"A man conjures up a gigantic vengeance demon called Pumpkinhead to destroy the teenagers who accidentally killed his son."
'Tis the season for all things pumpkin-like after all, so what better film to begin the final week before Hallowe'en than "Pumpkinhead"? Okay, so it was originally filmed in Springtime and given a January release back in the day which kind of killed it, but it's still as Hallowe'eny as you could ever want.
"Pumpkinhead" was, of course, the late Stan Winston's directorial debut following years of work in the industry as one of the most well known creators of make-up effects. His credits include "Edward Scissorhands", "Batman Returns", "Interview with the Vampire" and "Constantine". As a director, however, he was still a bit of an unknown quantity at this point which is probably why there were, allegedly, so many mixed reactions to "Pumpkinhead". I can't understand how it could possibly polarise any audience. From the first time I saw it, I thought it was awesome.
"Pumpkinhead" is quite simply an underrated classic. The quality of the full screen DVD (which is the only one available as far as I know) probably doesn't help matters much, but before all the HD and widescreen shenanigans started, it was perfectly acceptable. It's an '80s movie which was a "must rent" on VHS, and is one which most of us originally watched on a standard ratio TV anyway.
With its combination of pathos, tragedy, teenage cannon fodder, creepy hillbillies, a "big scary monster", and even a terrifying old witch, it goes far beyond a standard "cabin in the woods" slasher. It's a harrowing journey from point A to point B no matter how tired you may be of the same formulas.
Just look at the creature (below) for one thing. How great is that? It's about as monstrous as you could ever make Lance Henriksen look without actually being Lance Henriksen! Sometimes people are just really stupid when it comes to rating movies, and the 6.0 score on the IMDb just highlights the lack of taste of the 12-14 year olds who get all "click happy" on that site. "Pumpkinhead" deserves at least an 8.0 and maybe more, but it won't get it because there are too many idiots raised on "haha, it's so bad and so funny" horror movies that their tiny minds can't even cope with a decently made and totally serious one.
Every element needed for a horror movie is brilliantly put together in "Pumpkinhead". The storytelling, effects, camerawork, and acting are all far above what you would expect for $3,500,000. That was a reasonably good budget back in 1988 too, but only if you were making a TV episode.
There's even perfect casting with stereotypical "teenagers" who create just as much depth with how they look as anything they say or do. They may all be clichéd, but in which other horror movie could you look at the characters individually and know exactly what purpose they would have right from the beginning? The asshole/badboy looks like one, his brother looks as if he will be the half-way house between right and wrong, the good "preppy" guy and his girlfriend are realistic, and the actress who is "slightly plainer than the other girls" is so obviously going to be some kind of easily freaked-out Christian. Of course, they are predictable, the actions they take are going to be the wrong ones, and they are doomed, but this is one of the few times where their innocence makes any of them likeable.
The relationship between Ed Harley (Lance Henriksen) and his son is also so well acted that it's actually touching, and it makes the tragedy which follows even sadder. "Pumpkinhead" is a story about loss, grief, and not thinking clearly enough to avoid making some very bad decisions. There isn't a day that goes by when I wish that I'd understood the message of the film more and heeded it myself. There are no winners in this, no characters (except one) who deserves retribution, and the vengeance is excessive for the accidental crime.
"Pumpkinhead" is a good old-fashioned morality play which, unfortunately, is lost on the "popcorn crowd" by its reliance on spectacle. It's not a "creature feature" for dummies, but it appeals to the lowest common denominator who only want to see the monster and the kills. I can't blame them for it either. I like the monster too.
I highly recommend that you rewatch "Pumpkinhead" right now. I've even embedded the YouTube version at the top of this post so you don't have to go looking for your DVD. Don't bother with the straight-to-video or made-for-TV sequels unless you are a masochist, but just sit back and be amazed by an '80s horror movie which is actually good.