Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Pumpkinhead 2: Blood Wings

Pumpkinhead II: Blood Wings (1994)
Dir. Jeff Burr
Starring Andrew Robinson, Pumpkinhead, and Soleil Moon Frye of all fool people.

    Democracy is a flawed system of government. It can be schizophrenic, unresponsive, vulnerable to domination both by mob rule or by a small but powerful elite. Winston Churchill once said of Democracy, “...Democracy is the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” But it must be said, when the citizens rise up and make their needs heard, when they speak loudly and with one unified, undeniable voice, we are reminded that the power truly rests with the people. And by 1994, the people had spoken. It had been too long since they had seen their friend, Pumpkinhead. A massive grassroots organization sprang up, rallies were organized, petitions were circulated. 40 dedicated Pumpkinhead fans chained themselves to the lobby of the Motion Picture Organization of America. Then-president Bill Clinton found himself deluged through the mail with hundreds of pumpkins with his face carved on them along with vaguely threatening messages about what the result might be if Pumpkinhead was allowed to stay dead. America couldn't leave dead enough alone.

Finally, in early October 1994, President Clinton gathered his top aides and called a press conference in the Rose Garden. Surrounded by world leaders and cultural luminaries, with tears streaming down his face, Clinton addressed the nation with the news that our prayers had been answered, there would be a Pumpkinhead sequel. The Star Spangled Banner was played. Battle-hardened Generals wept like children, unashamed. Plans were quickly drawn up to carve Lance Henriksen’s face into the ancient rock of Mount Rushmore. Americans, as one, rushed into the streets and culminated the news with a night of celebration unequaled in this country’s --and perhaps the world’s -- long history. At dawn, they finally collapsed into bed (many, nay, most of them now pregnant after a wild night of frantic, hip-bruising orgiastic sex) secure in the knowledge that he would be back. The world seemed new again. As they drifted off into contented slumber, the last thing that passed through their minds was a date. October 19th. P-day. The next morning would see the run rise high in the sky, proud and fierce, over the dawning of a new golden age.

Or possibly some schmuck just bought the rights to the monster and had to make a movie out of it within 3 months before they expired. Which is actually I think slightly closer to what happened.

So OK, this was kind of a mercenary job. But I was still sort of excited to see it, and all because of one man: Jeff Burr. Sure, he spent most of his career directing terrible and deeply unnecessary sequels, including but not limited to STEPFATHER II, LEATHERFACE: THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE III, PUPPETMASTER 4 and 5, THE WEREWOLF REBORN! and, I can’t believe I’m writing this, a horror film called THE TELLING which stars the ladies from the perversely popular dear-god-this-really-is-the-end-of-Western-civilization E! original series The Girls Next Door.

But, he also made one film which really surprised both me and Vincent Price with its high quality, the anthology film FROM A WHISPER TO A SCREAM. It was his first film, and it boasted a bunch of really top-notch performances, complemented by a rich Southern Gothic atmosphere and some imaginatively disturbing horror concepts. So honestly, it seemed like PUMPKINHEAD might be a good fit for the guy, with it’s timeless, folksy backwoods folklore and evocative Appalachian background. I liked all that stuff about the Stan Winston original, and thought a director who had a gift for exactly that kind of thing and less fixation on big rubbery special effects had a chance to make a really great sequel.

Pumpkinhead spends a surprising amount of his time walking through doorways.

Turns out, though, that this one is exactly as shitty as you might expect, and, predictably, for the exact reasons you’d probably expect. As Burr describes in this detailed and career-spanning interview, producer Brad Krevoy (producer of such varied material as DUMB AND DUMBER, PUMPKINHEAD 4, and ULEE’S GOLD) had randomly ended up with the keys to the Pumpkinhead kingdom, and needed to put them to use before they expired. Burr was brought on at the last minute to adapt a regular non-pumpkin-related horror script into a Pumpkinhead film, and the results is, in his own estimation, his worst film.

The opening sequence is actually pretty good. A bunch of 50’s greaseball preppies drive out into the woods and torture this deformed kid to death. John Gatkins (who you remember in the role of “Dishwasher” from FRED 2: NIGHT OF THE LIVING FRED) does a great job as the preppies’ leader, vicious and a little unhinged but obviously in control. But it doesn’t take long to see that this Pumpkin is rotten. Because it’s not long before we move to the present day and quickly come upon the PUMPKINHEAD series’ achilles heel: annoying college kids.

OK, so these college kids are actually high school kids even though they’re obviously pushing 30, but whatever, it’s a podunk redneck town (though not the same podunk redneck town as the first one -- this one is less Hill People and more Rednecks). The town just got a new Sheriff (Andrew Robinson, who at least looks awake if not exactly making a huge effort) and his infuriating daughter has already fallen in with a bad crowd of teenagers which is for some reason composed of 30-something LA sitcom actors who look more like guest stars from Saved By the Bell than rebellious redneck hoodlums. An odd artistic choice, I know, but maybe it’s a metaphor or something. One of them, incidentally, is Punky Brewster, and for some reason she’s a proud and outspoken Wiccan which one might imagine would go over poorly in this insular backwoods community. But then again, most people in town seem to be well-to-do, highly educated multiethnic LA actors, so I guess that’s probably my own prejudice coming through. Sure, these guys are all for slicing up deformed forest children, but that doesn’t mean they’re not cool with neighbors of all colors and creeds.

