Friday, April 27, 2012


Pumpkinhead (1988)
Dir. Stan Winston
Starring Lance Henriksen, Pumpkinhead, Dirt Bikes

                     False advertising. There is no pumpkin' squeezin' in this movie.   

    PUMPKINHEAD is one of those second-tier horror franchises which has probably survived as long as it has simply through sheer perseverance. Somewhere between CHILD’S PLAY, which started off with some modicrum of legitimacy, and, say, the LEPRECHAUNs. It was never considered a classic, or probably even a favorite, by any self-respecting horror junkie (the only demographic which would ever bother with it in the first place)  but through a relentless march of deeply unnecessary sequels it managed to stay afloat long enough that people got used to it being around and developed a certain sentimental fondness for it, like Ron Paul. I’d been mildly interested in seeing the original but it had been irritatingly difficult to track down, and I had given up the effort until I saw that FROM A WHISPER TO A SCREAM director Jeff Burr helmed the second of the series. I liked that one, so I finally gave in to the dark side and made a legitimate legal purchase of the original even though I was pretty well convinced it would be softer than a Jack-O-Lantern on Thanksgiving, and not nearly as alcoholic.

    I mean, it has some horror credentials. Stan Winston isn’t much known as a director, outside of this and the amazing-sounding Anthony Michael Hall project A GNOME NAMED GNORM*, but if you’ve clicked on a review of PUMPKINHEAD I’m sure I don’t have to tell you what he is known for. And of course, it has Lance Henriksen in it, who has been reliably awesome since at least the time of Charlemagne. But then again, fucking SASQUATCH MOUNTAIN has him too, and that’s a long way from being viewable by humans outside some kind of laboratory-assisted eye-bleeding endurance test. He’s always gonna be great, but I’m not suffering through 90 minutes of fully-clothed college kids stumbling over their lines in the woods for a five minute Henriksen cameo.

But, turns out I underestimated this one. Yes, there’s a lot of fully-clothed college kids jabbering on, looking slightly guilty and not meeting our eyes out of the shame of not being Lance Henriksen when all we fucking want to see is Lance Henriksen or, that failing, some kind of god damn pumpkin monster. But this is 1988, meaning it was actually possible to get Henriksen himself for more than half a day of shooting. He’s pretty much the main character here, and that goes a real long fucking way.

The premise is this: Henriksen is a single-father Hill-Person-American** who runs a little country general store with his punishingly adorable soon-to-be ex-son. Out of the big city come a bunch of obnoxious college kids with dirt bikes, on their way to the proverbial Cabin in the Woods. Can anyone think of a movie where this ever actually goes well for someone? Why can’t they rent a cabin in the woods and have a night of piercing personal introspection and richly complicated emotional relationships, a la THE BIG CHILL? I’m starting to think the entire horror genre is being secretly propped up by the Tijuana tourist board. Anyway, they stop by Henriksen’s country store to ask for alcohol or Xboxes or something. You know how those fucking college kids are.

So you get your usual creepy-backwoods rednecks being vaguely hostile to the generically pretty city kids, but the twist is that here you’re on the rednecks’ side. Henrikson’s Ed Harley is a hard-working, dedicated single father and doesn’t deserve to be condescended to by a bunch of rich-kid jocks who figure they’re kings of the universe. They’re unwelcome here because they have no respect for the fact that they’re entering someone else’s home, that maybe the residents here would prefer not to have a bunch of drunken yahoos zooming around their yards on dirt bikes. A philosophy which gains some support after a the particularly egregious asshole of the gang runs Harley’s son over, and then flees the scene.

Now, the college kids are divided over this incident; most want to stay or help, a few just want to get back to their lives and to get away with it. Some of them do try to help in the kind of pathetically non-helpful way that people who are not used to actual problems usually try, but when Harley comes back to find his boy dead and a couple college kids standing around and looking sheepish, he wordlessly grabs the boy and runs to find help. When one of the girls awkwardly asks, “is there anything we can do?” he turns around and gives her this look:

Clearly they shot her question and this reaction shot separately, since anyone caught directly in this gaze would be instantly and violently eradicated from existence

And you know it’s on.

