"Pumpkinhead" (1988) Review
Directed by: Stan Winston
Starring: Lance Henriksen, John D'Aquino, Kerry Remsen
October is obviously a big month for horror movie fanatics. For one glorious month out of the year, hordes of beasties and ghouls and nasties appear across the cable and streaming landscapes around the clock.
Each October your humble narrator embarks on a personal scary-movie marathon that I refer to as "Schlock-Tober," in which I try to cram as many low-budget horror flicks as I can into a 31 day period. Our feature presentation for today - 1988's Pumpkinhead- certainly sounded like a seasonally appropriate film to kick off this year's edition of my Schlock-Tober extravaganza. So what do you say, let's press "play" and find out if I chose wisely!
Pumpkinhead starts off with a creepy prologue set on a stormy night in 1950s Appalachia. A young Ed Harley huddles with his Mama in their rustic cabin while a neighbor pounds at the door screaming for Ed's father to let him in. Shotgun-toting Pa sez "This has got nothin' to do with us! Now git away from me and my kin!" Eddie peeks out his bedroom window just in time to see the terrified man being torn limb from limb by a mostly-unseen creature, which we will obviously get to know much better later on.
Jumping ahead to the 1988 present, Ed Harley is now all grown up and played by the always-welcome Lance Henriksen, whose horror/sci-fi resume includes everything from high concept fare like "Aliens" and TV's "Millennium" to bargain-bin faves like "The Mangler 2" and "Man's Best Friend." Ed's a widower with an adorable, bright, bespectacled young son named "Billy" (Matthew Hurley), and is proprietor of the local general store. Ed's seemingly idyllic backwoods existence is interrupted by the arrival of some teenaged "city folk" who stop at the store on their way to a vacation cabin. The teens' loud and raucous behavior immediately rubs Ed the wrong way but he's got a delivery to make so he tells Billy to "mind the store for a minute" and heads off to a neighbors' with a truck full of feed. This, of course, will prove to have tragic consequences.
Ed's only gone for about ten seconds when one of city kids, who's been showing off on his dirt bike, accidentally runs over curious little Billy and fatally injures him. Biker Boy already happens to be on probation for a similar incident, so he takes off for the cabin, with the rest of his friends trailing in his wake. When Ed arrives back at the store he finds one remaining "city kid" holding his son's broken body, and when the boy asks "Can I help?" Ed shoots him what is quite possibly the greatest "if looks could kill" death-stare ever captured on film before snatching Billy's body away and roaring off with it in his pickup.
Back at the cabin, the teens fight among themselves over what to do about the accident - Biker Boy's friends think he should go back to the store and 'fess up, which prompts him to punch one out and lock the rest in a room to keep them from calling the police on him. These kids need to choose their friends more carefully, huh? Whatever course of action they may have chosen doesn't matter much in the grand scheme of things, of course, because Ed is on his way to see the local Witch Woman. "I hear you got...powers," Ed says to the wizened old crone, who appears to be older than Yoda and twice as ugly. "Ah cain't raise the dead," she replies, but she does offer him another option - summoning the vengeance demon "Pumpkinhead" to get even with the folks who've done him wrong. Ed is dispatched to a certain spot in the "pumpkin patch graveyard" to dig up a body and bring it back to her for the ritual. A bit of ceremonial bloodletting revives the dreaded Pumpkinhead, and as the creature storms off on its mission, Witchy Woman tells Ed, "Go on home till it's over." (Go home? Hell, I'd probably leave the country, but that's just me.)
Now the REAL fun starts!!
Before long, the hulking, tooth-n-clawed Pumpkinhead creature has found its way to the dirt bikers' cabin and is busily snatching them through windows, yanking them up into trees, and generally pulling them apart in various gory ways. This may have been what the grief-stricken Ed wanted, but he quickly learns that unleashing the Pumpkinhead critter on other folks has an unintended side-effect on its summoner: every time Pumpkinhead kills someone, Ed sees and feels the victims' suffering. Wracked by pain and guilt, Ed returns to the Witch's cabin to tell her to call "it" off... but of course, he's told that once Pumpkinhead is set in motion, it can't be stopped till its mission is done. Bummer. Thus, Ed takes it upon himself to arm up and protect the last couple of surviving city kids from the critter. After several tense chases through the dark woods and a number of close calls, Ed realizes that there is only one way to put Pumpkinhead back in his grave...which I won't reveal, of course, but if you've seen enough monster flicks you'll probably figure it out yourself way before Ed does.
So Is It Worth A Look?
Pumpkinhead was the directorial debut of the late special effects wizard Stan Winston (1946-2008), who created monsters and creatures for countless classic horror and sci-fi films over the course of his Oscar winning career - including Aliens, Predator, The Terminator, Edward Scissorhands, and Jurassic Park. While watching Pumpkinhead, you can tell that Stan came from a special effects background; the film's backwoods set pieces (particularly the Witch's cabin, the pumpkin-patch graveyard, and an abandoned church) are nicely detailed and moody as hell, complete with tons of fog and chilly lighting. The Pumpkinhead creature itself is also a mean lookin' mutha, falling somewhere between the humanoid killing machine of Predator and the multi-jointed toothy horror of Giger's "Alien" designs. The acting performances, on the other hand, leave quite a bit to be desired. Aside from Henriksen, who as expected gives one of his usually intense turns as the grief-crazed father, the remainder of Pumpkinhead's small cast is made up of toothless redneck stereotypes and the stone-washed yuppie kids who are only there to serve as cannon fodder. (Fun fact: future "Blossom" and "Big Bang Theory" star Mayim Bialik makes her first on-screen appearance here as one of Ed's hillbilly neighbor kids.) Most fans of monster mayhem don't watch movies like these expecting to see studies in character development anyway, so if flesh-rippin' carnage and an overall feeling of creepiness and dread are all you need to get your Halloween juices flowin', you can pick up Pumpkinhead with confidence at your nearest local bargain DVD bin.
The Misfits, "Pumpkinhead"
The Legacy of Pumpkinhead...
Pumpkinhead was not a major box office success when it was first released. It had actually spent some time sitting on a shelf when its original studio, DeLaurentiis Entertainment Group, went bankrupt. Pumpkinhead was eventually picked up by United Artists/MGM and given a barely-noticed theatrical release in late 1988 (using an alternate title, Vengeance: The Demon) before it made its way onto home video in 1989. Pumpkinhead became a popular rental title during the VHS era and eventually managed to capture a small cult following. This of course resulted in an inevitable, belated series of straight to video sequels - 1994's Pumpkinhead II: Blood Wings, 2006's Pumpkinhead: Ashes to Ashes and 2007's Pumpkinhead: Blood Feud. I haven't seen any of the followups (and I have in fact been told by some folks whose opinions I respect to avoid them at all costs) but I hear that at least Lance Henriksen reprises his role as Ed Harley (in spirit form) in the last two films. So hey, buyer beware.
Pumpkinhead himself has also taken a place of honor amongst Stan Winston's many other creature creations and has been immortalized in comic books, action figures and monster model kits. Legendary horror-punk band The Misfits even wrote a song about the film on their 1999 album Famous Monsters. Does it get any more bad-ass than that?
Maybe I'll feel brave enough to try out some of the Pumpkinhead sequels during a future edition of my annual Schlock-Tober festival; for now, the original kicked my Halloween season off in fine style.
"Keep away from Pumpkinhead...unless you're tired of living!"
Stan Winston's directorial debut has become an enduring cult favorite.
© 2012 Keith Abt