“You can go now, Ed Harley. Now it begins.” Can my one memory of Pumpkinhead live up to the nostalgia, or is this long-forgotten creature feature cheesier than an Appalachian witch?
There’s a scene exactly halfway through Pumpkinhead, the 1988 creature feature directed by FX legend Stan Winston, when Mr. Ed Harley compresses everything that’s wonderful and painful about the film into a few words.
“I’m looking for an old woman,” Ed Harley tells a fellow Appalachian hillbilly. “She lives somewhere in the mountains hereabouts. Some folks’d say she has such as powers.”
As played by cult icon Lance Henriksen, those three lines of dialogue are injected with more soul and raw emotion than they deserve. You see, Ed Harley’s son was killed just moments earlier by a gaggle of city slickers on dirt bikes, and as any good hillbilly knows, the one way to mourn AND avenge the death of your only child is to find the neighborhood voodoo witch.
But say the lines as a character from The Simpsons — any character, it doesn’t matter, maybe Dr. Nick, or one of Fat Tony’s henchmen — and they sound just as hackneyed as they should. You don’t even have to say it as Cletus, although that would be the obvious choice. Nope, when uttered by anyone but Henriksen, the plea for an old woman who “has such as powers” is just about the cheesiest thing this side of a hell-spawn Satan beast with a pumpkin face. Good thing this film has both.
I first saw Pumpkinhead in neutered, safe-for-TV mode when I was about 9 or 10 years old. I recorded it to the VCR at 2 a.m. and watched it, commercials and all, on a rainy summer morning when there was nothing else to do. And I loved it. The creature was cool, the voodoo witch was creepy and plenty of teenagers got killed. There was also a flamethrower and a shotgun and dirt bikes, and it didn’t even seem like censors had to edit too many of the good parts out. Nice.
Not long after Halloween this year — some two decades after I first saw the Pumpkinhead — I finally tracked down the unedited version of Stan Winston’s debut directorial effort. If ya’ll hillbilly yokels don’t know about Winston, here’s some knowledge: The Terminator, Aliens, Predator, Lake Placid and even Galaxy Guest all owe him a debt. They’ve become household names thanks to his insanely creative (and often insanely disturbing) creature effects, as in he gave cinematic birth to Terminator and Sarris. He built a career around unforgettable baddies, and so his first crack at directing one of those baddies in a world of his own design with total creative control must kick ass. Right?
Let’s just say there’s a reason Winston has dozens of special effects credits and just five directorial ones. Pumpkinhead is all over the place, from semi-serious drama to cheesy teen horrorshow to blatant rip-off of everything from Pet Semetary to Creature from the Black Lagoon. It comes so close to making magic out of all those disparate parts, but something just never clicks.
For starters, the film is never frightening. Not even a little. That’s not an automatic fail — I’m a sucker for almost every Friday the 13th flick, Manhattan and all — but I wanted so badly for the Appalachian setting and emotional havoc to pay off in the end. Pumpkinhead starts on a high note with a chaotic and well-paced opening segment. It introduces us to young Ed Harley and the Pumpkinhead legend in a tight, taut, tense five minutes, and then fast-forwards via silhouetted death to modern-day Appalachia. Bravo.
That’s when the plot kicks in and things settle into a nice-n-easy groove. The film is unabashedly theatrical, including sound stage sets, bombastic lighting and that ridiculously overwritten dialogue. Maybe that’s why it never musters a scare: It feels like something from Jim Henson’s discarded notebook, what with all the young children in danger and fantastical creatures hunting them.
After Ed Hardy meets up with the witch, she convinces him he’s really in search of revenge — not a resurrected son — and convinces him to dig up the remains of Pumpkinhead. He does, and so the witch performs some voodoo spells, tying Pumpkinhead’s demon form to Ed Hardy’s doomed soul until the six teens responsible for his son’s death are gone. The legend is new and fresh, like the best of Henson’s world building, and Winston does a decent job setting all the pieces in motion for the third act.
And that’s when Pumpkinhead turns into a fairy tale. I’d never heard of it described that way until I found the original film poster, which reads “A grim fairy tale” over a nasty still of the monster’s long, clawed finger about to scar a screaming woman’s forehead. It put the theatrical bent of the whole film in a new light, and I started thinking of it as more of a twisted fantasy and less of a horror film. It helped.
