Thursday, October 11, 2012

Halloween Horror Countdown #4: Pumpkinhead (1988)

The Halloween Horror Countdown continues with one of my personal favorites, Pumpkinhead.  The directorial debut of legendary special effects virtuoso Stan Winston, Pumpkinhead is a classic supernatural revenge tale showcasing some spectacular creature effects.  Based on a short poem by Ed Justin and starring Lance Henriksen and Mushroom the dog1, this film differs from other late ‘80s horror fare by eschewing the slasher-in-the-suburbs plot so endemic to the period and taking the action to a rural, backwoods setting. 

Ed Harley, played by a bizarrely ripped Lance Henriksen, is the proprietor of a small rural grocery and lives a peaceful, isolated life with his young Billy.  Everything changes when the boy is accidentally killed; run over with a dirt bike by a group of vacationing teenagers.  Harley, horror-struck and beside himself with grief, can think of nothing but vengeance for his beloved son.  Remembering an episode from his own childhood in which he saw a neighbor killed by Pumpkinhead, a terrifying figure of local legend, Harley seeks out a witch-woman named Haggis to help him summon up the creature.

Meanwhile the teens have fled to their cabin (which, by the way, is also the house featured in Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter) to decide what to do.  Joel, who was driving the bike that killed Billy, is so fearful of punishment - he'd been drinking at the time of the accident - that he refuses to let his friends notify the authorities.  In fact, he physically subdues one of his friends and locks him in a closet to keep him from going for help.
Under Haggis' direction, Harley has retrieved a gnarled, malformed carcass from a long-forgotten pumpkin patch.  The witch uses Ed and Billy's blood to resurrect the corpse, which metamorphoses into a terrifying monster- Pumpkinhead.  The demon immediately lopes off into the woods and begins to wreak bloody revenge on the teens.  Harley, who has returned home to bury his son, begins to have seizures and terrifying visions of the monster's attacks and soon learns that there's no such thing as a quick, painless revenge.  Psychically entangled with the demon, Ed realizes that he's made a terrible mistake, and he may have to team up with the same people who killed his son to put an end to the bloodshed.
Let's get one thing out of the way: Pumpkinhead himself is a hell of an effect.  Played by Todd Woodruff, Jr. and brought to life with amazing Stan Winston effects, Pumpkinhead is one of the best creature effects you'll ever see.  He's not just there to hack people apart and provide a few scares though.  An intelligent monster, not just a beast but perhaps an embodiment of the black, cruel desire for vengeance, Pumpkinhead takes spiteful pleasure in torturing his victims.  It's no tool or mere animal, it's sadistic, frightening, smirking thing that enjoys what it does.  It's a great foil for Harley, whose desire for revenge stems from honest heartache for his lost son.
Arguably more of a dark fairy tale than a horror film, Pumpkinhead is a fantastic movie.  Despite all the teenagers in the movie, this film is really the story of a father dealing with the loss of his son.  In his wild grief Harley unleashes something beyond his control and quickly begins to lose himself to it even as his fights against it.  It's a simple morality tale, but it stands out from the other horror movies of the time and holds up quite well to this day.  Well-shot, well-acted, and featuring a sparse but effective musical score, Pumpkinhead may not quite ascend to rank of genre classic, but it's still a hell of a good movie.
October is almost halfway over and we're nearing the mid-point of the countdown, but we still have three great movies to talk about, so be sure to check back next week for another review.  Also be sure to check out Joe's Awesome and Tommy Hates Everything for a review of the new film Dredd.

1.) Mushroom is perhaps best known for his portrayal of Barney in Gremlins.

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