John’s Horror Corner: Pumpkinhead (1988), an excellent case study in over-played tropes executed perfectly.
MY CALL: Pumpkinhead is a film brimming with all the typical horror tropes. But what truly sets it apart is their elegant delivery in the form of good storytelling–the kind of good writing and well-staged events we seldom encounter in horror. Oh, and EXCELLENT pacing, special effects and set design!!! MORE MOVIES LIKE Pumpkinhead: They actually made three sequels in 1993, 2006 and 2007. I haven’t seen any of them but they couldn’t possibly measure up to the original.
Makeup special effects wizard turned one-time horror director, Stan Winston (Constantine, Galaxy Quest) demonstrates a greater handle on storytelling and general filmmaking than most would on even their fifth turn helming a horror movie…and he does it just right his first time. He did an admirable job and I’m baffled (and quite disappointed) that he did not continue to direct more horror films. The 90s certainly would have benefited from more of his work.
Pumpkinhead is a film brimming with all the typical horror tropes. But what truly sets it apart is their elegant delivery in the form of good storytelling–the kind of good writing and well-staged events we seldom encounter in horror. The scenes stitch together seamlessly and imbue a finer level of synthesis than horror typically finds.
In the opening scene, Ed’s father protects his family from a desperate man pursued by a most pernicious demonic entity during a rather dire flashback that links our main character’s childhood to the monster.
Now grown and a father of a young boy himself, Ed (Lance Henriksen; Harbinger Down, Aliens, AVP, The Pit and the Pendulum) finds his son in his last living moments after some intoxicated twenty-something runs him over with his dirt bike.
Much to my relief, what we don’t find are a bunch of young adults who keep talking about beer and smoking weed and getting drunk and getting laid. Their upcoming plight is not prefaced by drunk lap dances or cabin stripteases (e.g., Julianna Guill in Friday the 13th). What we witness instead is what we might expect of a young group (incl. Kerry Remsen; A Nightmare on Elm Street 2, Ghoulies 2) on vacation–mild drinking and driving but no one seems sloshed, typical fun behavior that’s just a little bit dangerous, and a somewhat understandable (though not at all forgivable) reaction to a big screw up while one of them was on probation. Even more rare for a horror film is that although we have a clear singular protagonist in our recently bereft father, the soon-to-be victims are effectively humanized when we witness that only the proby screw-up acts immorally after the accident. Like I said, the tropes are all here, but they don’t feel like the same old over-played tropes when handled so well.
Ed seeks out a witch–a piece of local hillbilly folklore–to exact his revenge. What’s funny is that Ed is the local middle-of-nowhere store owner in the mountain woods. Normally HE would be the harbinger warning the younger city folks of bad things to come. Instead it’s Ed’s fellow poverty-stricken neighbor (with five kids wearing filthy rags singing rhymes about the monstrous Pumpkinhead) who warns Ed away from pursuing the witch. How’s that for a badass turn of troped-up events?
The witch is great! The translucently thin-haired hag lives in a fetid cabin in the swamp. The set designers really outdid themselves. She’s creepy and says all the typical lines like “you’ll know when you find it.” But she’s just soooo creepy that it doesn’t feel corny. Then the pumpkin-patched grave site, the exhumation, the alien-looking transformation…this film truly has a lot to offer.
The pacing is excellent. We consistently build towards the reason to seek the witch (i.e., the tragedy), the impetus of vengeance, the necessary ritual, some blood and black magic, and the mysterious discovery that Ed is now somehow “connected” to the Pumpkinhead demon.
Once it comes time to start picking off twenty-somethings the movie becomes a bit more typical, but remaining on the higher quality end in terms of execution. Get it…execution? See what I did there? But for real, it’s pretty fun. There are various “horror drags” and a grabs-from-above that reminds me of Alien 3…or, I suppose, Alien 3 (1992) reminds me of this.
Which brings us to the monster, which is undoubtedly reminiscent of the Alien Xenomorph, but with its own style. It’s slimy skin, protruding bones, gaunt body, huge head and long tail make this fiend super-creepy and I love the way it lumbers around and makes interesting facial expressions! And while its appearance reminds me of Aliens, its behavior is more like Jason Voorhees as it lurks around the isolated cabin in the woods (yes, all the tropes are here), occasionally dropping a dead body in front of a future victim (for no other reason than a good jump scare for us viewers).
I’m also quite fond of the scene when it “stabs” a guy with a rifle. Cheeky!
This film offers much worthy screen time to its well-crafted monster and the action is pretty cool, especially at the end. The conflict is resolved properly with an ending that “matters” (unlike a lot of horror that just sort of “ends”). What’s more is that the 80s loved horror endings that all but flagged down the obvious sequel. That happens here, but in a most tasteful, thoughtful, and appreciative manner that will put a smile of understanding satisfaction on your face the moment you catch it.
I don’t simply recommend this be watched, but that you just go buy it. This movie contributed to making the 80s a special era for horror.