“While Pumpkinhead is an uneven film, I would suggest checking it out if you’re a fan of 80s creature features or slashers”
Pumpkinhead begins in the year 1957, where we are taken to a small, cozy shack seemingly somewhere in the Midwest judging by the frontier feel (read into this and found out it actually takes place in California). A tenderly mother is tucking her son into bed and attempting to sooth him, while the father of the family is loading his shotgun with a much worried expression on his face. The father exits the home to lock some items up and lead a horse inside a nearby barn, when the weather begins turning for the worse. The father quickly closes the door, sealing the horse inside, and begins turning his head wildly looking for an unknown force. He sprints back across the yard and enters into the sanctuary of his home, slamming the door shut behind him and placing a wooden beam across for added security.
A short time later, we cut to a scene of another man running wildly around the previously mentioned family’s farm, with an unseen creature in tow. This unidentified man begins wildly banging on the family’s door, pleading with them to let him in. The father of the family, name revealed to be Tom, yells to the man through the door that he cannot let him in, as he cannot endanger the well being of his wife and son by directly getting involved in the situation. The hunted man refuses to leave, yelling that “I didn’t mean to kill that girl!” It is here that Tom states if the hunted man does not back away from his door and leave, he will shoot him through said door with his shotgun.
The soon to be dead guy begins breaking down emotionally on Tom’s front porch, before the arrival of the creature causes him to once again begin running away like prey. Finally, the prey finds himself stuck in some thick mud at the bottom of a hill, when the creature pounces and lifts the man up by his leg, tearing him apart and killing him. During this kill sequence, we are treated to a few short camera cuts of the creature, revealing something which could easily be mistaken for a Xenomorph from the Alien franchise.
While this unknown victim is being slaughtered, the camera cuts to reveal that the little boy from the shack is watching this all go down from a window in the backroom of his home. At the conclusion of the kill, we time jump from the late 1950s, to the modern day (which at this time was the late 1980s.) That little boy is now a fully grown man, living on that same farm in the same shack with a young son of his own.
The next twenty or so minutes of the film establish that Ed Harley (our protagonist) is raising his son by himself. Ed and his son Billy have a very deep and loving relationship, as Billy is the only thing his father has in his life, his wife being absent for an unexplained reason at this point in the film. After having a meal in their dining room, and Billy presenting his father with a necklace he himself made for him, the father and son duo along with their dog, Gypsy, hop in their old and rusty truck to drive over to their general store they operate.
Soon after the father and son arrive at their general store and open up for business, a group of rowdy city kids pull up to the business in a sports car and an SUV towing along two dirt bikes on a trailer. The driver of the Corvette has been consuming alcohol, and is quite rude to little Billy when the group of young adults meet him outside the store playing with his dog, which gets the drunk man scolded by his girlfriend and fellow friends.
Before too long, the drunk Corvette driver decides that he is bored and would like to ride around on one of the dirtbikes while his brother and friends purchase some food and supplies from the general store. After this transaction, our lead man Ed must depart to drop off a shipment of livestock feed to a customer. Before leaving, Ed tells Billy to stay inside the store and keep an eye on things while he is gone. Billy of course obeys, and heads to the back of the shop with Gyspy.
While lying down in the back of the general store, Gyspy’s ears pick up the rumbling of the dirt bike engines, of which two are now roaring since the corvette driver’s brother has joined along. Following his natural instincts, Gyspy quickly gets up and bolts out of the store’s front door, running over to the nearby hills where the two men are flying through the air and performing fancy maneuvers. Billy, being a young boy with a deep caring for his dog, of course gives chase.
Before too long, Billy finds himself directly in the middle of the dirt bike track, with the sober young man flying over his head, just barely missing him. Mere seconds later, the intoxicated man comes flying over the hill, and does not.
From here, the film quickly devolves into a revenge plot where, after his son’s killer flees the scene instead of calling for medical help, Ed resolves that he will get revenge against them, by any means necessary. After going back and speaking with the teen son of his animal feed customer, Ed seeks out the backwoods witch Haggis to conjure up “Pumpkinhead,” the demon which Ed himself witnessed as a little boy rip a man to pieces in revenge for killing an innocent girl. After Pumpkinhead is conjured up and begins dispatching the bland teens one-by-one, Ed has a change of heart when he is forced to witness the killings from the POV perspective of Pumpkinhead due to he and the demon sharing a mental link.
Ed returns to Haggis the witch and demands she stop the demon immediately, which Haggis states she is unable to do. Ed resolves to stop Pumpkinhead one way or another, and begins devising a plan to do so. While this is going on in the background, we’re following two of the flavorless young adults who are being hunted by the demon in a very lackluster chase sequence. At the end of said boring chase, the two young people accidentally lead Pumpkinhead directly into Ed, who proceeds to unload on the creature with his shotgun. Ed then brings the two of them into his truck and drives them to his barn, where he has a surprise waiting for the demon.
As Ed is setting up his surprise present for Pumpkinhead, which is a flamethrower, Ed’s face begins to visibly morph into that of a demon with blood red eyes and veins popping out of his face. It seems that as Pumpkinhead is racking up a higher body count, he and Ed are becoming one. The disposable teens stand around doing nothing as they have for the entire film, when Pumpkinhead finally catches up for this big final encounter to finish his job and kill off the two remaining targets.