The film’s fairy tale roots shine through in bright, stage-lighting detail during the final 30 minutes, when Ed Hardy realizes he really screwed the pooch by doing the voodoo witch’s bidding and returns with a shotgun to make it all right. By now only two of the six teenagers remain — the best death comes just before Ed Hardy’s return, when Pumpkinhead plays puppeteer with one of the murdered ladies — and the creature is still on the loose. The effects are incredible, but again, the thing is never frightening…malevolent and unrelenting, sure, but never frightening.
What is potentially frightening: As Pumpkinhead claims victims, its face becomes more humanlike, while Ed Hardy becomes more monstrous. It’s a neat trick, and the sort of creative touch I’d expect from Winston. The director highlights this transformation in the showdown between Ed Hardy, Pumpkinhead and the final two teens, and then goes balls to the wall in true ’80s fashion with a homemade flamethrower. It all leads to a lot of stuff, not to mention more melodrama,
So. Would Pumpkinhead be better as unrelenting horror? Unabashed satire? Or is it a “gotta-be-in-the-mood” piece — a film that gets better if you go into it expecting a theatrical fairy tale? The answer comes down to those three lines of dialogue exactly halfway through. If the director, writer, actors, lighting designer and everyone else were on the same page, Pumpkinhead might have been a much better film. But somewhere, at some point, the cast and crew lost track of what the hell they were trying to do, and even the world’s best creature effects couldn’t make up for it. I wasn’t disappointed — I just expected more from nostalgia. That’ll teach me.
Found this bad boy when googling the movie:
Reason I always wanted to watch this one: Stan Winston, the same dude who did creature FX for almost every film I love (Aliens, Terminator, etc, etc), is the director. Why not watch his first try at designing a movie around a monster?
Score is giving off some bayou or appalachian vibes…that trend was recently here again with true blood, etc.
I like the pacing and intensity of the opening scene
- right up to the quiet shadow death scene, when young Lance Henriksen cross-cuts into old lance henriksen
“Mama, why can’t papa let the man in?” “He can’t honey, he just can’t”
The whole “single dad on a farm avenge the death of a kid” thing was big in the 80s…thinking about all those cheesy Stallone and Ahnold action films that started the same way (Commando, etc)
Also getting hardcore Pet Cemetery vibes…right down to a young raggmuffin who gets hit by a car on the highway
- way different outcome I know but still, similar beginnings…one has a demon creature, the other has a demon zombie kid
Yep, we’re definitely in backwoods Appalachia. And HEH they stop at a creepy gas station…run by papa Lance Henriksen
- OK fun play on the whole “teens get scared by creepy gas station attendants” thing, replaces it with “teen scares kindly gas station attendants by revving away on a dirt bike”:
- plus also the local family of dirty rednecks who scare their brother, Jimmy John, with the legend of Pumpkinhead, a creature who supposedly comes to eat little kids. They chant his name and circle him, which scares the teens even more
Ain’t that cute, Ed Harley’s son gives him a protection necklace. Wonder if that’ll work?
Heh we get a dirt biking bad boyzzzz action scene
Does pretty good with drama, intensity, conflict for a horror movie…it’s not like these characters are deeper than most, but the ACTORS are pretty damn convincing
- cinematgraphy too…nice job of dragging you into the action
Oh damn, dude who killed the kid doesn’t mind nailing his buddy over the head, hard, with a log to keep from going back to the crime scene
Joel, our boy with the probation who killed the kid, is also willing to lock motherfuckers in closets after knocking them out
“I’m looking for an old woman. She lives somewhere in the mountains hereabouts. Some folks’d say she has such is powers.” — Appalachian hillbilly dialogue 101
“She can’t help him. All she can do is take you straight to hell.” — old hillbilly to Lance
Heheheheheh the old witches cottage looks like degobah, if degobah had a sunset
“What do you want, Ed Hardy?” — getting crazy deja vu from that line by the witch in the woods, like for some reason that’s the only thing I remember from this
Even more Pet Cemetery vibes: witch tells Ed Hardy that “the thing you’re looking for is there”
- the other one he buries a kid in the cemetery, this one he unearths a demon spawn in the cemetery
The SETTINGS are fun in a theatrical way…lots of staged lighting (the cemetery fog, the window panes in the homes, the moonlight, the red from beneath the witch) and hardly anything is grimy, dirty, shadowy, etc
- far cry from most of today’s horror flicks, although most of those seem more realistic, this seems more theatrical and melodramatic in general
- gotta love the 80s
NOICE he’s digging up pumpkinhead from a literal pumpkin patch thing
Makes me wonder if THE WITCH IS SOMEONEHOW GETTING ED HARDY TO DO HER DIRTY WORK??
