Making one’s directorial debut can be a daunting task across any genre, but especially as it relates to horror. Long time special effects wizard Stan Winston did just that in 1988 with the film Pumpkinhead.
For Winston his effort with Pumpkinhead falls somewhere in the middle of not being quite as lauded as Tom Savini’s remake of a legendary and classic film such as George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead for his debut in the director’s chair, but also not as panned as Maximum Overdrive was when being directed by; an admittedly coked out of his fucking mind at the time Stephen King, in his one and only directing credit.
Horror icons of the 80’s were rapidly losing steam by the end of the decade. Freddy, Jason and Michael Myers still had their loyal fanbases, but new blood was in need of being injected, with future icons such as Chucky and Pinhead. While Pumpkinhead isn’t nearly on any of those horror icons level, this movie and the creature at the center of this movie were a hell of a lot cooler than the motherfucking Leprechaun! I love Warwick Davis, but Willow didn’t have enough magic up his sleeve to save those pieces of shit.
Lance Henriksen stars as Ed Harley, a single father to his young son Billy. The two of them live a quaint and peaceful life in the country where Ed runs a small store. Throughout his career Lance Henriksen has squared off against the Terminator, Pinhead, the Alien Queen and the Predator, but in this movie he has to deal with his most daunting challenge yet, a group of dipshit teenagers from the city.
Ed leaves Billy to mind the store while he goes to run some errands. Sure they’re out in the middle of absolutely nowhere, and they probably average about two customers a year, but that’s still a hell of a responsibility to give a nine year old. The city kids tear around on their dirt bikes, drawing the attention of Billy to see what’s happening outside, because fuck yeah, dirt bikes!
The teens; specifically Joel who’s the leader of the pack accidentally wipes out and fatally wounds Billy with his bike. Ed returns full of rage (and possibly moonshine) and takes Billy to an old witch deep in the woods in hopes she can resurrect his fallen son. Resurrection isn’t this witches bag, but sweet, sweet revenge can be given in exchange for Ed Harley’s gold. Ed goes to an old graveyard in the mountains, digs up a corpse, brings it back, and then the old witch uses both father and sons blood to reanimate the dug up remains into Pumpkinhead, but not before warning Ed that vengeance has a price. Wait, she can resurrect this old worm eaten corpse in the mountains, but not young Billy who only died what, maybe an hour ago? I think she fleeced you for your gold there, Ed.
In the meantime, the teens have taken shelter in a cabin in the woods, while Joel battles with whether or not to turn himself into the police. Initially, he refuses because he’s on probation for a similar incident, because dirtbike child bashing is apparently a hobby to him, like stamp collecting is to others. Joel then goes on a douche rage spree, ripping the phone off the wall, knocking one guy out and then locks him and a girl in a closet for possibly the most awkward version of seven minutes in heaven ever, while Pumpkinhead is making his way across the countryside. Joel calms down, pulls himself together and decides maybe he should turn himself in after all, but before he can here comes Pumpkinhead ready to dole out a backwoods, black magic ass kicking.
As Pumpkinhead begins laying waste to the teens, Ed sees the murders through the monsters eyes until, deciding he can’t take it anymore, returns to the witch asking her to put a stop to it. The witch advises Pumpkinhead can’t be stopped and if Ed interferes it would mean his life.
Meanwhile, Pumpkinhead is racking up his kill count taking out anyone and everyone associated with Billy’s death, until one of the locals named Bunt helps a couple of the teens escape to an abandoned church telling them that anyone who interferes will be marked for death by Pumpkinhead as well, before taking them to Ed Harley’s house to take shelter. Now, I grew up a Small Town Nerd, and while I knew plenty of people with interesting nicknames, I never knew anyone named after a play in baseball.
Ed shows up and tries to stop Pumpkinhead from committing any more murders but gets accidentally stabbed with a pitchfork, which not only hurts Ed but Pumpkinhead as well. Ed sees that Pumpkinhead’s face is becoming more human, realizing he and Pumpkinhead share a symbiotic relationship and that the only way to kill Pumpkinhead is for Ed to die as well. Ed shoots himself in the head, but that only momentarily stops the monster, before finally one of the girls in the group responsible for this whole mess takes out Ed and Pumpkinhead with a second shotgun blast.
The final scene of the movie sees the witch burying Ed’s body in the grave up in the mountains, waiting for someone else to come to her for their own vengeance, and she also keeps the necklace Billy had made for his dad because what, the gold Ed gave her wasn’t enough?! Why don’t you take his first born son as well, and, oh wait.
While Pumpkinhead may not be an all-time classic in the vein of a George A. Romero or a John Carpenter film, it’s still far better than 95% of what Blumhouse tries to pass off as “scary” movies. Stan Winston turns in a fun popcorn movie that breezes by in about 90 minutes and, for once again being his directorial debut, is a solid effort. The creature effects are the star of the show alongside solid acting from the always dependable Henriksen.
I haven’t seen the sequels, and something tells me that’s for the best, but Pumpkinhead is worth checking out this Halloween, and is worthy of the cult following its obtained since 1988.
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