Pumpkinhead

Pumpkinhead 5When 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.

Pumpkinhead 1The 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.

Pumpkinhead 2Ed 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.

Pumpkinhead 3From 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.

Pumpkinhead 4Stan 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.

Pumpkinhead 6Beyond 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.

Forgotten Filmcast Episode 17: Hell Night

Episode_17We continue with our month of scary movies with the latest episode of the Forgotten Fimcast. This time, Todd is joined by Bernardo Villela from The Movie Rat to talk about a horror movie featuring Linda Blair. No, not The Exorcist! It’s 1981’s Hell Night.

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Show Notes:
The Movie Rat
Bernardo at Twitter
Music Alley

Movies Discussed:
Hell Night
The House by the Cemetery
Roller Boogie

The Black Sleep

The Black Sleep 5There are certain movie actors who have come to be known as horror icons. From Lon Chaney to Robert Englund, these are actors who, despite working in many genres, are always thought of for their horror roles first. Our film today features not one, not two, not even three…but four horror icons. Oh, plus one other who is a welcome sight for lovers of Z grade horror and sci-fi. Do you think you can handle 1956’s The Black Sleep?

We begin by meeting Doctor Gordon Ramsay (Herbert Rudley). He is in prison for a crime he did not commit, about to be put to death. He is paid a visit by Sir Joel Cadman (Basil Rathbone), another doctor who consoles Ramsay. While there, Cadman put a substance in Ramsay’s drink, telling him it will make it so he will not know what is going on when his sentence is carried out. Just before the execution is to happen, Ramsay is found dead in his cell. His corpse is delivered to Cadman who then revives him. It seems that Cadman has discovered a drug that makes it appear that a person is dead. He calls it “The Black Sleep.” Ramsay is now free, but Cadman needs his medical skills to further his own experiments.

The Black Sleep 1It turns out that Cadman is doing experiments on the brain in his strange castle home. He also has several strange people there with him. This includes his mute butler Casimir (Bela Lugosi) and a brute called Mungo (Lon Chaney Jr.). Cadman soon shows Ramsay his work. He uses The Black Sleep to subdue his patients and then cuts into their skulls to experiment with what areas of the brain control which functions. We later learn that he is doing all this so that he may one day remove a brain tumor from his wife who lays in a coma without risking brain damage. Cadman uses a local gypsy tattoo artist named Udu (Akim Tamiroff) to secure victims for him.

The Black Sleep 2Ramsay eventually learns from one of the servants in the home, Laurie (Patrica Blake), that Mungo is actually her father, who was once a noted doctor himself. She is desperate for Ramsay to help her bring an end to Cadman’s madness. They end up finding the underground dungeon where the former test subjects are kept.. Among them is a man called Bohemund (John Carradine) who thinks himself some sort of prophet, and a man named Curry (Tor Johnson) who is the individual Ramsay was imprisoned for murdering. But just Ramsay is on the brink of stopping the mad doctor, Laurie finds that she is next in line for the operating table.

The Black Sleep 6As I watched the opening credits of The Black Sleep my excitement grew. Four great horror icons…Basil Rathbone, Bela Lugosi, Lon Chaney Jr. and John Carradine. Then throw in Tor Johnson, who is not as iconic but a great go to monster guy. This looked like it was going to be good! I was sadly disappointed.

The Black Sleep 7The story has pretty big potential. We have a doctor who will resort to any sort of evil if it means saving the woman he loves. Not to mention that Rathbone is great in that part. However, it pretty much stops there. Once that premise is set up, the film kind of sloshes around for awhile before it finally decides it needs to resolve things and roll the credits. What’s most disappointing is that we have these fantastic horror actors who are given nothing to do. Chaney’s part here actually reminds me a bit of the part that Tor Johnson played in Ed Wood’s Bride of the Monster. He’s just the big guy who grunts a lot. He’s supposedly a doctor who’s mind has been destroyed by Rathbone’s character. Yet there’s no hints of the man he once was, no connection with his daughter…so much lost potential. The misuse of Lugosi is an even bigger crime. I found myself drawn to his character quite a bit simply because he’s Bela Lugosi, but ultimately the character contributes almost nothing to the story. Only Carradine is given a great over-the-top moment in the film’s conclusion, all be it very short.

The Black Sleep has both story and acting potential that falls way short of being fully realized. It won’t put you to sleep, but it won’t leave your satisfied either. These great horror actors deserved much better.

Elvira, Mistress of the Dark

Elvira 2One of the things we just don’t see much of anymore is great locally produced television programs. I grew up in the Chicagoland area, which was the home of many great locally produced shows. A favorite of mine was our local horror host, Son of Svengoolie. He’s still on the air today, known simply as Svengoolie. The TV horror host is a great American tradition. Of course, one of the most famous was Elvira. Her show originated in Los Angeles, but eventually went to several stations around the country before she hit the big screen in 1988’s Elvira, Mistress of the Dark.

Elvira 1Elvira (who is actually named Casandra Peterson) has just left her show after a new owner has taken over the TV station. She has big plans to open a show in Las Vegas, but she needs money to do it. Luckily, she gets word that she stands to inherit some of her great aunt Morgana’s fortune, but she must head to Massachusetts for the reading of the will. Upon arriving in Fallwell, MA she quickly starts to upset the locals, especially one Chastity Pariah (Edie McClurg). The local teenagers quickly take a liking to her, however.

At the reading of the will, Elvira learns that she has inherited her aunt’s house, a dog, and a recipe book. Her Great Uncle Vincent (W. Morgan Sheppard) is none too pleased with this and is anxious to try and get the book for himself. See, unknown to her, he’s actually a warlock who has big plans for the book of so-called recipes. At first Elvira is perfectly willing to sell it for a few bucks, but the dog manages to hide the book making that deal fall through.

Elvira 5Meanwhile, Elvira’s involvement with the local teens isn’t going over well with the others in town. She’s even got them going to midnight screenings of Attack of the Killer Tomatoes. She pulls this off thanks to getting close with the theaters hunky owner, Bob (Daniel Greene). The prudish locals continue to cause trouble for her, though, even going so far as to tar and feather her at one point. Having had enough, Elvira uses the recipe book to cook up a spell which she serves to locals at a potluck dinner. This, however, opens the door for Uncle Vincent to snag the book by having the townsfolk go after Elvira and try to burn her at the stake for the crime witchcraft.

Elvira 6Like many horror hosts, Elvira’s brand of comedy is a bit corny. That sort of thing works when you’re introducing a late night showing of The Head with Two Things…uh, I mean The Thing with Two Heads, but can it carry a film? In this case no. Don’t get me wrong, I think Elvira is a fun character, but the film just isn’t that funny. The majority of the jokes all have to two with one subject…her breasts. It doesn’t take long for that to wear pretty thin.

Elvira 7It isn’t until the end of the film that we get a glimpse of where there may have been some solid potential for a big-screen Elvira vehicle. The last 15 minutes or so get pretty dark considering the tone of the rest of the film. After almost being burned at the stake, she then has to battle her warlock uncle who seems to be gradually turning into a demon of some sort. He shoots blue lighting out of his fingers, has a strange orange fire breath, and when he loses a hand in the heat of battle, it starts crawling around on it’s own. In other words, the host of tons of cheesy B horror films suddenly ends up in a cheesy B horror film. I dare say the film would’ve been more successful had that been the premise all along.

Elvira, Mistress of the Dark may not be the most entertaining film, but it is an interesting curiosity. I mean, Elvira is the only TV horror host I know of to have starred in her own movie, that’s got to count for something.