Most witches aren’t creepy…and this one isn’t really creepy…but she’s definitely better than most, or at least she seems more evil, more conniving, more dangerous really
Baby pumpkinhead IS BORN
…to the sound of rattlesnake rattlers for some reason ha
“You can go now, Ed Harley. Now…it begins.”
FIRST DEATH — Steve, the guy who stayed with the dying boy
- fun fact: Ed Harley feels weird voodoo pain when Pumpkinhead kills one of the “city people”
“Whatever you saw out there, it wasn’t the devil” interchangeable teen girlfriend says to her praying uh girlfriend. “But only god can help us.”
Followed moments later by her picking up meat clevers, saying, “Just in case god doesn’t show.”
DEATH TWO — Maggie, Steve’s tramautized girlfriend who thinkks only god can help
- the monster carves up her face like roast beast
- only to rub it up against the window pane, which is surprisingly disturbing…
Like Joel, our child murderer, Ed Harley is feeling remorse for killing bitches — he visits the witch to demand she stop it
DEATH THREE — Kim, the child murderer’s girlfriend
- like Maggie, she gets pulled high high high into the trees by the monster, who lets her drop to her death on a boulder
- aight now we’re getting glimpses of the whole fairy tale element…maybe that’s why pumpkinhead hasn’t been so much creepy as malevolent and unrelenting
AH YEAH good call-back to opening scene when guy runs through woods begging for mercy: teens do the same, get shunned by the locals…one girl even gets the blinds closed on her face
Just as the monster is about to take out Joel, Ed harley comes to intervene right before Pumpkinhead kills him
DEATH FOUR — OH BUT WAIT NO, it’s Joel
- pumpkinhead impales him with the same gun he used to shoot him in the brain
Waddaya know, same hillbilly boy who first told the pumpkinhead story, introduced Ed Harley to the witch AND unloads seed for gpa also defies his dad by helping the final two teens find refuge
So where’s he take em? TO A CREEPY HALF-BURNED CHURCH THING IN THE WOODS
DEATH FIVE — This film’s tone
- I think the reason it’s enjoyable but not insanely so, or memorable, or aything else that separates the incredible from the above-average, is that it’s caught between a horror film and a fantasy flick
- Stan Winston does a great job of showing off his creature, but not making it particularly frightening
- Sure, menacing, but again not scary or creepy or whatever
REAL DEATH FIVE — Chris, the dude who gets kncked out by Joel
- murdered on a dirt bike, how fitting…if only he were the one who killed the kid while riding a dirt bike
The final girl (still can’t believe I don’t remember her name…Kate? Kristy?) begs Ed Harley to call off the Pumpkinhead, but don’t that girl realize he’s a demon spawn?
- which is EXACTLY why Ed Harley will “send him back to whatever hell he come from” with a blow torch
WELL THAT”S A NEAT TRICK: As Ed Harley’s face looks more and more like the pumpkinhead, the pumpkinhead’s face looks more and more like Ed Harley
Leaving it to the last girl to do the second thing I remember about this film: toast pumpkinhead with a homemade blowtorch
DEATH SIX — Ed Harley, who blows his brains out poorly, then really gets his brains, guts and the rest blown out by the final girl
DEATH SEVEN — Pumpkinhead, when his mortal lnk Ed Harley dies
- only his death is way cooler cuz he bursts into flames and ed harley just kinda lays there, dead
Final scene: voodoo witch buries charred and shrunken remains of pumpkinhead…WITH ED HARLEY”S PROTECTION NECKLACE