When my daughter was very young she and I set out on a project. We decided to read all of L. Frank Baum’s original Oz books together at bedtime. I enjoyed it a lot, they are interesting books featuring a much bigger world and cast of characters than the ones most people know from the original story. One character that pops up in the second book is called Jack Pumpkinhead…he’s a guy with a pumpkin for a head. The character appeared in the 1985 film Return to Oz. A few years after that, though, we got a movie featuring a much more monstrous character with a similar name. It’s the directorial debut for monster maker Stan Winston, 1988’s Pumpkinhead.
The film takes place in a rural mountain area where a single father, Ed Harley (Lance Henriksen) runs a small store and takes care of his young son Billy (Matthew Hurley). One day, a group of young people arrive at his store on their way to a nearby cabin. While stopped to pick up some supplies, the hot-shot leader of the group, Joel (John D’Aquino) unstraps his dirt bike to do some riding. His brother Steve (Joel Hoffman) soon joins him. However, while Ed is off to get some feed for a customer, Billy runs out of the store after his dog, right in the path of Joel’s motorcycle. The boy is hit and seriously injured. Joel’s reaction is to flee, since he has been drinking and is on probation already. The others try to call for help, but there is no phone in the store. They head off to the cabin to get help. Steve stays behind with the boy. When Ed arrives, he picks up his boy, filled with rage. Billy later dies in his arms.
Ed is now out for revenge. He tracks down a witch who lives in the mountains named Haggis (Florence Schauffer) who instructs him to dig something up in the local cemetery. He returns with a strange bundle. The witch then does her magic, using Ed’s blood to bring life to the bundle. It quickly grows from a small alien-like creature into a large demon…known by the locals as Pumpkinhead. Legends have it that he can be called upon to exact revenge on those guilty the most serious of wrongs.
From here, the plot is very simple…Pumpkinhead makes his way to the cabin where the young people are staying. They have not called for help since Joel has disconnected the phone lines and locked those who want to report the incident in the closet. However, they are now the ones in need of help as the monstrous demon begins to pick them off one by one. Before long, Ed begins to realize that he is connected to the creature and experiences the kills as they happen. This leads him to try and help the surviving members of the group as the beast hunts them down.
Stan Winston has created so many iconic movie creatures…from the Terminator, to Edward Scissorhands, to the Predator. On the one hand he seems a perfect choice to direct a film with a giant snarling creature at its center. On the other hand he’s a makeup artist…exactly how qualified does that make you to jump into the directors chair? Apparently, pretty darn qualified. Pumpkinhead ends up being a pretty effective modern take on the monster movie.
Winston’s love for the monster movies of the past is apparent throughout this film. While this is an 80’s horror movie, gore is not the emphasis. Sure there are a few bloody moments, but the film’s focus is on an intimidating monster and great atmosphere. Less is more in many ways with this film. The Pumpkinhead suit is still very impressive, even 25 years later. I love that Winston often films the monster where we can see its huge hulking form in silhouette and then the occasional bright blue lighting crash lights up its details. It makes the creature all the more demonic.
Beyond the effects part of things, Winston proves to be quite skilled with the pacing and the way the film is constructed in general. There are no wasted moments here. The story moves along briskly and keeps the viewer quite engaged. Lance Henriksen puts in a solid performance, as does Cynthia Bain as the “final girl” so to speak. My only real complaint about the film has to do with it’s depiction of the large mountain family that helps direct Ed to the witch. They are a bit too over-the-top in Winter’s Bones-ish kind of way. The young girl smeared in dirt and wearing a feed sack dress who’s never seen a camera before was a bit too much. Somebody needs to get out of Beverly Hills a bit more, me thinks.
In the end, I really liked Pumpkinhead. It’s creepy and very well made. Winston clearly earned his place in that directors chair.