Retro Review: PUMPKINHEAD (1988)

Special Halloween Retro Review – Bleeding Dead

Single father and grocery store owner Ed Harley is raising his son in small town Nevada. When a group of city kids pass through town they inexplicably change his life forever when one of them accidentally runs over Harley’s son with their dirt bike. Afraid of what could happen to him the teenager leaves the scene and heads to the cabin he’s staying at in the woods, leaving the rest of them to take care of the situation. Harley, who was out on an errand, comes back to find his son dead and the person responsible for it gone. Desperate and afraid to lose the only thing he has he enlists the help of a local witch. She at first turns him down in any attempt to bring his son back but when Harley recalls to her a demon in which he saw when he was younger she becomes more than willing to help. Known throughout the small town as a local horror story it tells of a demon who is unstoppable in killing his targeted prey, and most fear his name Pumpkinhead. Intent on revenge Harley brings the demon back to life and sets it on the teenagers responsible for the death of his son.

As the description may suggest PUMPKINHEAD is a slightly complex low budget horror film that offers a few nostalgic scares for its viewers. By complex I don’t mean to imply it has necessary themes and layers but rather is able to evoke emotions from its audience, atypical for most horror films outside of scaring. There’s a somber aura as the context is really quite depressing. No one really wins at the end of PUMPKINHEAD, there’s a resolution but it’s more inevitably sad than of a victory type. This isn’t a pure slasher film either, as some try to suggest, it’s an effortless blend of a monster movie and the popular slasher films for its era. A monster movie can’t be much without a monster and a slasher film without an insuperable force. The monster, Pumpkinhead, is as equally as fitting for a slasher film as it is for a monster, in story and in special effects. The creature wasn’t built by Stan Winston directly but rather by his F/X movie studio and in some respects you wouldn’t know it. They created a dreadful monster fit for any fairy-tale fable and convincingly applied it to the screen.

The young adults from the city are made up of two journalists, two dirt bikers and their girlfriends. The journalists are the protagonistsof the film and Harley is the anti-hero, respectively. The city kids are alright for the most part, there’s overacting and cheesy facial moments but it doesn’t distract. For the most part your able to ignore them or at the very worst laugh at them. There was a time when I thought Lance Henriksen could do no wrong, that if he was in a film it had to be good. That’s unfortunately not true. As of recent and I find myself regrettably avoiding most current films with him in them. PUMPKINHEAD was during his reign though when he did cult films like Near Dark and Aliens. He’s in his perfect Lance Henriksen mode, with a taunting balance between the caring and vengeful father. The journalist, though are in absolute innocent victims, aren’t much to the audience outside of a pawn. It’s Henriksen’s Harley your more likely to route for than them, but that’s also attributed to the writers who gave more depth to Harley characters than to the supporting cast.

This being the directorial debut of the late Stan Winston, who’s more known for his special effects than for his small filmography as a director is fair. The film is flawed in a lot of respects but Winston as mentioned is able to make the film a lot more than it seems at a glance. Breaking the unspoken horror rule of killing children proves beneficial in Winston’s film as it lets more out and complicates the usual black or white matter of a monster film. Photography is about average, often times it felt too dark to capture the deaths or some of the terror to the monster. However the rural horror setting is efficacious  especially towards plot as it can tend to have a backwoods feel in light of the city kids perspective but also offers a similar kind of setting horror found in Dark Night of the Scarecrow. I really liked PUMPKINHEAD, the character arch’s and the monster help heal some of the cheesier moments but it’s classic eighties horror with a little bit extra. I’d recommend to any horror fan, and as a perfect watch for Halloween.

Happy Halloween.

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