God is the only thing that can stop what’s out there, Kim.
Of all the films in my 31 Days Of Horror this year, Pumpkinhead (1988) is possibly the one I was most looking forward to seeing for the first time. Until fairly recently, I had never even heard of it. But, suddenly, it was everywhere. I kept hearing it referenced, I kept seeing it on lists and polls online – I even stumbled onto the DVD while I was out shopping one day.
I knew then that I had to pick it up and give it a go. I mean, as the DVD cover made it extremely clear, this was the directorial debut of Stan Winston – the special effects and make-up God that was behind some of the most popular and well known special effects work, from The Terminator (1984) to Jurassic Park (1993).
And so, when I put the film on, I sat down fully expecting to be thrilled and charmed, with my subscription to the cult fandom that has since sprung up alongside the film fully filled in and ready to post.
Before promptly being scrunched up and thrown in the bin.
Can’t you stop this? Can’t you call it off?
Somewhere deep in rural America, something stirs in the night. Inside a farm cabin, Tom Harley (Lee de Broux) comforts his frightened wife, Ellie (Peggy Walton-Walker). Something is outside, something… terrible. From afar, they hear the noises of a struggle – and soon an injured man is at the front door, banging with his all might and screaming for help. Tom’s young son, Ed (Chance Corbitt Jr.), cries out that they should let the man in – but Tom is quick to say it is impossible, and follows it up by threatening the begging man with the action end of a double barrel shotgun.
Despite his pleas for innocence, the condemned man runs into the night. As Ed sneaks to the window to catch a glimpse of the man, he witnesses something that will haunt him for the rest of his life. A twisted, pale creature standing on two inhuman legs and with claws that can tear flesh from the bone – Ed has witnessed the gruesome creature known as Pumpkinhead.
Fast forward to the modern day and Ed (now played by Lance Henriksen) has inherited his father’s small grocery store along with his suspiciously aryan son, Billy (Matthew Hurley). Together, they live happily and freely – and it is obvious the pair share a real love for one another. No sign of Billy’s mum, of course, but it’s best never to dwell on these things. They also have a dog, Gypsy (played by Mushroom – who you may be more familiar with from Gremlins (1984)).
One day, a group of obnoxious teenagers arrive at the store on their way to an old cabin in the woods that they have rented out. They mingle with a group of young, rural children, who promptly tease one of the younger kids with threats of the Pumpkinhead – their song invoking visions in Ed of that one night, long ago…
When one of the teenagers, Joel (John D’Aquino), starts showing off on his dirt bike, his friend Steve (Joel Hoffman) quickly joins him. The pair earn dirty looks from the locals, but otherwise they don’t seem to be doing anything wrong. That is, until Gypsy runs out onto the dunes. Terrified by the thought of his dog getting injured, the young ethnically pure Billy runs after him – and is swiftly knocked down by Joel’s bike. Seemingly badly hurt, Joel panics and runs, taking his girlfriend Kim (Kimberly Ross) directly to the cabin.
Returning from a short errand, Ed returns to his store to find his son unconscious. Steve tries to explain it is an accident, but it falls on deaf ears. Ed is furious – and quickly takes his son away to try and nurse him back to health, but to no avail. With his son’s last words ringing in his ears, Ed wraps his deceased son in blankets and heads out to find a legendary old witch in the woods, who just might have the answers he’s looking for.
Back at the teenager’s cabin, and Joel has gone crazy. This wasn’t the first kid he’d hurt on the back of a bike, and he is terrified of his friends turning him into the police. First disconnecting the phone, then keeping his so-called friends captive in their cabin, one thing is clear – this guy is a real dick.
Meanwhile, Ed has found his way to the old witch’s cabin. Inside, the ancient woman waits. Known as Haggis (Florence Schauffer), she tells Ed that she does not have the power to bring back the head – but there may just be another solution to Ed’s problem. Promising that his son’s death will be avenged, Haggis provides Ed with instructions to head out deep into the woods to find a long forgotten cemetery and return what is found within one of the graves.
Sure enough, the witch’s magic is about to invoke the mummified corpse with the power to transform into the gruesome demon known as Pumpkinhead. In no time at all, the demon is on the trail of the teenagers as Ed begins to understand the terrible price he has paid to unleash this evil on the world. One by one, the teens are picked up in a series of fairly lacklustre death scenes.
Though not all deserving of their fate, they are killed without mercy, and it soon falls to Bunt (Brian Bremer) and Tracy (Cynthia Bain) to try and stop the beast before it kills them, too. With the help of a certain grocery store owner, of course…
Nothin’ can call it off.. but I’m gonna send it back to whatever the Hell it came from!
I may have been a bit harsh in my opening statement here. I didn’t hate Pumpkinhead. The creature effects and modelling is, as you would expect, absolutely phenomenal. I understand as Stan Winston was directing, much of the special effects actually fell to several of this staff, including Alec Gillis and Tom Woodruff, Jr. who both went on to work on Starship Troopers (1997).
As directorial debuts go, it’s pretty good. Clearly, Stan Winston was a fan of motion in his shots – as no shot lingers long enough to ever really be called a static one. For some sequences, such as Ed walking through the spooky woods at night, this worked exceptionally well. For others, eh, not so much.
Overall, I just kinda felt it was all a bit boring. A real lack of creativity in the kills disappointed me, and while I understand this may be due to limitations in the monster, I’m sure there could have been ways around it. The characters themselves felt a little cartoonish, too. But I did love the idea of Ed condemning himself to hell, something that came up more than once. A particular favourite scene was when, just after summoning the demon, Ed experienced a vision of his son sitting upright and asking him directly, “Daddy, what did you do?”
Would I recommend Pumpkinhead? Eh. I would say watch it if you’re really committed to special effects, or B-Movie monsters in general. Otherwise? It’s skippable.
Yours, A P Tyler