more than a whiff of Pumpkinhead. The opening scene is probably the best in the entire movie, a barely glimpsed menace stalking a desperate local who is fed to the figurative wolves by a Christian neighbour simply trying to protect his family. There are moments, like this, that really pique the interest. They look great, almost like a Hammer Horror production without the Gothic masonry, and this scene in particular delivers in a technical sense, with a set-up that promises fantasy-laden horror of grandiose proportions — just the kind of movie a prosthetics wizard like Winston was made for.
Beset on a dose of vicarious vengeance, Harley seeks out a local witch (in 1988, no less), and commits to a blood ritual that awakens the notorious Pumpkinhead — now an extension of his master’s anger — who sets off on a Jason Voorhees style massacre minus the gore. Once the fleeing kids seek solace in a nearby cabin the movie’s slasher intentions become abundantly clear. That’s all well and good, and such a crossover could have proved welcome, but Winston doesn’t commit to either element with nearly enough conviction, the film descending into a cheap commercial hodgepodge that quickly lays waste to its supernatural potential. So implied are the majority of the production’s kills that you feel kind of cheated. If you’re going to lean towards the fantastical in such a heavily-censored climate then it’s probably best to choose that path and stick to it. A similar crossover was attempted with the Clive Barker penned Rawhead Rex a year prior, and though Winston’s creature design avoids the cutesy trappings of Rex, at least that movie had the balls to lay it on thick, and even exhibited a modicum of tension from time-to-time.
Gore isn’t everything; in fact, it often does more damage than good, but the movie lacks the filmmaking legs to carry it. Pumpkinhead‘s biggest flaw is its pacing. Everything is rushed in a movie that runs less than 90 minutes, with at least twenty of those dedicated to shot-after-shot of our titular monster. Unlike the Friday the 13th series whose popularity it attempts to tap into, the movie gives us characters we are supposed to care about, teens who are either blameless or remorseful, but they are given insufficient time to develop, and the kills aren’t nearly graphic enough to justify such thin characterization. In fact, our victims are bumped off at such a quickfire rate that there’s very little time for dramatic tension. Even the always wonderful Henriksen flounders under the weight of such an underdeveloped screenplay, Harley’s fickle transition from anger to regret transpiring in the blink of an eye.
All of this would have been forgivable had the movie been just a little self-aware or humorous, but for the most part it is played as straight as a die, with not nearly enough of a compelling story to pull it off. Pumpkinhead received a limited theatrical release and quickly petered out at the box office during Halloween season. It has since achieved something of a cult following, spawning a plethora of low-key sequels and a series of comic books. It would even prove the inspiration for a hit pop single of the same name. Nostalgia, it seems, is a very powerful emotion.
Talk about underwhelming. There is literally one of note in a movie that was passed in its full, uncut original form, and that may be overselling it a little. After being gunned down by a remorseful Harley, Pumpkinhead lies motionless, but reborn bad apple Joel puts one last bullet in his head to make sure, standing cocksure as the beast who laid waste to his brother lies motionless at his feet. Inevitably, Winston’s monster quickly awakens, impaling the teenager with the length of a shotgun.
Clearly he’s never seen a horror movie.
Most Absurd Moment
Grieving the loss of a child can’t be easy, but surely the least you would want for the deceased is a proper send-off. Try telling Ed Harley, who after visiting a local witch with the corpse of his dead son for a blood ritual buries him next to his dead wife with a shovel. Good luck explaining that one to the local sheriff!
Most Absurd Dialogue
While travelling to their backwoods destination for a spot of motocross, Steve takes regional stereotyping to ludicrously misguided levels.
Steve: I read this story a few years ago about a guy who killed his wife and ate the evidence.
Perhaps he was married to a pizza.