But, they should have been focusing more on their deformed-kid-killing problem first, as it turns out. Because just as killing an innocent black artist/heir to shoe fortune gets you a Candyman, so too does killing an innocent deformed forest child get you a Pumpkinhead. And again, a Pumpkinhead is hardly something to celebrate. I’m pretty sure it’s the same suite as before, and looks just as uninspired. But even though he looks the same, there’s a twist here -- its not the same Pumpkinhead! A more accurate title for this movie might be SON OF PUMPKINHEAD, because it turns out the deformed kid was actually the illegitimate spawn of the original Pumpkinhead and a random anonymous mortal woman (I’m thinking a lot of moonshine was involved that night). Through a convoluted process which involves the teens mistakenly burning the old witch’s house down and then for absolutely no reason digging up an unmarked grave, pouring magic blood on it, and reading random spells over it, the deformed forest kid comes back to life and turns into Pumpkinhead and heads out to get some god damn revenge on A) the preppies who killed him in the first place and B) the high school hoodlums who burned down the old Lady’s house and brought him back to life.

So it does have one advantage over the original, which is that we very much want to see these particular groups killed off. But in doing so it loses the central tragedy which made the original almost work, which is that to get Pumpkinhead to do your dirty work you have to give up your soul. This Pumpkinhead is working for himself, so there’s no moral ambiguity here. And while I’m always game to watch a big rubber monster eat a bunch of rednecks and/or 30-year-old highschoolers, I just can’t get too into this Pumpkinhead fellah. He looks silly*, he moves slow, and he doesn’t really kill all that good. He doesn’t have a signature weapon or anything and he’s just a big slow-moving puppet, so all he can really do is burst through doors while rave lights flash around him and then awkwardly whack the individual in question with those big goofy hands of his. Who has nightmares about getting slapped to death by a demon? Pretty middle-of-the-road monstering, in my opinion. Even Mansquito knows to throw in a few gimmicks here and there!

           Now with Karate Chop action! Dude looks like fucking Guyver:


So Pumpkinhead is kinda a wash, and his backstory is now both more convoluted and less interesting. But of course the real loss here is the lack of Lance Henriksen. Horror staple Andrew Robinson (HELLRAISER, Scorpio from DIRTY HARRY) is a perfectly fine actor, but he mostly seems to serve as exposition and barely gets personally involved. I guess we're supposed to care about his daughter (generic blonde Ami Dolenz), but the first thing we see her do is lie to her father, followed by burning an old woman to death and covering it up, so I hope you'll forgive me for kinda siding with the Pumpkin Man on this one. So Robinson's a cold fish, his daughter and her friends are actively irritating, and without the strong central presence Henriksen brought to the original, the whole thing feels manufactured, plastic, and disposable. Robinson is supposed to be a big-city cop who has returned to his hometown for some peace of mind, but the town itself is vaguely described and never seems legitimately isolated or backwards. Everyone is clean and well-groomed, wearing the latest (1994) fashions, and even Bill Clinton’s brother Roger is the town’s jheri-curl-mulleted mayor (seriously). There seem to be a couple of farmers living on the edges of town, but it never for a second conjures that time-stands-still vibe that the original PUMPKINHEAD actually got pretty right. It’s a shame, because as a director Burr is definitely capable of better than this. To his credit, he throws in a couple of pretty shots here and there, but mostly the whole thing looks like it was shot in a few weeks (it was) and scripted, as Burr says, by people with “no real affection or affinity for the genre. It was really quite frankly not a good script, but it had to be shot by a certain date to retain the rights. Again, all the wrong reasons to make a movie.”

Reading the interview, it gets a little depressing to see how this poor guy, so full of good ideas, could never really get a break. Stranded in B-movie horror land, it usually seems like he was the only person actually interested in making a real movie. But that’s still no excuse for a sub-par PUMPKINHEAD sequel, so as penance he followed it up with arguably the best Scarecrow film ever, NIGHT OF THE SCARECROW. That one gets right most of the things PUMKI2HEAD gets wrong, with significantly improved atmosphere, a nice legitimately rural feel, and an emphasis on genuine scares rather than monster effects. I still believe there’s a germ of genuinely good idea in this whole Pumpkinhead** thing, but to realize its full potential for the next sequel it’s gonna take people with both the steely artistic dedication and the resources to do something truly right.


Lance Henriksen:                                       NO
Bland And/or Irritating White Kids:             WORST EVER
Satisfying Kills:                                           ONE
Horror Icon You Wouldn’t Expect 
They Could Get For This:                           ANDREW ROBINSON
Pumpkinhead Smacks People 
With His Big Stupid Hands:                        CONSTANTLY
Attempt at Appalachian Accents:               BARELY
At All Watchable:                                        NOPE

*Actually I just realized he looks like that stupid Alien Hybrid at the end of ALIEN: RESURRECTION, so perhaps I was predisposed to be unimpressed and mildly irritated at the poor guy. Compare: 

**This marks the 24th occurrence of the word "Pumpkinhead" in this review.  

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