Judge Patrick Naugle is a pinhead, and he doesn't mind.
Cruel, devious, pure as venom. All hell's about to break loose.
Widower Ed Harley (Lance Henriksen, Millennium) lives a quiet life on his rural farm running a local general store and tending to his young son, Billy (Matthew Hurley). When Billy wanders out one day towards a group of campers fooling around on motorbikes, he's mortally wounded by one of the teens. All but one of the teenagers flees the scene, leaving Ed no choice but to seek out an old witch (Florence Schauffler, Bachelor Party) who lives in the woods to help avenge his boy's death. Upon the witch's orders, Ed heads to an old graveyard and digs up a mutilated corpse, brings it back to the witch, and she revives it using the blood from Ed and his dead son. The corpse twists and turns into Pumpkinhead, a demonic entity hell bent on avenging Ed's son's death…but not without a price on both the campers and Ed's own soul.
If you're reading this review, I probably don't need to give you much of a history lesson on horror films in the 1980s. Many movie fans (this one included) see the 1980s as a truly seminal peak for horror; while many of the films were alike (teens + masked slasher + death), there was also a glut of creativity flowing through the genre's open veins. Yes, there were about a hundred different examples of Halloween and Friday the 13th flooding the marketplace, but there were also dozens of classics featuring stories, characters, and monsters that were truly their own unique creations. From Wes Craven's surrealistic shocker A Nightmare on Elm Street to Tobe Hooper's bizarre space vampire flick Lifeforce to Dan O'Bannon's twisted zombie comedy Return of the Living Dead, there was no shortage of fascinating examples of horror at its most bizarre and unique.
One of the lesser known films of the '80s was director Stan Winston's pensive monster movie Pumpkinhead. Winston was well known in the industry as one of the best special effects artists of his time. With such creations as Aliens' massive queen and the outer space hunter from Predator showcased on screen, Winston's creations would become legendary through the decades until his untimely death in 2008 from cancer. In fact, one of the most disappointing things about Winston's death was the fact that he never had a chance to direct another feature film; 1988's Pumpkinhead would be his one and only theatrical feature as a director. Although Winston's Pumpkinhead wasn't a hit upon its initial release, the film has garnered quite a cult following on home video, as well as three sequels (none of which are worth seeking out).
Make no mistake: Pumpkinhead is a monster movie through and through. Yet it spins that genre on its ear by offering up an atmospheric production design and some truly disturbing and sympathetic characters. While there are the requisite teenagers (this is, after all, a late '80s horror movie), there's also character actor Lance Henriksen as the grieving Ed Harley, whose young son has been carelessly taken away from the simple farmer. It doesn't matter to Ed that it was an accident; he wants revenge and seeks out the backwoods witch (named Haggis) to help him summon the demon, Pumpkinhead. Suddenly the film isn't just a typical monster movie, but a story about the extremes a parent will go to for justice and what toll that takes on those who are out for blood. In a sense, this is a moral Grimm's fairy tale told in the present day.
The cast of Pumpkinhead is good; not great by any means, but better-than-average for these kinds of movies. Of the teenagers, Cynthia Bain (Spontaneous Combustion) comes off the best; she's a classic heroine whose sole purpose appears to be fighting the beast at the end of the film. Lance Henriksen gives a nuanced performance as Ed Harley—his early scenes of rural joy with his son set up the eventual devastating climax. Also of note is Florence Schauffer as the old witch Haggis, whose tissue paper thin skin and creepy home set the entire story in motion. Also keep an eye out for horror staple Buck Flowers (Wishmaster) as one of the rural community neighbors.
In a way, Pumpkinhead himself feels like a real, fleshed out character; his twisted visage and bony frame speak volumes about the pain he's inflicted (and witnessed). Lots of monsters have come and gone through the years, but Pumpkinhead truly terrifies because of Winston's expert knowledge in brining characters like this to life. Matched by erie sound effects and creative lighting choices, the Pumpkinhead creature makes for one of the 1980s most memorable baddies. While Stan Winston's direction here is good (never too flashy), he also excels at offering up a truly unique and creepy cinematic monstrosity. While there are some moments in Pumpkinhead that tend to slow down a bit (the middle gets a bit long in the tooth), this is a film that holds up surprisingly well.
Pumpkinhead (Blu-ray) is presented in 1.85:1/1080 HD widescreen. As usual, Scream Factory has come through with a transfer that is extremely pleasing to the eye, especially for a film of this age and budget. Pumpkinhead is often bathed in predominant blues and blacks, and while the image sometime shows its limits, overall this is the best this film has ever (maybe will ever?) looked. The soundtrack is presented in DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 Stereo in English. There isn't a whole lot to note about this track, although it does a good job of offering up a reproduction of the original theatrical experience. There isn't much in the way of surround sounds or fidelity, but it gets the job done. No alternate language tracks or subtitles are included.
Bonus features on this "Collector's Edition" include a commentary track with co-screenwriter Gary Gerani and special effects creators Tom Woodruff, Jr. and Alec Gillis; a tribute featurette to Stan Winston (which included interviews with actors Lance Henriksen and Brian Bremer, F/X artists Alec Gillis and Tom Woodruff Jr, among others); a couple of new interviews with producer Richard Weinman and actor John Di'Aquino; six separate featurettes ("Evolution of a Demon", "The Cursed and the Damned", "The Tortured Soul of Ed Harley", "Constructing Vengeance", "Razorback Holler", and "Demonic Toys"); some behind-the-scenes footage; and a theatrical trailer for the film.
During the release of the Joe Johnston's Jurassic Park III, I had the opportunity to interview Stan Winston at his studio. I found him to be a gracious host, not the least bit pretentious, and still filled with childlike wonder about the movies. He was giddy to show off all of his monsters (they surrounded his main meeting room like guardians at the ready), and I remember him saying how proud he was of Pumpkinhead and the creature he'd created. His pride was justified because while Pumpkinhead shares many similar qualities with other horror films of the time, it also stands out as an example of how the medium can be raised when the director has faith in the material, the screenplay, and the creature.
A deliciously diabolical Halloween treat.
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