When you think of iconic movie monsters you have Frankenstein’s monster, The Creature From the Black Lagoon, the xenomorph from Alien and the alien hunter from Predator, just to name a few, and the last one I mentioned was a creation of the late great creature effects genius Stan Winston. In a career spanning over forty years of movie-making, his creatures have instilled awe and horror in countless moviegoers, but before passing on to the great make-up studio in the sky he did try his hand at directing and while doing so brought us another great iconic monster, Pumpkinhead.
Pumpkinhead is a strange mixture of elements, at least as horror films go, because on the one hand, it has this Grimm’s fairy tale aspect of this demonic monster being brought forth to avenge a wrong and then, on the other hand, we get the slasher movie aspect of young city kids coming into the woods to get butchered. It’s as if the film has a split personality.
The movie begins with a 1957 prologue where the residents of the backwoods cower in their homes as a dark force stalks their little community. Someone has called forth a demon to get revenge for a killing. We never find out who called forth this demon, or the details of the supposed murder, but we do see that once the creature is on your trail you will die, and die horribly. Young Ed Harley witnesses this and it certainly leaves an impression on him.
Jump ahead to the present and Ed Harley (Lance Henriksen) runs the local grocery store for this backwoods community and is the single parent to “cute as a button” Billy Harley (Matthew Hurley). Ed is a widower who truly loves his son and it is their interactions during the first act of the movie that really set the stage for the horror that is to follow. You can totally believe that if someone was to harm that sweet child Ed Harley would not take such an act lying down, and then when a bunch of young city folk larking about cause Billy’s death we completely understand Ed’s rage and hate. Now would I personally call forth dark powers to rain death and destruction upon those I deem guilty? No, but that’d be mainly because of my innate cowardice and laziness and not from any moral high ground.
Ed finds out where the witch (Florence Schauffler) who can bring forth Pumpkinhead lives and after getting cryptic warnings he finds himself making a trip to the graveyard in Razorback Holler to retrieve the mummified remains of the creature. Grief, anger, and hate; these three powerful emotions are required to justify anybody going to the cemetery at a place called Razorback Holler to dig up a demon.
Once he returns with the curled-up Pumpkinhead creature the witch does a blood ritual that will not only revive and send it on its mission but unbeknownst to poor Ed, this will link him with the monster, “Till death do they part.” The price of dark magic is a high one but a grieving father doesn’t think long-term.
The film then enters its “Cabin the Woods” section as Pumpkinhead begins to stalk and kill the city kids. We don’t spend much time with them to get to know them that well; there is Joel (John D’Aquino) the asshole who accidentally killed the kid while dirt bike riding drunk, Chris (Jeff East) his unmemorable brother, Kim (Kimberly Ross) a girl who goes into hysterics after the little boy his run done, and then there is Tracy (Cynthia Bain) the final girl. Joel’s character isn’t your stock slasher film asshat because even though his first reaction to the crisis is to flee the scene of the crime, and then pull out the phone lines so his friends can’t call the police or ambulance, once he has time to think he realizes he’s totally screwed up and he will have to set things right. Unfortunately for him and his friends, it’s a little too late for redemption.
Now what sets Pumpkinhead apart from the likes of Jason or Michael Myers is his showmanship. Where Jason and his ilk will brutally murder someone and then rig the body to surprise his next victim in some clever if not improbable way Pumpkinhead doesn’t go for the quick kill. He will maim his target; watch them try to get away before pulling them back into his clutches, and then he will drag the still-living bastards to taunt his next targets with. Poor Kim gets her face rubbed up and across the kitchen window until her friends spot her, and then Pumpkinhead smashes her through the glass leaving her to bleed out. Pumpkinhead is kind of like a demonic cat playing with its food.
The interesting catch to this particular vengeance demon is that Ed Harley is linked to the creature and feels all the horror and terror of each kill, this is not something he had figured on, and when he goes to the old crone to get her to call the whole thing off he learns there is no way to stop it, it must run its course. The movie works as a fantastic morality play looking at people and their actions from different points of view and is for the most part fair and balanced towards all parties.
As for the Pumpkinhead creature itself, it certainly earns a spot in the pantheon of great monster creations, designed and put together by Stan Winston’s team with Tom Woodruff Jr. as the man in the suit this is an artistic achievement. I can’t say enough about how good it looks and how well it moves. It only has to step into a room, not jump just step in, to scare the bejesus out of you. To make things even more incredible is watching the transformation of Pumpkinhead as it starts to look a little like Ed Harley while poor Ed starts to take on aspects of the demon. Simply horrifying in its ramifications and the incredibly dark and depressing ending says it all when it comes to making deals with dark forces. DON’T!
Unfortunately, Pumpkinhead didn’t get a fair shake in the theatres due to Dino De Laurentis Entertainment Group (DEG) going bankrupt, this resulted in Stan Winston losing his distributor and the film’s release date getting delayed a year. When finally got released it was on a very limited amount of screens, cutting its box office potential greatly, but luckily it has garnered much cult status with subsequent releases on video over the years. So long after the master has passed on the creature continues to thrive.
In his directorial debut the late great Stan Winston brought us a cool iconic monster in a wonderfully Grimm tale.