Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Pumpkinhead 3: Ashes to Ashes

Pumpkinhead 3: Ashes to Ashes (2006)
Dir. Jake West
Starring Doug Bradley, Douglas Roberts, Pumpkinhead, Tess Panzer, and Lance Henriksen

    OK, let’s get the bad out of the way first. This is the second sequel to a film which probably didn’t need a first sequel to begin with. And it managed to find an even less classy venue for premier than the first sequel’s early 90’s DTV dumping, arriving without fanfare on the SciFi channel a full 18 years after the original. So it’s not even direct to DVD, it’s direct-to-SciFi-Channel. And it was filmed in Romania, that Lost World of murky cheapo DTV crapola where Uwe Boll roams free and unfettered by logic or taste. AND, it was filmed back-to-back with another sequel (PUMPKINHEAD 4: BLOOD FEUD) to save money. AND it has a cameo from Lance Henriksen post-2000, when due to Bush’s election/ an evil gypsy curse Henriksen was legally prevented in appearing in any film which was A) Halfway watchable and B) going to include a role for him which lasted more than 5 minutes.

    So it’s got a lot going against it. Short of starring Lou Diamond Phillips or being produced by Paul W. S. Anderson, there’s not much more it could really do to clearly advertise that it’s going to be terrible. And yes, it is terrible. But actually it’s not nearly as terrible as it ought to be, given that pedigree. If you can get past the obvious, superficial ways in which it is a manifestly horrible movie, there’s actually some good stuff in there. Or at least, more good stuff than seems realistically likely for any movie titled PUMPKINHEAD 3 to have.

    To start with, it ignores the events of Jeff Burr’s unfortunate PUMPKINHEAD 2: BLOOD WINGS. It can do this without fucking up the ever-important Pumpkinhead franchise continuity because, as you recall, the Pumpkinhead in PUMPKINHEAD 2 is actually not our beloved original Pumpkinhead, but actually a half-human transmogrifying Son-of-Pumpkinhead who just happens to look exactly like original Pumpkinhead. This movie, on the other hand, is a direct follow-up to the original PUMPKINHEAD, and includes both characters from the original and flashbacks to some key scenes. And it also resumes both the tone and the key conflict from the original, which as you’ll recall has Pumpkinhead summoned to do vengeance by furious hill people who eventually feel remorse and try to stop what they’ve set in motion.

No, you go on with your bad self.

    At first, though, you don’t see the connection. Because the film opens (somewhat awkwardly, it must be said) with a random fellah who happens to be walking through the deep backwoods late at night stumbling across a big scruffy yokel disposing of a body in a mud pit. Said yokel happens to be Bunt Wallace -- that’s right, the kid from the original PUMPKINHEAD who guided Henriksen’s Ed Harley character to his doom when his father refuses to sign off on this obviously bad idea. Bunt’s all grown up now --maybe a little worse for wear-- and his reward for his help all those years ago is that Ed Harley is still following him around, like a sexy Jacob Marley, advising him to give up his nefarious body-dumping ways. Bunt is a little bit slow, but he obviously still feels deeply guilty about leading a man to damnation in defiance of his father’s obviously better judgement. And Ed isn’t really helping matters by following him around, wearing all black, and somewhat ghoulishly pointing out to him how doomed he is.

    Now, stop and think -- this is actually a pretty cool twist on a sequel. It ties seamlessly into the original, and it takes an interesting but small aspect of the original and expands on it. It has some neat implications regarding guilt, and turns our original victim into a somewhat threatening figure. None of this is explored with much depth, but even on the superficial level it makes a somewhat interesting dynamic. There’s a million more interesting places they could have gone with the concept than the way they do go, but what the heck, at least it’s better than that Son-of-Pumpkinhead crap from part 2.

    Henriksen, returning to the role of Ed Harley, is fucking awesome just like you would expect. He’s offering good advice to Bunt, but there’s a kind of gleeful dark humor to his role, as if he’s honor-bound to try and set things right, but also taking a certain malevolent delight in fucking with this kid who was so instrumental in his own destruction.

