Pumpkinhead ReviewJoe Shaffer
1988's Pumpkinhead is, for the most part, your standard, late-80's, monster-on-the-loose affair. It showcases a fantastically designed creature, grotesque practical effects, and plenty of visceral scares and violent death scenes. At the same time, the movie is fairly conservative in regards to blood and gore. There are a few bloody scenes, but you won't be treated to an opulence of graphic imagery involving disembodied organs or dismemberment. Honestly, about the most graphic kill you'll see is a girl getting her face pressed against a window until the pane shatters, followed by a shot of the girl laying dead against a counter while blood begins to pool beneath her.
This might sound like a pretty tense scene, but it's actually difficult to identify with the character involved because she's so one-dimensional. Without depth, viewers may feel they have no stake in the character, and may not care whether she lives or dies. So it goes with much of the film's cast, which mostly consists of Girl, Guy, Girl 2, Guy 2, etc... There's little depth to any of the teens that the titular antagonist hunts down, and many viewers may find it difficult to empathize with such dimensionless victims. That's your standard fare monster film for you, though...
Now that I've dealt with the less favorable aspects of Pumpkinhead, I can tell you why I absolutely adore the flick. After all, did you really think I was going to waste RoG's space yammering about a mediocre monster film?
The way I see it, the teen characters are shallow for a reason. Partly, it's because they aren't the film's focal point. Unlike your average monster movie, Pumpkinhead shifts its attention away from its entourage of basic victims and points you in the direction of deeper characters. Enter Ed Harley (Lance Henrikson): a humble convenience store owner who lives in the middle of nowhere with his son Billy. You can tell as Ed washes his son's hands and reminisces with him about times of yore that the child is everything to him. There's definitely a strong bond between them, and (as this is a horror film) the audience ought to be worried. As you probably predicted, the scenes depicting the loving bond between father and son are merely a setup for tragedy, a descent into madness and obsession, and eventually a desperate bid for vengeance.
All goes well with the Harleys until the aforementioned group of crass teens arrive, knock back a few brews, and fire up their dirt bikes in front of Ed's store. Their ruckus disturbs Billy's dog, prompting the mutt to chase after the thrill-seekers. Thoughtlessly, Billy follows his dog in an effort to protect her from the bikes, but instead winds up on the receiving end of a tire to the head.
Ed Harley--distraught, emotional, torn asunder--carries his wounded boy into the store. Since they live in the boonies, the nearest emergency room is likely dozens of miles away. Cell phones were also not so ubiquitous at the time, so phoning a helicopter was out of the question. Thanks to the lack of technology, courtesy of the film's pre-90's bucolic setting, the boy's chances are grim. Lacking proper medical attention, Billy eventually dies of his injuries in Ed's arms.
The man could call the police or stalk the teens and annihilate them himself, but he has something more sinister planned for them...
Ed visits an old woman named Haggis, an archetypal witch who dwells within the darkest depths of a forest, and is said to be able to conjure the forces of Hell. She keeps a special demon buried in her pumpkin patch, fittingly known as Pumpkinhead. In essence, the creature is a hired assassin. A man who has been wronged can summon the beast to violently do away with those who wronged him, at the cost of his sanity and his soul. As you may have predicted, Ed pledges his soul to the abyss and revives the towering beast, who then goes on an old fashion killing spree. The only other catch is that Ed can see the monster's actions in graphic detail, via psychic link, and discovers that what demon's murderous ways are not to his liking.
In a way, the movie deconstructs revenge stories. Most revenge films glorify the execution of the wicked, usually through scenes in which the vengeful protagonist (often an antihero) offs his nemeses in clever, befitting, or ironic ways. This requires the filmmakers to dehumanize the "bad guys" by depicting them as bottom-feeders or scumbags that no one will miss. Pumpkinhead almost abides these principles by providing us with simplistic teen characters that are difficult to identify with. However, the death scenes are anything but glorious. Ed himself can attest to that. With every terror-stricken face the man sees through the demon's eyes, he begins to regret his decision and ultimately realizes just how horrible vengeance visited against fellow human begins truly is.
Despite having a slightly deeper side, though, Pumpkinhead manages to remember what sub-genre it belongs to. Rather than suffer from delusions of grandeur, the film remains a good old fashion monster flick through and through. The movie stays true to its roots by presenting a creature that's equally as awesome to behold as it is creepy. This is mostly thanks to the film's astute usage of practical effects over stop-animation, which gives the demon a very fleshy, realistic look. You can especially see this in Pumpkinhead's cataract-ridden eyes, which somehow seem to peer deep into your soul, as if pondering which layer of Hell would be the best to send you to.
No, Pumpkinhead isn't by any stretch a brilliant, terrifying horror masterpiece. It is, however, a very solidly made monster flick that doesn't rely on a spendy budget and state of the art effects. More than anything, its director Stan Winston's way of showing us that there is an effective way to make a formulaic monster movie that's both thought-provoking and fun to watch.
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