Pumpkinhead (1988)

If you’re like me, this movie’s title evokes images of Ichabod Crane being chased by a pumpkin-weilding headless horseman. Connecting the two seems natural but this “grim fairy tale” (the movie’s tagline) is in no way related to the Washington Irving story and the only remotely pumpkiny thing about the monster called Pumpkinhead is that it lies quietly dormant in a graveyard pumpkin patch(?) until called upon to perform dirty deeds in the name of revenge. Okay, so maybe it’s not the stuff of literary classics, but for horror fans, it’s worth a look.

Ed Harley is pissed. Seems some city-folk done went and kilt his boy and didn’t so much as stick around to say sorry. Well now Ed Harley is going to exact vengeance the only way Ed Harley knows how – by paying the local hillbilly witch (Florence Schauffler) to summon a revenge demon to hunt down the perpetrators like the dogs they are. But revenge demons come at a price – a price Ed Harley soon finds out might be higher than he’s willing to pay.

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Even if you think you don’t know who Pumpkinhead director Stan Winston is, you do. He’s responsible for the makeup and creature effects on The Thing, Terminator, Aliens, Predator, Jurassic Park, and Iron Man to name a few and won four Academy Awards for his work before his much-too-early death in 2008 at the age of 62. He is considered by many to be the greatest makeup effects artist of all time and so it’s somewhat ironic that, busy with directing duties, he played no direct part in the making of the creature for his own movie. Indirectly, though, Winston’s influence is unmistakable as the creature design was placed in the capable hands of his proteges at Stan Winston Studio and the resulting monster, if not the movie as a whole, is pretty spectacular. The screenplay was supposedly inspired by a poem by someone named Ed Justin, but as I haven’t been able to find any independent information about said poem or poet, I’m inclined to believe this oft-repeated “fact” was simply a device used by the filmmakers to make the story seem rooted in legend. There is a poem about Pumpkinhead recited by the kids in the movie, but it seems more likely the poem was created for the movie and not the other way around.

Pumpkinhead in church

Pumpkinhead does a number of things well, even if it isn’t quite able to put it all together. Lance Henriksen (Piranha Part II: The Spawning, Nightmares, Near Dark, The Horror Show), aside from his distracting “rural” false teeth and questionable accent, is good as Ed Harley and the interactions betweenPumpkinhead kids at store Ed and his son (Matthew Hurley) are surprisingly touching. It’s clear Ed is a loving father with good intentions, but it’s also clear Ed is kind of a dumbass. (How does it not cross his mind that leaving an unattended six-year-old in charge of the store with a bunch of rowdy strangers milling about isn’t such a hot idea? Or after his son was flattened by a motorcycle, instead of taking the not-yet-dead child back to his tetanus-laden cabin, Pumpkinhead Ed and Sonshouldn’t he have maybe tried to get him to some sort of medical facility?) The story set-up is well-done, but it all drags on a little too long and other than the brief glimpse given in the opening flashback scene, it’s almost an hour in before the demon shows itself (Incidentally, the actor being chased by Pumpkinhead in that opening scene is Dick Warlock who played Michael Myers/The Shape in Halloween II). Once it finally arrives, Pumpkinhead the monster (Tom Woodruff Jr., The Monster Squad, Leviathan)pumpkinhead claw is tremendously cool (If you want evidence of the superiority of makeup effects over CGI, look no further) but I can’t help but thinking the monster’s attributes are sorely underutilized. Here we have this amazingly-built killing machine, its teeth and claws existing solely for the purpose of vengeance-slaughter, but its victims meet their respective ends by being shoved through a window, dropped from a tree, and impaled with a rifle. It gets the job done, sure, but I want kill scenes more befitting a seasoned revenge demon – more ripping and tearing. I want a bigger payoff for the wait.

Pumpkinhead with gun

I put Pumpkinhead firmly into the category of “Movies I Like but Don’t Love” – the sort of movie I probably wouldn’t set aside a Friday night for, but would stop and watch if I ran across it flipping through channels. I think “grim fairy tale” is a pretty good description as the movie resides somewhere between horror and fantasy without really committing to being either, and that may be its biggest weakness. If you haven’t seen Pumpkinhead, you should, and although it probably won’t change your life, I think you’ll find it entertaining and worth your time. There’s not a thing wrong with that.

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Favorite Line:
“You’re a fool, Ed Harley.”

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