Originally released in 1988, Pumpkinhead has always struck me as being one of those films that more people remember hearing someone else talk about it than have actually sat down and watched.
I think that’s because it has such a great title. Pumpkinhead! That’s not a title that you’re going to forget and it conjures up all sorts of scary images. If you hear someone mention that title, it stays in your head. It’s an easy title to remember and it’s also an easy title to turn into a macabre joke. If, on Halloween night, you and your friends hear a sound in the house, you can always say, “It must be Pumpkinhead!” Everyone will laugh, regardless of whether they’ve seen the film or not. It’s kind of like how everyone knows what the Great Pumpkin is, even if they’ve never actually watched the old cartoon.
As for the actual film, it’s a mix of monster horror and hick revenge flick. It’s one of those movies where a bunch of dumb city kids do something stupid while driving through the country and, as a result, they end up having to deal with a curse and a monster.
Ed Harley (Lance Henriksen) is a widower who owns a grocery store that is pretty much sitting out in the middle of nowhere. Seriously, you look at his little store sitting off the side of a country road and you wonder how he makes enough money to feed his family. Of course, the store’s location isn’t the only problem. The other problem is that Ed seems to instinctively mistrust the few people who do stop off at the place. Even if I lived near there, I probably wouldn’t want to shop at that store because I know Ed would glare at me and make me feel like I was doing something wrong.
However, a group of dumbass dirt bikers do stop off at the store. And then they decide to drive their dirt bikers around the store while another member of the group takes pictures. Unfortunately, the dirt bikers run over Ed’s son, little Billy. The dirt bikers flee the scene, heading to their cabin. Ed meanwhile goes to the local witch and asks her to summon …. PUMPKINHEAD!
After a lengthy ceremony, Pumpkinhead shows up. Because Pumpkinhead was directed special effects maestro Stan Winston, he’s a very impressive creature. He looks something like this:
You may notice that Pumpkinhead doesn’t actually have a pumpkin for a head but no matter! It’s still a good name and when your monster looks like that, he can call himself whatever he wants.
Anyway, Pumpkinhead tracks down and starts to kill the people responsible for the death of Billy. Unfortunately, it turns out that Ed experiences each murder along with Pumpkinhead and he quickly has a change of heart. The witch tells him it’s too late. Pumpkinhead will not stop until everyone’s dead and if Ed tries to interfere, Ed will die as well.
It’s a clever-enough idea, a filmed version of one of those old legends that you occasionally hear about in the country. It’s a good thing that the monster is really, really scary because his victims are pretty much forgettable. Some of them feel bad about killing Ed’s son and some of them don’t but it’s hard to keep straight which is which. They’re just too bland. As a result, their deaths don’t really generate any sort of emotion, good or bad. They’re just there to be victims. The only person your really care about is Ed but that’s mostly because he’s played by Lance Henriksen and Henriksen is one of those actors who can bring almost any character to life, regardless of how thinly-drawn that character may be. Henriksen has a built-in authenticity. Since he’s clearly not a product of the Hollywood publicity machine but is instead someone who obviously lived an interesting life before he ever auditioned for his first film, you believe in Henriksen’s performance even when the script betrays him. You believe that he owns that store, even though the store seems to be in the worst location ever. When he mourns Billy, you believe it. When he tries to stop Pumpkinhead, you believe that as well. What little humanity that there is to be found in the film is almost totally the result of Henriksen’s performance.
So, give it up for Lance Henriksen and give it up for the scariness of Pumpkinhead and also give it up for director Stan Winston, who came up with enough horrific visuals that it almost made up for his apparent lack of interest in the film’s human characters. Give it up to for a little-known character actress named Florence Schauffer, who is properly creepy as the local witch. Pumpkinhead is a good film to watch with your friends on Halloween, even if the title monster doesn’t really have a pumpkin for a head.