He would have been a great villain, but remember, it’s after the year 2000 so Henriksen can only appear in a few short scenes. Instead, they’ve got another Iconic Horror Actor to antagonize those wacky hill people in the form of Doug “Pinhead” Bradley. I know, its weird that both PUMPKINHEAD sequels star various villains from HELLRAISER, not sure what’s up with that, but I like it. If they do another Pumpkinhead film (which obviously, they should) it should seriously star Sean Chapman. Besides, “Pinhead” and “Pumpkinhead” also sound weirdly similar, not to mention that “Pinhead and Pumpkinhead” would be an awesome name for a Beavis and Butt-Head sequel series*. Obviously, the lord works in mysterious ways.

Which is appropriate, because so does Doug Bradley’s “Doc Fraser” character, a small-town doctor who moonlights as an organ-harvesting ghoul. Let me tell you his plan, so you can see if this makes some kind of sense that somehow escaped me. Locals bring their deceased loved ones to the Bunt’s family crematorium for a good burnin’ and buryin’. They get a urn filled with ashes and walk off happy, not realizing that, in reality, Doc Fraser is stealing the corpses, removing the organs, selling them on the black market, and then having Bunt drag the mutilated carcasses out into the woods to dump them. I get the organ-thieving thing, in fact it sounds like a good idea (although I question how fresh those organs are once their relatives have schlepped the corpse up into the mountains for cremation). But there literally is an actual crematorium five feet from their evil organ-harvesting room. Why not just cremate the bodies afterwards instead of leaving them in the woods for people to find and be horrified by? It’s actually MORE work to dispose of them that way. And it causes issues when the local folks catch wind of the plan and find literally dozens of bodies stashed away in the woods. That in turn causes more issues when local unstable blondie Molly Sue flips out and summons Pumpkinhead for some good ol’ fashioned revengin’.

It's OK kids. Pumpkinhead is here for you.

Why cut right to Pumpkinhead and not call the local cops? Well, despite the fact that all the bodies that have been sent to the Wallace crematorium  in the last few years have turned up noticeably uncremated in the woods with the organs removed, the cops seem to not have any idea who could be responsible. Doc Fraser, examining the bodies, opines “I’m not even sure if what was done to these folks was a crime!” and the sheriff seems to take his word for it. Honestly, it seems like Pumpkinhead could be put to better use teaching these morons how to put two and two together, but Molly Sue isn’t the brightest bulb herself and so she just enlists some friends (relatives? what were they trying to do, get a bulk discount?) to go in on this Pumpkinhead vengeance deal with her and turns the thing loose on the whole town.

So finally we have a Pumpkinhead, and what do you know, it’s actually nice to see that pruney fucker again. He looks a little different than last time, clearly trying to put his best foot forward for the new century. For one thing, he’s sometimes a laughably ridiculous CG creation which looks about Sega Saturn quality. For another, his puppety spindles have been replaced by a dude in a big rubber suit which is redesigned in some subtle ways. I can’t lie, the CG would look embarrassing on an episode of “Hercules: The Legendary Journeys.” But for some reason I kind of dig on the new design for the suit. He’s still kind of conceptually uninspired, but his new more blunted face looks vaguely alien and is nicely articulated by old-school animatronics. They also goose up the fun by finally giving the dude some decent gimmicky kills -- sure, he spends a good amount of time smacking people around with those big goofy hands of his, but he also ups his game by impaling someone on a weather vane, crushing a guy’s head through steel bars, stabbing someone with his tail (which I totally forgot he had, but looking back at the original, yup, it’s there). So, a little more hustle on the Pumpkinhead front than usual.

