Spoiler warning: I’ll be discussing most everything there is to discuss about Pumpkinhead.
There’s nothing like a great film. The closest thing would be an exceptional rollercoaster, except the butterflies linger in you for days as you relive its ups, downs, sharp turns, and soothing conclusion. Any complaints you have are nitpicks; you can tell the ride was calculated to virtual perfection. And you love it for that.
Anyway, this series isn’t about that. It’s about the uneven, choppy rides. The flawed films, films that only barely work. I have a fascination with the median of cinematic quality, thinking longer about middling titles than titles I love. What brought on their failings? What are their saving graces? How would I smooth out the bumps in the ride?
This first episode of Middling Movies is a slice of 80’s horror. A monster picture of minor cult renown, Pumpkinhead has shopkeeper Ed Harley lose his son in a motorcycle accident. The teenagers responsible appear to leave the scene, remorseless, and the distraught father summons an abominable demon with the help of a local witch. The awakened Pumpkinhead, so named because it lays dormant in a pumpkin patch, hunts down the youngsters in the name of vengeance. Sounds like a stellar synopsis, so where does the product fall short? Well…
The teenagers are boring characters. I’ve seen the movie five times and still don’t remember their names. There might be a Joel? I’ve claimed before that I don’t need interesting characters to enjoy a story, but these are not only uninteresting; they have such undefined identities that they suffocate my investment. Worse, in a misguided narrative shift, the second half of the film promotes them to main characters. I’m expected to fear for these brats, but I find myself sympathizing more with the monster ripping them to shreds.
The suspense is stillborn. The first half establishes a decently foreboding atmosphere, but it dissipates at the halfway point. I blame the aforementioned lackluster characters, but also the director’s mismanagement of tension. There are barely any moments of not knowing where the monster is or when it’ll strike. No startling sounds in the dark. No chase scenes to speak of. The viewer is meant to fear Pumpkinhead because of the carnage it delivers, but without sufficient build-up to that carnage, the horror falls flat.
The cinematography is dull. This could have been a cool-looking movie, with its brownish, bucolic setting contrasting with the nightly blue hues. But the visual power is squandered by an overabundance of static medium shots. The camera work isn’t incompetent, but it keeps me forever at a safe distance from the action, failing to suck me in.
The lead is engaging. Ed Harley isn’t complex, but well-defined: A widower with an honest living, whose gruff demeanor belies a tender heart. He’s a smart enough man to lovingly raise a son, and a simple enough man to impetuously turn to vengeance upon losing him. Lance Henriksen captures the balance flawlessly. The scenes with him and his son are especially effective. My favorite moment is when the boy gifts his father with a homemade clay necklace and Harley vows to never take it off.
Everything about the witch. The power of makeup and set design is taken full advantage of in Pumpkinhead. The only thing creepier than the shriveled Haggis is her dilapidated house, resting in a swamp that would make Shrek shudder. I totally buy that this old bag knows how to summon demons. None of this would mean much, though, if the actress wasn’t so convincing as a devout agent of evil. Some time after Pumpkinhead’s awakening, Harley has a change of heart. Horrified with what he’s set loose, he asks Haggis to stop the demon, and is cut off by a sinister laugh. It can’t be stopped. This is what he asked for. “God damn you,” shouts Harley. “He already has, son”, is her sardonic reply. Great cinema.
The monster rules. This is the directorial debut of special effects grandmaster Stan Winston, and his creature steals the show. While Pumpkinhead does move stiffly at times, its design is fantastic, inspired by both folklore and the monster movie canon. Its best feature is how it morphs throughout the film. Initially small and undeveloped, it grows into a towering, serpent-faced beast, then sprouts human-like features over time. Harley, meanwhile, looks increasingly monstrous, developing red, beady eyes. This connection between monster and man leads me to the strongest element of the movie:
The ending redeems the second half. Harley finally pieces together that the demon is linked to him and sustains his injuries. The only way for him to stop Pumpkinhead is to kill himself. Determined to spare the remaining youngsters, he has one of them shoot him dead. The monster falls to the ground and bursts into flames.
Cut to the witch returning Pumpkinhead to the pumpkin patch. It’s apparently regressed into its smaller, dormant form. Moments before the closing credits, the camera zeroes in on a peculiar object around the creature’s neck – the crude clay necklace made by Harley’s son. It dawns on the viewer that this is actually Harley’s deformed body. He’ll become the next Pumpkinhead. That’s why he was gradually going hideous, and why the old monster combusted: When you awaken the creature, you unknowingly pledge to become its next incarnation. The main monster in the film must’ve been the previous vengeful summoner. This twist lends a fair bit of depth to the mythology, and honestly saves the movie. Yes, a single shot elevates Pumpkinhead‘s second half from parody to parable. Vengeance is never the solution, it teaches. You may desire it deeply, but it’ll consume you, absorb you into a cyclic evil. It’s a brilliant horror concept.
HOW I’D FIX IT
Have it be just three teenagers. In the film, there’s five (I think – they blend together) and the only one to develop a personality is the delinquent motorcyclist who refuses to get help for the boy. I’d omit that pillock, along with another useless teen, and try to develop the remaining three somewhat. I don’t need to divulge their dreams, desires, or childhood traumas, but each should have a distinct reaction to the accident. Perhaps the motorcyclist is overcome by guilt, another has a panic attack, and a third one tries to keep their head cool, insisting that they call for help from the cabin they’re staying in. These rudimentary personalities wouldn’t make the viewer care for the characters, necessarily, but project themselves onto them. The youngsters would feel like real people, with proper identities, and a contagious fear of the abomination that stalks them.
Even so, the horror would have to be improved. Here’s an idea off the top of my head: After calling an ambulance (they don’t know that the boy has already died at this point), one of the teens leaves the cabin to clear her anxious mind, and spots Pumpkinhead far away. Perhaps it’s a personal thing, but something about just barely seeing the threat as it prowls in the distance gives me major creeps. The girl races back to the cabin and relays the distressing news, panting. While locking every window and door, the teenagers discuss the accident and the current best course of action, further cementing their characters. Dusk falls. Eerie sounds come from outside, then a monstrous silhouette in the window, a thrilling home invasion scene, and the gruesome death of a character. The surviving pair escape into the woods, and the remainder of the movie has them alternating between hiding and running. Finally, they encounter Harley and apologize for the pain they’ve caused him. With Lance Henriksen’s patented cold stare, Harley declares that he’ll never forgive them. “Or myself,” he continues in a softer tone. “We’re all cursed now. But I won’t let that thing get us.”
The movie from there would be about the same, with a final showdown taking place, Harley discovering the monster’s weakness, and everything wrapping up with that spot of didactic brilliance at the pumpkin patch. Perhaps I’d add a motorcycle chase. Oh, and get the DP to step up their game. Where’s Christian Bale when you need him?
I hope you enjoyed this pilot of my first series! Keep an eye out for the next episode, avoid the Pumpkinhead sequels like the plague (except the one I plan to make in ten years), and remember: Much can be learned from mediocrity!