Pumpkinhead, the film debut of FX genius Stan Winston, has always been a movie that’s needed more love. It’s become a bit of a cult classic, and is known among the hardcore horror fans, but it’s all but forgotten by the casual horror crowd. Hopefully, though, it will find a whole new audience through the gorgeous collector’s edition Blu Ray from Scream Factory. The company has become the go-to for horror on Blu-Ray and they’ve given Pumpkinhead the full treatment, porting over all the features from the previous DVD as well as offering up a whole bunch of new ones. There’s everything from a brand new making of documentary to archived behind-the-scenes footage detailing the monster’s creation.
The movie itself is a southern, dark Grimm fairy tale. It’s pure Southern Gothic and it makes the most of its abundant atmosphere. Lance Henriksen stars as Ed Harley, a store owner trying to get by in life, raising a son by himself after his wife’s death years earlier. He’s a great father to the boy and their relationship is extremely heartfelt and genuine.
A group of city kids on their way up to a cabin (naturally) stop over at Harley’s store. While he runs out on an errand, one of the teens accidentally run over Harley’s son Billy with a dirt bike. They retreat to the cabin and leave one behind to try and explain the situation to Harley when he gets back. But Harley’s in no mood to talk when he sees what they’ve done. He can barely comprehend what he’s looking at, and all he feels is rage.
As Harley is driving back from the witch’s cabin, he has a vision of his dead child sitting up in the truck beside him and asking him what on Earth he just did. This scene was so unnerving that it terrified Henriksen while reading the script and he said that that scene alone convinced him to do the film.
The kids in the cabin are almost immediately held hostage by the unlikeable Joel, who is the one who actually hit the boy. He refuses to let them report what happened to the police, even if it was an accident. He’s already got another bad incident on his record and he’d go to prison for sure after something like this. He may be despicable, but he’s also the only one of the bunch with any personality until Tracy starts to come to her own in the third act.
Out of the revenge-driven horror features, Pumpkinhead easily ranks among the best. While it is a monster movie (and the monster is truly great) it really examines the nature of vengeance, as well as the cost. When Pumpkinhead begins to pick off the kids, Harley feels everything that the monster does to them. More than that, Harley and the monster are fundamentally connected.
In a way, this is a very unorthodox Jekyll and Hyde story. Harley feels the demon’s pain when it is wounded and it feels his pain in kind. Thanks to some brilliant FX work (which is top-notch from beginning to end) Harley and Pumpkinhead actually begin to look like one another as the film reaches its finale.
There’s also a great culture clash at work in Pumpkinhead. There’s a city vs. country motif, where the rich kids making fun of the country folk and the inherent disconnect between the two ways of life is examined a little bit. Most of the focus, though, is on the much more interesting overwhelming theme of revenge, redemption and the price of both.
On top of all of that, Pumpkinhead is simply a great monster movie. It’s a menacing, savage demon run amok, causing all manner of carnage. Without a line of dialogue, the monster has a sadistic personality. It leaves victims out in the open for others to find and even presses a girls face to the window as she’s dying so that her friends are forced to watch.
Even still, it’s not a very bloody movie and most of the FX goes into bringing the title creature and the more fantastical visuals to life. The design of the demon is astounding. It’s meticulously put together. It’s a long, spindly creature with stretched, leathery skin and an almost diseased look—especially around the back of its head. It’s meticulously put together and insanely detailed and I’m happy to say that on Blu-Ray the amount of work put into bringing the monster to life can be fully appreciated for the very first time.
The movie also features some neat cinematography and superb production design. The whole thing has a deep south, almost dark fantasy atmosphere. It’s eerie to say the least. There’s a lot of darkness and large shadows, some of which made the details hard to make out on DVD. Many of the scenes in the swamp are bathed in an eerie blue light.
The design of the witch’s cottage is the true visual highlight, though. These scenes are bathed in an eerie orange glow, cast from flickering candles that also create heavy shadows in the scene and make the witch herself that much scarier. The amount of detail that went into the cottage itself is insane, it’s old and dilapidated, full of old relics and even some living animals. There’s also a great, abandoned church where Pumpkinhead catches up with our (more or less) heroes and smashes to pieces.
While it was made in 1986, it was held from release for two years for a couple of different reasons. The studio had no idea how to market the film, for one. More than that, it was the last picture from the once lucrative De Laurentiis Entertainment Group before that company went under. It sat virtually abandoned until United Artists picked it up for a limited theatrical release in which it was barely advertised and made very little money. Luckily, the movie was a big hit on video.
Since its release, Pumpkinhead has spawned three sequels—in 1994, 2006 and 2007, respectively—with the latter two made by the SyFy channel. There have also been action figures, model kits, comic books and a PC video game. Over time, Pumpkinhead, which was initially considered a failure has finally gained a reputation as a cult classic.
Pumpkinhead is a moody, dark fairy tale and as such it works perfectly. Lance Henriksen gives one of the best performances of his great career. The monster is one of the all-time greats and hopefully a whole new legion of fans are beginning to realize that. It’s one of the best horror movies of the late 1980’s and makes one wish that effects maestro Stan Winston had had more of a directing career.
Still, it’s a great horror story about revenge, redemption and the guilt that bridges both. It has stuck around for thirty years and will hopefully stick around for a lot longer. And it will, because thanks to its rebirth through Scream Factory, there’s never been a better way to watch it.