Pumpkinhead (1988) – The Test of Time

Pumpkinhead (1988) – The Test of Time

The episode of The Test of Time covering Pumpkinhead was Written by Andrew Hatfield, Narrated by Niki Minter, Edited by Mike Conway, Produced by John Fallon and Tyler Nichols, and Executive Produced by Berge Garabedian.

The horror landscape is filled to the brim with icons and mascots that were successful and failures. The big ones like Freddy, Jason, and Michale speak for themselves, hence only needing their first names mentioned here. You could even go another round with Pinhead, the Leprechaun or Leatherface for that matter. Looking down the aisle at the literal murderer’s row of horror movie villains, you can’t shake a stick without hitting some one-off baddies that were clearly meant for multi-movie stardom but due to box office or critical hate were relegated to one movie. Killers like Horace Pinker from Shocker, Dr. Decker from Nightbreed, and Cropsey from The Burning. What about those stuck in a limbo of absolute anguish. The ones that have only one or at most two good movies to their name while never getting the further respect that they deserved. Pumpkinhead is one of those movie monsters that really should have taken off but over the course of of nearly 20 years it has 4 movies, a video game, and a comic series that is full of unfulfilled potential. I think most people know the name but does that first movie stand the test of time?

Plot

The movie Pumpkinhead (watch it HERE) was actually inspired by the poem of the same name by Ed Justin. Maybe we could have saved this for an adaptation video, but Pumpkinhead is a movie that seems to have a much better reputation than the rest of its series. Kind of like the first couple of Hellraiser movies. The production company who had purchased the rights, De Laurentiis Entertainment Group, approached legendary FX master Stan Winston with the script to get his opinion on the special FX and how much he needed to pull it off. Winston liked it enough to ask if it could be his directorial debut. Winston would only direct 5 other projects and only one other movie, you remember A Gnome Named Gnorm, right? Everyone seemed to have a pleasant experience with genre legend Buck Flower going out of his way to say so.

While Winston did some re-writes on the shooting script, the screenplay was written by Mark Patrick Carducci and Gary Gerani. They were inspired by the movies of Italian legend Mario Bava and crafted a tale of revenge and pain. This was the first screenplay by Gerani and he would only go on to have 5 additional credits to his name. Carducci similarly only had 5 total credits including the screenplay for 80s drive-in classic Neon Maniacs. Carducci may have had more but he tragically died 1997 at the age of 42. In front of the camera gives us Lance Henriksen as the other star of the movie. I say other star because the actual creature of Pumpkinhead, who Winston had to clarify would not actually have a pumpkin for a head, is the true star who would have the biggest legacy as a character.

You have genre stalwarts like Buck Flower and even the legendary Dick Warlock but many of the rest of the cast, or fodder here, never went on to huge acclaim. Hell, some of them have their IMDB picture as their character from this movie. Jeff East was young Clark Kent in Superman and showed up in things like Deadly Blessing and Wes Craven’s TV movie Summer of Fear. Kelly Remsen stopped acting in 1995 but also has Ghoulies 2 and After Midnight under her belt. Joel Hoffman has only been in 10 things but had a two-year span that included Killer Workout, Slumber Party Massacre II, Slaughterhouse, and Pumpkinhead. A fun cast that leans heavily on its bigger genre star power but that gels together well.

The movie is a fairly simple one with a legend of something called Pumpkinhead which is kind of a grief and revenge demon. Young Ed Harley, played by Henriksen, sees this firsthand as a kid and later as a widowed older man, loses his son to some absolute douche weasel teens. Seriously, nearly none of them are likeable. Instead of going to the authorities or burying his son, he follows the breadcrumb trail to the old woman of the woods. He wants revenge like he saw when he was a kid and boy, does he get it. He digs up a corpse from a specific graveyard and the witch uses blood from father and son to create what the locals call Pumpkinhead. Joel, the leader of the gang, makes sure that no one calls the police or goes to help, something that will not heap mercy on him from the audience or the revenge seeking gourd monster.

While Joel eventually decides he wants to turn himself in, Pumpkinhead is already there and unstoppable. He starts killing the kids one by one and poor old Ed feels every kill and every act of violence in his very soul. Ed tries to have the witch stop it, but she says nothing can be done and he will die if he tries. Pumpkinhead seems to be turning more human while Ed is becoming more monstrous, and Ed accidentally hurts himself which he notices also hurts the creature. He has figured out a way to get rid of the creature but it’s going to cost him his own life. He shoots himself and one of the final teens finishes him off. Both Ed and Pumpkinhead die, and Ed is buried in the same graveyard that he got the first body from. When someone needs revenge, it will be Ed as the new Pumpkinhead.