Obviously, the kids who swear revenge and summon Pumpkinhead are terrible, terrible actors, and not even in a fun overacting way. They’re just dull and bland. But Doug Bradley, in a rare non-Pinhead role, is actually a lot of fun as that corpse-stealing, meth-dealing pistol-toting, free-healthcare-providing not-so-great-at-planning lovable scamp Doc Faser. He dresses like an 19th century preacher, for one thing, and even though his corpse-disposal plan is open to some criticism you have to appreciate his more practical solution to his Pumpkinhead woes. Upon hearing the obligatory flashback from Bunt, he realizes that Pumpkinhead only perseveres as long as those who summon him remain alive. So, he grabs his pistol and sets out to kill everyone who sicked Pumpkinhead on him before he himself can be killed. It’s such a practical and proactive solution that he automatically becomes sort of a badass anti-hero and you start pulling for him. 

I'm your huckleberry.

Plus, Bradley turns out to be pretty darn charismatic when he’s not getting acupuncture’d from a place beyond limits where pleasure and pain are indivisible. His Appalachian Mountain accent is not exactly robust, but honestly considering everyone else in this turkey he’s probably the closest. You can bypass it by imagining a backstory where he’s actually a British immigrant who settled in Pumpkinhead territory and has picked up a slight twinge of local color. Which would also make sense, because Doc Fraser is a believer in socialized medicine. Turns out that all these organ shenanigans are actually a way to fund his free health care service. So he steals from the dead to give to the living. Guy’s basically a Grave-Robin Hood**. And, it turns out ol’ Pumpkinhead-summoning Molly Sue is given to “episodes” serious enough that the police don’t even get out of their chairs when she storms into the station screaming that there’s a dead body in her truck. Not exactly the most responsible person to be raising vegetable-themed demons of vengeance. So even though Fraser may be a murderous meth-dealing preacher-dressing-like body-snatching etc etc, there’s a nice little bit of moral ambiguity in there.

That’s the movie, really. It’s not great like it could be, but at it has more going for it than it should, by all accounts. Yes, it’s shot on shitty digital video which frequently looks like a cell phone camera. But they still manage to get some nice shots in there, and against all odds actually use the shitty quality of the “film” to enhance the brutally hard lighting and lend atmosphere to the inside of their squalid locations***. Yes, they could only get Lance Henriksen for a few hours of filming, but they use his obvious greatness to spice things up and add unexpected weight to the narrative. Yes, the movie looks like it cost less than a Mitt Romney haircut, but they make excellent use of some great location shots and milk their setpieces, when they do come, for all they’re worth. And yes, the acting can be pretty depressingly bad, but surprisingly the script isn’t a disaster at all. Doc Fraser has a nice little monologue about where pain comes from (the brain, he says) which actually pays off later in another exchange. There’s even an attempt to make some kind of metaphor out of the Ashes to Ashes thing. It doesn’t really quite pan out, but it’s nice to see them trying a little. And even though it doesn’t work, somehow it kind of does. There’s something about the bare, minimalist setting and noir-worthy hard light combined with the meth and ghosts and twisted forests and body snatching which gives the whole thing a perverse, nightmarish quality which is more than the sums of its individually weak parts.

The end result is like Pumpkinhead himself: sloppy, ungainly, not as cool as it ought to be. But gets the job done. Better than advertised, would summon again.

Two great tastes that taste great together.

Lance Henriksen:                                           YES
Bland And/or Irritating White Kids:                 SEVERAL
Satisfying Kills:                                               NOPE
Horror Icon You Wouldn’t Expect 
They Could Get For This:                              DOUG BRADLEY
Pumpkinhead Smacks People 
With His Big Stupid Hands:                           ALAS, YES
Attempt at Appalachian Accents:                  DISASTROUS
At All Watchable:                                           SURPRISINGLY, YES

* Or a FREDDY VS. JASON type crossover. Although frankly the mashup I really want to see is PINHEAD VS JIGSAW. It’d be the horror version of that scene from LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS with Steve Martin as the sadistic dentist and Bill Murray as the masochist patient. Except more British. And probably more de-limbing.  

** Haters gonna hate.

*** Oddly, Romania stands in for Appalachia somewhat well, and their use of real locations gives the whole thing a spartan, almost minimalist feel of isolation and decay.

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