Studio: Scream Factory
Release date: September 9th, 2014
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
Pumpkinhead feels like a perfect Halloween movie, and not just because of the title character’s name and appearance. Rather, it’s exactly the sort of movie that fits a chilly fall night between its autumnal vibe and its cool campfire lore. Despite its bleak material, it’s a fun little revenge tale with a cool monster and jerkass teenagers meeting their gory doom, the type of forbidden fruit you’d pluck from a VHS shelf in your youth but one that holds up well into adulthood because it’s a remarkably well-made and performed horror movie delivered by genre heavyweight Stan Winston in his directorial debut.
With an effects titan at the helm, it’s not surprising that Pumpkinhead hangs over the proceedings early an often, as the audience catches its first glimpse during a prologue, which finds young Ed Harley watching on in confusion as his father refuses to shelter a frantic, terrified man. Through a window, Ed witnesses the doomed man die at the hands of a mysterious creature. Thirty years later, Ed (Lance Henriksen) is now a widower with a young son (Matthew Hurley) of his own. The two operate a roadside general store and encounter tragedy when a band of asshole kids decide to turn the surroundings into their own dirt track and accidentally kill the child. Despondent and still haunted by memories of the local legend of Pumpkinhead, Ed consults a nearby sorceress to resurrect the monster and exact revenge on the teenagers that killed his son.
Considering the horror climate of 1988, I’m sure it was tempting for the folks behind Pumpkinhead to really hone in on the gory revenge aspect of the story, and, while they eventually deliver that, the film is effectively suffused in a southern gothic atmosphere to set the scene. Having not seen the film in nearly a decade, I’d forgotten just how southern-fried the proceedings are: twangy chords punctuate the soundtrack as the film unfolds amidst rustic landscapes filled with superstitious yokels (including Buck Flower in a rare role where his character isn’t a homeless drunk!). The scene in which Ed consults with the old witch is a master class in supernatural scene-setting, with blue-tinted fog draping the swampy, Spanish moss and kudzu crawling over the scenery, and Madeleine Taylor Holmes providing a spooky turn as the enigmatic sorceress. Even though viewers have already glimpsed Pumpkinhead, his resurrection is built up into an event on par with classic monster creation scenes.
While Pumpinhead himself is the real star here, he’s matched by a fine human element in Henriksen’s Ed Harley. In one of his finest performances, Henriksen centers the film with a tragic presence; his early interactions with his son reveal a father who only wants the best for his family’s humble existence, and one senses a quiet desperation in his quest for revenge. You can feel his conflict even before he realizes how destructive his resurrection of Pumpkinhead is and decides to slay the beast he’s helped to create. That decision comes rather quickly (as dictated by the 86 minute runtime), but it seems right given the impulsive nature of the act and his natural good-heartedness.
Opposing Henriksen is a rather forgettable cast of kids, John D’Aquino’s Joel excepted—and he only sets himself apart by proving to be the worst person imaginable. Rather than face the consequences of running over Ed’s son, he flees to a nearby cabin and leaves his brother to deal with the grieving father’s death glare before spending the rest of the film plotting his escape from authorities (he’s already on probation for a previous incident—a real catch, this guy). Both his brother and the film’s female contingent provide voices of reason, but this is one cabin-in-the-woods movie where at least one of the dumb kids really deserves what’s coming to him. Like other films of its ilk, there’s a clear divide between the city folk and the rural forces threatening them, but Pumpkinhead presents an interesting dynamic in portraying the latter as slighted victims rather than natural predators.
Taking that role is Pumpkinhead himself, a force of nature serving as both an agent of revenge and a curse for those who raise him. A clever twist in the script manifests the latter in overt fashion, as Ed gradually becomes one with the beast, an obvious but fantastic conceit to reinforce the all-consuming destructiveness of vengeance. But it’s obviously the creature and its effects that serve as the star attraction; brought to life via Winston’s wizardry and Tom Woodruff’s performance, Pumpkinhead is one of the most stunning monsters ever put before a camera, a true achievement in man-in-suit effects work.
The design is supremely memorable and its details astounding even under the scrutiny of Winston’s camerawork, which takes in every opportunity to capture the monster on film. With so much work having been put into making him come to life, Pumpkinhead isn’t shrouded in shadows or held back for a big reveal; instead, he’s raising hell almost immediately after his resurrection, dishing out gory dispatches and scaring the hell out of his victims.
It’s too bad his debut appearance is the only film truly deserving of him, as three sequels of diminishing quality reduced Pumpkinhead from a would-be icon to a bit of a one-hit wonder. Rumblings of a remake or reboot have expectedly persisted during the last few years, and I can’t say I’d be opposed to the latter: the rich Pumpkinhead mythology lends itself to further permutations, and it’s a monster who deserves a second chance at forging a legacy—so long as whoever’s in charge is respecting the legacy of Stan Winston and company, of course.
Pumpkinhead has been a mainstay on disc for well over a decade now and even received a Collector’s Edition DVD release about six years ago, but Scream Factory is set debut its own—and more definitive, Collector’s Edition Blu-ray release. The leap to high-def obviously serves as a presentation upgrade, and viewers even have their choice of a stereo or 5.1 DTS-MA track to boot (having sampled the latter, I can vouch that it’s fine—a little front-heavy, but that’s to be expected since the film was originally mixed in stereo).
Once again, Scream has outdone itself with the bevy of supplements by not only porting over all of the previous special editions but by producing some new material as well. In total, the supplements run nearly three hours—or nearly twice as long as the film itself. In addition to a commentary track featuring Woodruff, Alec Gillis, co-writer Gary Gerani, and moderator Scott Spiegel, the hour-long retrospective from the previous release provides a definitive look at the film’s production, from its inspiration (both the filmmaker’s old 8mm exploits and their friend’s poem provided the impetus) to its release. Some vintage behind-the-scenes footage and a look at the creation of Sideshow Collectibles’ awesome statue round out the previously-released material.
Additionally, a trio of interviews with D’Auino, Hurley, and co-writer Richard Weinman provide some perspectives that weren’t included before, plus a 50-minute long tribute to Winston full of recollections from those who worked with him. Often highlighted is his knack for recognizing talent and allowing it to flourish (often by only quickly thumbing through a portfolio of work), his relentless work ethic, and his kindness towards his cast and crew. A lot of it centers on Pumpkinhead (for obvious reasons), so here’s hoping there’s a larger documentary set to further immortalize one of cinema’s great geniuses. This is a fine start.
Both a stills gallery and a trailer complete the supplements for a disc that lives up to Scream Factory’s fine standards—after two years of stellar releases, they’ve firmly established themselves as the boutique cult label, and this further entrenches them. Fans won’t even have to wait very long for a similar treatment for the film’s first treatment, as Pumpkinhead II: Blood Wings is due on Blu-ray next month. With the calendar mercifully approach fall, the original film is a fine September prelude for your annual horror movie binge in October. comments powered by Disqus Ratings: