Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Pumpkinhead (1988)

Title: Pumpkinhead (1988)

Director: Stan Winston

Cast: Lance Henriksen


Stan Winston was a master of make up effects, through his body of work on many memorable genre pictures (and non genre pictures I might add) he cemented himself as a force to be reckoned with in the monster making business. Amongst his most recognized creations we can mention the alien creatures in such iconic classics as Predator (1987), Aliens (1986) and The Thing (1982). He is the guy behind The Terminator, and the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park. He was nominated for an Oscar for his work in Neil Jordan’s Interview with a Vampire (1994). The guy definitely left his mark in the film world; his passing was a sad day in film land. He also took a stab at directing. He made a film called A Gnome Named Gnorm (1990) Stan Winston’s attempt at a children’s film which didn’t go very far for some reason. I think it was plagued with distribution woes. He also directed a short film for Michael Jackson entitled Ghosts (1997) which was Michael Jackson attempt at recovering that old ‘Thriller’ magic. Unfortunately that short film wasn’t that well received either because by that time, Michael Jackson’s career was on the slopes. My point is that Stan Winston did some legendary make up effects work, he was a part of some truly memorable creations, but as far as his directorial career went, Winston’s films weren’t that well received. Except for Pumpkinhead that is! While Pumpkinhead didn’t make kajillions at the box office and was received with luke warm reviews by critics, the film has gathered a cult following across the years. It is still alive and kicking to this day.

Stan Winston, proudly standing next to his creation

Pumpkinhead tells the story of Harley (Lance Henriksen) and his son. They both live the happiest lives together. They have an enviable father son relationship. But, darkness descends upon their lives one day when a group of rowdy teenagers come to their town looking to have some fun with their dirt bikes. I know what you are saying, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to have fun right? But the problem comes when they accidentally run over Harley’s son and decide to run away, afraid to take the blame for what they have done. Harley refuses to accept his sons death quietly, and so he finds a way to summon Pumpkinhead the demon of revenge!

I recently mentioned this one on my Demonic Cinema 20 Demon Movies to Keep You Up All Night blog post, and for good reason, Pumpkinhead is a great demon movie that has many good things going for it, but above all the best of them is the creature itself. The look and design that make up this demon of revenge is awesome, as is to be expected from a film that comes to us from a master make up effects man like Winston. I do love how the creature snarls, I love those long bony hands, and that grimace. I’ve always thought that Pumpkinhead looks like a demonic old man, that aspect makes it all the creepier. Those blank eyes, the devilish tail, the overgrown head that is literally shaped like a deformed pumpkin…everything about this creature screams monster. My only complaint with Pumpkinhead is how slow it moves. Though conceptually and visually the creature looks amazing, it gives the impression that the man in the suit had lots of trouble moving inside of it. The mobility and performance of the actor behind the suit is hindered which is why in the end, Pumpkinhead comes off as a slow moving creature that you could easily out run. Good thing for Pumpkinhead that all his victims do when they see him is scream and stare at him, otherwise they would all be outrunning him.

This is not a very complicated film; it is essentially a revenge tale through and through. It reminded me a lot of films like The Crow (1994) and Ghost Rider (2007). A terrible wrong has been commited, and the ones who did it must pay! And the one who will make them pay has supernatural powers and origins. Nothing more to it then that. But you know what they say: “it’s not what you say, but HOW you say it that matters” and this holds true with this film as well. This movie is very eerie, very atmospheric. Many scenes are lit by the moon light, characters run around woods filled with dead trees, the wind is blowing constantly…in Pumpkinhead, we have all the right elements for a great horror film. I loved that there is a witch involved in the whole thing, in this way, augmenting the films supernatural roots. The witch serves as the character who knows all about the myth of Pumpkinhead, and the rules of the game. There is this scene where the witch is burying Pumpkinhead in a pumpkin patch, awesome scene! It’s scenes like those and the heavy atmosphere that let us know that Winston was paying homage to his favorite old school horror films. He was out to make the quintessential monster movie.