As Pumpkinhead is readying his claws to claim his final victims, Ed comes heroically storming out of the barn with flamethrower in hand. On his way out, Ed accidentally rams his right shoulder into an upright farming pitchfork, causing a severe wound with blood pouring out. Ed lets out a loud cry of pain, when the creature himself suddenly has a wound develope on his right shoulder, showing that he and Ed are almost one in the same.
After your typical horror film final showdown where the protagonist gets knocked around a bit and hope almost seems lost, Ed finally succeeds in setting Pumpkinhead ablaze and ending things once and for all, at the cost of suffering life ending wounds himself which end his life.
The film ends with Haggis The Witch carrying the body of Ed’s dead son Billy to the same gravesite which Pumpkinhead rose from earlier, alluding that Billy himself will one day be resurrected as a demon, having the film end on quite a dark and depressing note.
Overall, I enjoyed Pumpkinhead. The opening scene with the scared family and stormy night really created an incredible atmosphere which I wish stuck around for quite a bit more of the film. While scary, it also had a bit of a cozy feeling with everyone tucked inside a cabin huddled around the fire, while those outside were being killed by some unseen force.
The acting on behalf of Lance Henriksen was superb. Both he and Matthew Hurley, who plays his son Billy, did a fantastic job at creating a real sense of love and connection with the roughly twenty-ish minutes their two characters share together on screen. I found Matthew Hurley’s acting especially fantastic considering he is a very small child at the time of filming, and was a bit surprised to find out he didn’t go on to do much after this film besides popping up as a minor character in random tv shows every few years.
Unfortunately, nearly no one else in this film can compare to the performance those two gave. Florence Schauffler stood out amongst the supporting cast for her performance as Haggis The Witch, but heavy makeup and being on screen for only a few minutes out of a 1h & 26m film no doubt would have hidden any weaknesses she possibly had as an actor. Also, being the best of the worst is nothing to be proud of.
Pumpkinhead himself looks absolutely incredible in this film, if not a little….or should I say A LOT like a Xenomorph from Aliens. I guess that should come as no surprise considering that the director of this film, Stan Winston, was a special effects and make-up master who had just worked on the film Aliens two years before directing this film. Regardless of the similarities, Pumpkinhead is a very scary and intimidating figure. The image of a tall and slender black armored monster sprinting through the trees and striking out at you with the speed of a cheetah is terrifying. Pumpkinhead is just another example as to why 80s practical effects are the best way to go.
The first half of this film, which is just a slow build to the arrival of Pumpkinhead, is incredibly well done. From the introduction, to the father and son relationship, to Ed losing Billy and becoming hell bent on revenge. I really enjoyed Billy’s character for the time he was on screen, which made his death at the hands of the drunk have some emotional impact behind it. Seeing such a young and pure life snuffed out due to the actions of an intoxicated and immature douche had me rooting for him to be killed by Pumpkinhead.
This was the main thing that ruined the entire second half of the film for me. Despite the drunk killing Billy and then fleeing the scene, the film later tries to portray this guy as a protagonist! He flees the scene of a child he killed, cuts the phone lines of the cabin his friends are staying in, later smashes one of his friends in the head with a bottle and locks two of them up in a closet, and threatens to harm his own little brother if he alerts anyone. But then, after witnessing Pumpkinhead kill a number of his friends (in some very dull ways), he decides he must confront the creature and kill it since he’s the cause of it’s resurrection, and the film very much feels as if we’re supposed to be on his side.
What harms all of this further is that none of the actors portraying the characters who make up this group of friends have any acting skill. The actor portraying the drunken child killer constantly seems like he is only seconds away from laughing, as I imagine he himself realized what a poor job he and his fellow co-actors were doing. If the scenes used in this film were the good ones, I would REALLY hate to see the cut takes.
Mercifully, this dude dies another uneventful death just as most of his friends had, and we’re left following two of the cardboard cutout teens through some generic horror movie forest chase scenes. I was totally checked out at this point, and only came alive once Ed arrived and began the final battle. The makeup effects on the demonic Ed were incredibly well done and the introduction of Ed and Pumpkinhead both feeling the same pain was interesting. I wish that concept was introduced earlier in the film, but I understand the idea was that their link became stronger and stronger the more Pumpkinhead killed.
Overall, this film had an awesome monster in Pumpkinhead and lead actor in Lance Henriksen, but everyone else shit the bed, hence why this film is not as fondly remembered as most other 80s slasher/creature films.
Pros and Cons
*Lance Henriksen gives a superb performance as Ed Harley
*Very rich, haunting atmosphere with thunderstorms, lighting, and a graveyard. Great to watch around Halloween
*Astounding practical effects and makeup on the Pumpkinhead creature, and Ed himself late in the film
*The witch’s home and character are beautifully crafted
*The teens are essentially cardboard cutouts with no character and barely stand apart
*Pumpkinhead’s killing spree is very rushed, failing to build tension, and many of the kills fall a bit flat due to a lack of gore (Thanks to censorship of the time period)
*The second half of the film feels like it unnecessarily drags quite a bit until the final confrontation, paling in comparison to the slow build of the first half
“Pumpkinhead is a film in which an excellent monster and lead actor is let down by poor writing and supporting cast.” – Ken