Sign of the Times

The first one that stands out, probably because it’s Stan Winston and all, is the practical effects. What’s wonderful about them is that they are timeless. The good ones could have been made in any decade and will always, I repeat always, stand the test of time. The movie makes good use of the creature and the admittedly less gory deaths to give us viewers something that can be watched by people 35 years later and still enjoy the look and feel. In 1988, we were on the cusp of CGI being implemented both good like Jurassic Park, and bad like the end of Night of the Demons 2. CGI in general tends to ebb and flow with its quality but good practical? It never lets you down. The movie also lives on a cusp era and by that, I mean that it rides fashion, feeling, and dialogue that skate the realm between 80’s and 90’s. it really looks like it could have been released in the late 80’s or early 90’s, an identity crisis that any cusp movie feels.

The other signs of the time involve more tropes of that era. While it isn’t a slasher movie by most definitions, the group of teens that we watch die follow a lot of the profiles we are used to seeing. While this continued into the 90s and 2000s, the 80s had a special brand, a flavor if you will. Finally, the movie sets out to create a convincing and reusable villain. They did succeed as the property had 4 movies, a video game, comics, toys, and the other things we would get with our favorite horror properties. The part that wasn’t so successful was that none of the movies are really connected other than the fact that they all have Pumpkinhead and Lance even comes back for two of them. While the character is cool, you should probably stop after 2, which is dumb but fun.

What Holds Up

The world building in this movie is great. Not only the legend but the entire community understands that there is an evil power and the cost to wield such power. The townspeople themselves, from the kids to the older folks like Buck Flower and even Ed Harley, everyone feels like they are from a different time and place all together. Perhaps cursed by the revenge demon they use to live in squalor. The other part tied to the world building is the resurrection scene. The witch of the woods has no qualm bringing the monster back and has clearly done this multiple times. On top of that, while we see her as the one doing it, it’s more than probable that she isn’t the first of her family or the community to do this trick. That opening introduction scene does a great job of building not only dread but expectations on what we are dealing with. While you don’t see Pumpkinhead very clearly, you know what the kids that kill Ed Harley’s kid will be up against.

I know I said it before, but the special effects, make-up, and practical effects all hold up remarkably here. The lighting used on both the old woman and Pumpkinhead give them a special flair and they also share a menace with how they are designed. That only adds to some of the character work by Henricksen. While there are a couple of scenes that fall flat from an emotional perspective, nearly everything he does adds something to his character or shows the pain and sorrow that he is going through. As he feels the pain of the kills that his literal grief demon is committing, he shows the regret but still fresh pain of losing his child. While the rest of the cast isn’t overly convincing, it’s Henriksen that carries it from the human side.

Pumpkinhead (1988) – The Test of Time

What Doesn’t Hold Up

Well, there are far fewer things that don’t hold up here. I hate to be that guy that picks on kid actors, but our little guy is little more than emotional fodder for Henriksen and the story to get going. The music here also goes a little too heavy on the podunk aesthetic at times and other times it’s too soft. I actually had quite a few more for this section but I watched the movie twice in the span of 3 days and a few of the perceived negatives actually grew on me. One thing that is kind of a bummer and certainly does NOT hold up is the gore, or lack thereof. This is a horror movie with a horrible creature and the only actually gory death is that of our main mega Chad Joel. While part 2 would rectify this, more gore would actually round out this entry just a little bit more.

Verdict

Pumpkinhead is a good time. Is it the legendary property that its reputation makes it out to be? No, not really. Does it do enough to be thoroughly enjoyable and rank as a late 80s classic that should be watched by any horror fan? Yes, absolutely. It does more than enough to earn its spot as a holiday movie. While Winston went out of his way to make sure that the creature didn’t look anything like an actual pumpkin, the content and title alone give it enough points to be a Halloween rotation movie. Pumpkinhead may not rank up with other horror villains created in the 70s and 80s but it more than stands the test of time.

A couple of the previous episodes of The Test of Time can be seen below. To see more, click over to the JoBlo Horror Originals YouTube channel – and subscribe while you’re there!