“After a tragic accident, a man conjures up a towering, vengeful demon called Pumpkinhead to destroy a group of unsuspecting teenagers.” — IMDb
Pumpkinhead was the directorial debut of special effects artist Stan Winston — known for his work on Aliens and Predator, among others — though he wouldn’t go on to do much else in the director’s chair besides an odd movie starring Anthony Michael Hall and a talking gnome a couple years later. Based on a poem by Ed Justin (part of which you can hear the little kids reciting as they taunt their friend), it’s in some ways a typical back woods slasher, but it has a few elements that set it apart, at least for me.
When Ed Harley (Lance Henriksen) returns from an errand to find his little boy (Matthew Hurley) badly injured in an accident with some city kids, he’s angry — both at their belligerence and at their negligence (all but one of them had escaped the scene of the unfortunate collision before his return). In his overwhelming grief, he grasps at the one thing he can to ease his pain — vengeance.
** SPOILERS! **
While this movie might not have a ton going for it in the way of script or even acting (aside from Henriksen, who is always pretty awesome — especially in Aliens), it stands fairly solidly on its camera work and lighting (thanks to Yugoslavian cinematographer Bojan Bazelli) as well as its creature design (by Stan Winston and his team). The story has the feel of a dark fairy tale — a mythical demon conjured to avenge a tragic death — and a mix of atmospheric lighting and a realistic creature really brings it to life.
The witch herself (played by Florence Schauffler) is exactly what you’d imagine in a late 80’s Halloween season horror flick — a deeply wrinkled face, thin hair in wisps all around her mostly bald head, wise and cautioning, at home amongst a sea of candles and squeaking rats. There’s a perfectly spooky pumpkin patch graveyard (which is how Pumpkinhead got his name), ground obscured by low-hanging fog. And the scene where the looming creature is almost silhouetted in the remnants of the old barn, thick beams of light all around it… so incredible.
Pumpkinhead, as a monster, is a unique one. Not only is the design fantastic — he doesn’t need to be hidden in shadow or shrouded to hide his weaknesses because that is one goddamn scary figure — but the fact that the creature is always different is interesting to me. His motivation is always the same — as Haggis, the witch, says: “For each of man’s evils, a special demon exists. You’re looking at vengeance — cruel, devious, pure-as-venom vengeance.”. But each time Pumpkinhead is conjured, it is linked to a different person seeking retribution, and it dies, or maybe more accurately it rests, as that person until it is called upon again. It’s fascinating. It reminds me a bit of the stories of the Golem, at least just in the sense that Pumpkinhead is somewhat mechanical in its actions and controlled by an outside source.
The gore isn’t overwhelming but it’s there, and in some cases it’s pretty awesome, like Pumpkinhead impaling Joel — who was so cocky in his assertion that he killed it — with his own shotgun. Honestly the only satisfying kill in the whole film since the others in the group were truly innocent bystanders (and really all tried to get Joel to come forward and confess his crime).
But I ultimately enjoyed how much the movie focused itself on Ed Harley’s grief, his pain, and his anguished attempt at evening the score. We see him trying to do what he thinks is just, what his rage is dictating, but in the end he sacrifices himself to save the rest of the teenagers, realizing that him and Pumpkinhead are indeed intertwined (and becoming more so by the minute). His selflessness was an act of courage but also seemed like he was succumbing to his grief and anger… profound, really, with the film ending as the witch buries the gnarled corpse of the Pumpkinhead/Ed Harley hybrid creature in the graveyard.
I really enjoyed this movie for what it was — a surprisingly polished B-movie that had some truly cool moments and an EXCELLENT monster.
Rating: 5/10 | Director: Stan Winston | Writer: Ed Justin (poem), Mark Patrick Carducci (story & screenplay), Stan Winston (story), Richard Weinman (story), Gary Gerani (screenplay) | Music: Richard Stone | Cinematography: Bojan Bazelli | Starring: Lance Henriksen, Brian Bremer, John D’Aquino, Joel Hoffman, Florence Schauffler, Cynthia Bain, Kerry Ramsen, Matthew Hurley