31 Days of Horror: In Praise of ‘Pumpkinhead’

Special effects artist Stan Winston made his directorial debut in 1988 with the cult favorite Pumpkinhead. Winston is best known for SFX behind Aliens, Predator, Terminator, Terminator 2, and Jurassic Park. He had a hand in some of the most iconic genre moments in cinema history and moving into the director’s chair seemed like a logical next step. Tom Savini and Greg Nicotero have both done it as well.

Winston co-wrote the script based on a poem by Ed Justin. The story is about a man named Ed Harley (Lance Henriksen, Aliens, Terminator, Millennium), a poor store owner, that lives deep in the mountains with his young son. Harley’s son is accidentally killed by some out-of-towners. Gripped by grief and rage, Harley seeks out a witch with the power to summon a vengeance demon called Pumpkinhead.

Pumpkinhead is a local legend that everyone knows about, but younger people don’t believe it’s real. Harley, on the other hand, had actually seen Pumpkinhead as a young child. The witch helps Harley raise a new Pumpkinhead and sets him loose against the group of people responsible for his son’s death. When the process begins, Harley discovers revenge is messy, painful, and horrifying as he lives through Pumpkinhead’s actions. Shaken from his grief by regret and fear, he tries to stop the spell, but finds out Pumpkinhead won’t stop until the vengeance has run its course. So Harley races to save the remaining out-of-towners and undo the evil he unleashed.

Pumpkinhead did poorly upon release, but over the near 30 years since it was released, its reputation has grown among genre fans and it has become a true cult hit. It’s far from perfect; some of the acting is subpar, the dialogue could have been punched up, but two things you can’t take away are the fact that it was very well shot and Pumpkinhead is an iconic monster. It came at the tail end of an era before CGI started to take over everything. Pumpkinhead is fully practical: a mix of a man in a suit, puppetry, and animatronics created by expert craftsman. The film holds up pretty well, but Pumpkinhead still looks as good as the Xenomorph or Queen Alien.

Pumpkinhead is more than just a killing machine. The filmmakers gave him a personality. He toys with his victims, sometimes batting them around like a kitten, other times teasing them. He’s truly menacing and gives the second best performance in the film behind Henriksen.

No one would argue that some of the dialogue is almost painful in its stiffness, but the story itself is very strong, nearly Shakespearean. (Not exaggerating.) The father loses his son, turns to dark arts to take revenge, sees into the void and is taken aback by his own sin, tries to turn away and undo his own wicked deed, only to slip further and further into the darkness. It’s a brilliant Gothic tale of loss and redemption, rather than a gore fest, or a simple body count movie.

Pumpkinhead has long been a favorite October movie for me and I never get tired of turning it on. Supposedly there’s a remake/reboot in the works. I hope whoever helms it will go back and really deconstruct what worked with the original and bring some of that heart to a new generation of Pumpkinhead fans and redeem it from the unfortunately schlocky sequels.

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