After his son is killed in a tragic accident involving some dirt-biking teenagers, country store owner Ed Harley enlists the help of a mysterious backwoods witch who conjures up the vengeful monster named Pumpkinhead to destroy those responsible.
Make-up man Stan Winston’s directorial debut, Pumpkinhead has always been of those films which every self-respecting horror fan has heard of, and most have probably watched, but never really lists in their top five, hell even top twenty, horror films. There’s a big reason for that – it’s not actually that good. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not bad. It’s just…average. Despite a hefty dollop of Southern Gothic spread all over the film, there’s very little to Pumpkinhead that you won’t have seen before.
My main gripe is with the notion of who the audience is meant to support here. The whole concept of the demon being summoned by Harley to get revenge for his son’s death is fairly standard issue but has one glaring problem – the antagonist/protagonist dynamic is all haywire and is confusing to really emphasise with a particular side. As a group, the teenagers aren’t actually that bad. Sure, the guy who knocks his son over is a jerk but the other teenagers are remorseful, upset and genuinely shocked at what happened. It’s hard to want to see them get killed for their actions and it’s hard to see them as the antagonists. Given that Harley is portrayed as a sympathetic character, by virtue of conjuring up the demon to kill these teenagers, most of whom were innocent of any wrongdoing, he swaps over into antagonist territory. So where does that leave Pumpkinhead? It’s the monster, so it has to be the antagonist, surely? But then it was summoned by Harley to right a wrong, making it the protagonist? I’m not quite sure. Pumpkinhead’s main problem is knowing whom to support throughout proceedings – Harley, the teenagers or the monster. A few tweaks of the script to make the act of Harley’s son more malicious would have tipped the balance. But hey, this is Stan Winston we’re talking about here, and scripts weren’t his forte – monsters were!
Winston got this gig after his critically-acclaimed work on big budget box office hits The Terminator, Predator and Aliens but was clearly not trusted with a similar-sized budget. Instead, he has to make do with what limited resources he can and certainly does a fantastic job, particularly with the memorable titular creature, though Winston’s input in the creature was limited given his directorial duties. The crew he assembled to make it certainly don’t let him down. Pumpkinhead is a highly-original, towering, malicious creature with huge claws and a ferocious-looking face filled with revenge. The monster walks as fluidly as though it were really alive – it is impossible to spot how and where the model was able to move by itself. Due to the impressive-looking creation, Winston isn’t afraid to show it early and you get a good glimpse of it during the prologue. Opting to shoot the creature in an array of howling wind, eerie blue-tinted lighting, swirling fog and strobe effects, Winston maximises the appearances of the creature so that it comes directly out of the worst nightmare.
It’s a pity it doesn’t really an awful lot. It’s a good forty minutes of the way in before Pumpkinhead finally gets summoned and starts to dispatch the teenagers one-by-one. When it does turn up (surprisingly often it has to be said), all it seems to do is stand around and growl. Whilst other horror films of the late 80s were piling on the blood and guts to try and keep jaded fans coming back, Pumpkinhead doesn’t go down the same route and is a relatively bloodless affair, give or take a few clawings. Most of the kills are telegraphed, with little in the way of shock or suspense to them, and the manner of execution is rather tepid to say the least. I guess there were some limitations to the monster hence why it always seems to have a free run at its victims rather than jumping out at them.
Pumpkinhead’s other great strength is Lance Henriksen as Ed Harley. This was Henriksen in his 80s prime, before he succumbed to a life of playing grizzled old men in low budget horror films, and he is fantastic as Ed. You really feel sorry for him after his son is killed, conveying the right sense of anger and desire for revenge that we all feel after being wronged. He quickly realises his mistake after calming down, which has strong echoes for a lot of people and how they deal with their anger in real life – only whenever you get angry, I’m sure summoning a three metre-tall demon is not high on your priorities! The teenagers are the usual bland array of non-entities simply killing time in the script before their demise. As I’ve already said, most of them are simply in the wrong place at the wrong time as far as Harley’s anger goes and it’s a bit unlucky that they are killed. However, the script does not make them sympathetic in the slightest, it’s just the plot that does that.
Pumpkinhead is decent for what it is – an 80s monster movie – but, Pumpkinhead himself aside, sorely lacks that memorable ‘it’ which is so essential in any horror film. It’s neither scary nor particularly exciting and once the novelty of the monster wears off, you’re left with a rather bland film which should have been better.