Sometimes, all a horror movie needs to be good is a compelling gimmick. Like Halloween: a guy wearing a mask stalks babysitters on All Hallows’ Ween. The Evil Dead: kids in a cabin summon deadites with Lovecraft’s favorite book. The 1988 movie Pumpkinhead has a doozy: for each of man’s sins, a special demon exists. HOLY CRAP is that a great idea for a movie! It ties in the occult with the Seven Deadly Sins, always great for horror movie fodder, and sets it against the deep south, always a hot bed of demonic activity in films. Add to it a truly awesome and unique-looking monster and direction by the monster master himself, Stan Winston, and you’ve got a pretty solid little scary movie.
Pumpkinhead grew to prominence not through its theatrical run, which was pretty paltry to say the least, but from it being shown incessantly on cable in the 1990s. The movie seemed like it was on HBO three times a day for awhile there, though I never watched it. I was too young, you see. The success of the film on cable led to a wellspring of direct-to-video/cable sequels, each less interesting than the last. But I still had never seen the original, a travesty I felt. Luckily, Scream Factory saw fit to release the film on Blu-ray this week and the demon that oversaw my evil of not watching a particular horror movie was put back in its hole.
The film begins sometime in the recent past with a family, the Harleys, somewhere in the rural south hiding, not answering their door, when a man who is apparently a friend of theirs comes running through the woods for his life. Mr. Harley refuses to open the door for him and his little son Eddie is shocked that his father refuses to help the man. The man is apparently marked for death by someone or something for allegedly murdering a girl. Little Eddie looks out the window and sees some kind of tall creature grabbing the man and doing something awful to him. This image stays with Eddie for the rest of his days.
Many years later, Ed Harley (Lance Henriksen) is now all grown up and has a son of his own, a bespectacled towhead named Billy. Ed owns a general store/gas station and one afternoon six city folks with dirt bikes roll into town and stop at Harley’s for supplies. One of the bikers in particular, Joel (John DiAquino), is a dick and goes off riding the bike because he can’t wait. Ed has to go make a delivery and leaves Billy alone. Billy’s dog goes running up the hill after the bikers and Billy gives chase. While one of the city girls tries to catch him, the dirt bike comes over the hill, landing right on top of Billy. Joel is afraid he’ll get arrested for this (ya think?!?!) so he takes off, leaving his younger brother Steve (Joel Hoffman) to wait for Ed to get back. When he does, Ed gives the boy the death glare and in his distress, goes off to find an old hag named, of all things, Haggis (Florence Schauffler), who he believes has some kind of power.
The old woman tells him she can’t bring back the boy, but Ed remembers the thing he saw when he was a kid, the thing the local children make up rhymes about to scare each other, the thing called “Pumpkinhead.” Haggis tells Ed how to bring about the demon of revenge, which includes digging up it’s creepy fetal self from a hill covered in dead pumpkins, and he does willingly, not caring about what it means for his own soul. The demon grows immediately to full size and goes off after the six city folks, even though only one or two of them are really to blame. The first person the demon kills is Steve, and that causes everyone to lose their minds, not leastwise because it’s a big frigging monster creature with spindly long arms doing the murdering.
Ed pretty close to immediately regrets his decision and begs Haggis to call the demon off, but she can’t. It doesn’t work like that. So Ed decides he’s going to try to kill the demon and save the remaining kids, these being Tracy (Cynthia Bain) and Chris (Jeff East), who didn’t want to go on this dumb trip to begin with. Ed feels evil course though him every time the demon kills someone and he’s eventually overcome by it. He the realizes, almost too late, that the fate of the demon is tied to his own fate, and decides he must sacrifice himself to kill the demon and break the curse. Which, weirdly, is easier said than done.
Pumpkinhead doesn’t have the best script overall, and most of the acting by the kids is fine and nothing more, but two performances really stand out as great. One, of course, is Henriksen. He really conveys the pain and anger inherent in Ed Harley and then the despair and remorse immediately after summoning this horrible demon. Lance Henriksen is good in anything he’s done, though, so this much is more of a delight than a surprise. The other is the creepy, makeup-covered performance of Florence Schauffler who is just the right amount of funny mixed in with her evil old crone routine to give her a bit of an edge. She’s truly terrifying, actually more so than the demon itself.
The monster itself is the other standout in the movie. With Stan Winston’s crew behind the making and operating of it, and Winston himself shooting it to give it the best angles and shots, the creature comes across as one of the most fully realized monsters in horror history. The color palate when the monster is on the screen is a pallid blue-purple and that really accentuates the demon’s brownish hue. They make the demon not only just a monster but they give it a bit of personality as well, since it mocks the girl who wears a cross for protection by scratching a cross into her forehead before killing her, then laughing as it destroys an old wooden cross in a broken-down church. He’s a vengeance demon, sure, but he’s also a blasphemer I guess.
It won’t be on too many people’s Top 10 lists, but Pumpkinhead is a highly entertaining monster flick with a couple of really great performances and impressive feature-debut directing from effects man Winston, who only ever directed one other feature, 1990’s A Gnome Named Gnorm, before returning full time to effects work. Perhaps if this movie had done better theatrically, we’d be talking about the stories film directing career of one of cinema’s great proponents of practical creature effects.