It’s been said that this film was based on a poem by a guy called Ed Justin. Who the hell is this Ed Justin guy? What other poems did he write? No one truly knows the origins of this poem, or its writer. And apparently it still hasn’t been clarafied, but the fact remains that this film is partially based on the mysterious poem which goes something like this:

Keep Away from Pumpkinhead
Unless you’re tired of living
His enemies are mostly dead
He’s mean and unforgiving

Laugh at him and you’re undone
But in some dreadful fashion
Vengeance he considers fun
And plans it with a passion

Time will not erase or blot
A plot that he was brewing
It’s when you think that he’s forgot
He’ll conjure your undoing

Bolted doors and windows barred
Guard dogs prowling in the yard
Won’t protect you in your bed
Nothing will, from Pumpkinhead

On the rotten side of the pumpkin patch, I found that some of the characters reacted unrealistically to some of the situations presented on the film. I mean, when Ed Harley first finds his sons dead body, he finds him with one of the teenagers watching over the dead kid. Does he ask the teenager what happened? Does he want to make him responsible? Does he call the police? Does he take the kid to the hospital? Nobody thinks about these things in the film. When the teens run over the kid, they could have saved his life had they taken him to the hospital, but no, they all decide to run away and leave the kid there. Even the teens who don’t agree with running away, the “good teens” don’t do the right thing! And then Ed Harley decides to take his dead son to a witch, that whole part of the film just didn’t ring true to me. A real father would have at least attempted to take his son to the hospital; a real father would have ripped the teenager he found with his dead son a new asshole. But none of this happens. Harley picks up his kid and it’s off to the witches’ cabin! But whatever, this is a minor problem for me with this movie. I just wish they had pulled that whole part of the film more convincingly. Maybe they could have given the father a background on witchcraft or on his beliefs?

This film ended up being quite influential. The Misfits wrote a song based on the film where the practically retell the whole story of the film through the song. It spawned a couple of comics, and was followed by various sequels. Pumpkinhead II: Blood Wings (1994), Pumpkinhead: Ashes to Ashes (2006) and Pumpkinhead: Blood Feud (2007), but none of them were as good as the original one directed by Stan Winston. R.I.P. Stan Winston, your vivid imagination and genuine artistry will be sorely missed!

Rating: 4 out of 5

Pumpkinhead (Collector's Edition)PumpkinheadPumpkinhead 2 - Blood WingsPumpkinhead: Ashes to Ashes


Unknown said...

I thoroughly enjoyed your review and am definitely there with you on its merits. I also think that this may be one of Lance Henriksen's finest performances ever. You really feel and empathize for his character which makes the climactic scene all that much more heartbreaking.

Franco Macabro said...

I agree, this is one of Lance Henriksen's finest performances, along with his android in ALIENS.
And that biker villain he played in STONE COLD, that one was a fun Henriksen performance.

Unknown said...

Not to mention the baddie he played in HARD TARGET. Easily the best thing about that film.... well, that and Wilfred Brimley's outrrrrrageous Cajun accent!

venoms5 said...

I got to see this in a mostly empty theater back then. Me and a friend went and there were only two other people in the theater. I remember seeing the trailer for it when it was called VENGEANCE: THE DEMON. A year or so passed and nothing. Then, it finally showed up at the local theater and played for a week before disappearing altogether. I think this was the last, or one of the last DEG productions of Dino De Laurentiis before he filed bankruptcy.

Franco Macabro said...

You are right, this was De Laurentis Groups last feauture film before they filed bankruptcy, the movie was left in limbo after that until United Artists bought it.

It was known as VENGEANCE: THE DEMON for a while because thats the name under which United Artists tested the film, for test audiences until it finally ended up with the title PUMPKINHEAD.

It barely made its 3.5 million dollar budget back, making something like 4.3 at the box office, still, its gone on to find its audience on video and dvd. Now its a bonafide cult classic, with lots of shitty sequels behind it.

I Like Horror Movies said...

This is one of my all time favorite creature films, and what I consider to be one of the best Southern Gothic films of all time. Fantastic Horror cinema, and Lance really is excellent in the role! Great review Franco!


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