Pumpkinhead. 1988. Directed by Stan Winston. Screenplay by Mark Patrick Carducci & Gary Gerani; from a story by Carducci, Winston, & Richard C. Weinman, based off a poem by Ed Justin.
Starring Lance Henriksen, Jeff East, John D’Aquino, Kimberly Ross, Joel Hoffman, Cynthia Bain, Kerry Remsen, Florence Schauffler, Brian Bremer, George ‘Buck’ Flower, Matthew Hurley, Lee de Broux, Peggy Walton-Walker, Chance Michael Corbitt, & Dick Warlock.
De Laurentiis Entertainment Group/Lion Films
Rated R. 86 minutes.
Stan Winston’s debut feature, Pumpkinhead, is an all-time horror great. If we want to get real serious, it’s a dark fantasy; a mix of fairy tale-like elements and the terror of the horror genre, with a slasher setup. Doesn’t always hit the right notes, at times there’s a bit of heart lacking when Lance Henriksen’s not onscreen, giving it his best. Winston does fantastic work as director, as do the special effects team behind him to help with his vision. But it’s the story, above all, that matters most.
There are many ways to examine grief and loss, especially if we’re considering the revenge angle. Tons of films in the genre tackle revenge in a variety of different ways, from the tired rape-revenge horrors, to the old man action vehicles brought to new life most recently by Liam Neeson. Plenty of choices available.
Winston, along with his fellow writers, worked off a poem by Ed Justin and imagined a terrifying entity, the titular creature, who becomes the symbol of misguided revenge, after a quaint family man named Ed Harley (Henriksen) loses his boy to a careless accident, and calls upon its powers to get vengeance for him against those responsible.
“You‘re a fool, Ed Harley.”
The grieving process is a tough one, no matter the circumstances. Losing a loved one, a young one at that, to a tragic accident due to the careless attitude of another individual is emotional brutality at its worst. Supernatural horror here work as a remedy for such traumas, though one acting like a double-edged sword: revenge and justice for the bereaved, as well as more anguish and torment of a different sort altogether, a deeper existential angst than before.
In this light, Pumpkinhead also becomes a Southern Gothic mixed with folk horror, about the ghosts and the violence of the past coming full circle to roost in the present day, too. There are many fairy tale qualities to the story. The entity Pumpkinhead is similar to a creepier character out of an old book – a worse version of Rumpelstiltskin, or a darker genie from the Middle Eastern story of Aladdin; and to boot, it’s murderous. As it is in fairy tales, the monster comes to represent a flaw in humans, exaggerated and turned into the horrific, living embodiment of that flow.
Here, the thirst of blood for blood, a primal urge in us, our primitive self, to get vengeance when we’ve been fatally damaged by the awful death of a loved one. The story is a blood-soaked, Southern fried Brothers Grimm tale.
“God is the only thing that can stop what‘s out there“
A scene that’s wildly interesting is when Pumpkinhead picks up the raggedy wooden cross. It smashes the cross. And with this act, the fairy tale monster enters the territory of an unholy creature. Not only does it – by virtue of its existence, its coming into being out of a will for vengeance, an eye for an eye – question a lack of justice in the universe, with violence of its own, it also, ultimately, questions God.
This comes to all the questions many of us have asked before, in our own lives. Why does God let good people, children, die? Why doesn’t God actually punish those who deserve it? Well, Pumpkinhead acts as a malevolent God, one that is entirely out of control from the power of anyone who summons it, taking on a new life until its bloodthirst is quenched, and every last bit of vengeance doled out. By destroying the Christian iconography, smashing the cross – and, might I add, loving every minute as it does – the monstrous entity kills God, the belief in him, announcing itself as the new, brutish God.
There’s a bit of creature feature-slasher mashup going on, which is fun at times. Sometimes the pacing could pick up, though the film’s only 86 minutes, so regardless it’s a quick ride. The shining point, aside from the monster’s eeriness, is Henriksen. He always adds an air of excitement to anything he’s in, to this day. A quality actor who probably doesn’t actually get the credit he deserves, no matter if he’s still getting plenty of work in his later years. His role as the grieving father is perfect, he embodies the full spectrum of guilt, regret, and pain that’s required; beyond that, offering a performance that will move you alongside all the horror of the story.
Pumpkinhead could’ve been a bit better. But, there’s so much to love, anyway. All the themes swirling around are reined in well by Winston, whose directorial style is very atmosphere heavy helping along the dark fantasy feel of the film. Others feel differently, and that’s fine. I personally enjoyed Pumpkinhead, it looked cool in nearly every last frame where we saw it, plus some of the kills were outrageously cool!
You need to see this if you haven’t, and Halloween is PERFECT timing. So toss this on, get a couple friends, have yourself an enjoyable night. This provides good imagery, creeps, an interesting plot rooted in the world of fairy tales and the Southern Gothic, sure to please most horror lovers out there.