See, Harley remembers something from his own childhood: There’s a demon in these mountains that you can call on to bring vengeance upon someone who has wronged you... for a price. A demon that sleeps beneath a pumpkin patch. A demon that looks kind of like if the xenomorph from ALIEN was made out of prunes. A demon called... well, you get the idea. So basically the rest of the film is Pumpkinhead knocking off college kids one by one in mildly creative ways.

Winston, as both writer and director, did two things very right with this movie. For one, he hired Henriksen for the role of Harley, who plays the part with a furious intensity which drags the rest of the movie along behind it. Henriksen --himself from a poor working-class background-- plays Harley with great dignity and conviction as a genuinely good man who cracks under unimaginable grief. He’s a completely believable, well-rounded character and it makes both his wrong turn and his slow horror at what he’s done all the more tragic and even moving. Combined with an elegantly simple, appealingly folkloric premise (the other thing Winston nails, especially in the effective portrayal of the old Mountain Hag who Harley approaches for help), you’ve got something pretty effective here.

Unfortunately, other than those two things, everything else about the movie is pretty frustratingly bad. Henriksen is so good that the predictable shitty acting from the college kids really stands out and the whole enterprise feels painfully lopsided. Even though Harley is kind of the villain, you’re rooting for him out of simple charisma alone. But for some poorly-thought-out reason, the script seems to want to make the college kids somewhat sympathetic, and they’re such bland archetypes that you’re never really going to root for them. It’s just going to be less satisfying when they get killed. Basically the whole second half of the film leaves Harley to watch the college kids get picked off, but then fails to kill them in any memorable ways and fails to make watching them die at all satisfying. Even the awful asshole who runs over Harley’s kid suddenly turns faux-sympathetic at the end, where’s the damn fun in that? I’m still not going to like him, why can’t you at least let me enjoy the spectacle of his death? They might have been wiser to just make the whole lot uniformly abrasive, unsympathetic monster fodder.

And monster fodder they are, but unfortunately this monster isn’t really one which you are that interested in seeing fed, either. On one hand, it’s a fond reminder of happier times to see the beast portrayed by a giant physical puppet instead of a bunch of nerdy pixels, and it gives it a sense of physicality which makes it a bit more intimidating. On the other hand, though, there’s no getting around the fact that it’s just not a very interesting design for a monster. The special effects are great, and Winston shows them off by giving you a pretty good look at the monster for most of the latter half of the film. But there’s just nothing very nightmarish or compelling about it. While Giger’s Alien design was carefully constructed to draw upon people’s unconscious fears and repulsions, this thing just looks like they just threw some claws and teeth together, stretched it out, and called it a day. It just doesn’t have enough personality to be disturbing, nor enough physical prowess to seem especially dangerous.  An actual pumpkin headed demon would have been better. Hell, the Old Hag who conjures the thing is way scarier.  

The guy on the left is way scarier when he's mad.
         So, they bungle the most important parts of any monster movie, but there’s enough good here to save it. In the third act, Harley comes back to try to repent for what he’s done and mitigate the damage, and the conflict shifts away from watching college kids get killed and towards Harley saving his soul, which is a subject we care a lot more about. Once Henriksen is back on the scene and the we abandon the anemic monster-killings, the stakes seem higher and the drama becomes more effective. Winston conjures some surprisingly effective atmosphere (complete with respectably moody mountain music) and actually manages to sell the folklore and the tragedy much better than the monster itself. Odd, I know, but there it is.  Pumpkinhead himself probably wasn’t a strong enough monster to deserve a whole series, but the film has enough going for it that it probably earns its reputation as a low-level classic -- or at least earns a TV sequel directed by Jeff Burr. I guess what I’m saying is, it’s just good enough to earn the opportunity to sully its good name with a bunch of shitty cash-in DTV sequels. By god, that’s something worthy of some good old-fashioned vegetable-themed demon vengeance.


Lance Henriksen:                                  YES
Bland And/or Irritating White Kids:        YES
Satisfying Kills:                                      NO
Horror Icon You Wouldn’t Expect
Pumpkinhead Smacks People
With His Big Stupid Hands:                   YEP
Attempt at Appalachian Accents:          SUCCESSFUL
At All Watchable:                                   YES

*Yes, really.

**Confirming that the Hills do indeed have eyes, hence easily outpacing their nearest competition in the Mole people.

Man, I’m never going to look at those “Veggie-Tales” movies the same way again. Always thought there was something creepy going on there.

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