lizanim.gif (10346 bytes)

Home | Index

PUMPKINHEAD (1988)

"Folks used to talk about you, sayin’ as how you could – do things. If a man had been wronged he could come to you and you’d call upon this – thing – in that man’s name, and that man, he’d be avenged."
"What you’re askin’ got a powerful price…."

pump.jpg (10880 bytes)Director: Stan Winston

Starring: Lance Henriksen, Cynthia Bain, Jeff East, John DiAquino, Joel Hoffman, Kerry Remsen, Kimberly Ross, Florence Schauffler, Brian Bremer, George ‘Buck’ Flower, Matthew Hurley

Screenplay: Mark Patrick Carducci and Gary Gerani

Synopsis: On a small, backwoods farm, a boy named Ed Harley watches in confusion as his father bars the door of their farmhouse, denying entrance to a man who begs and pleads for admittance. The boy steals a look out of a window at the back of the house, and sees the man outside chased and captured by a mysterious creature that looms up out of the mist…. Thirty years later, Ed Harley (Lance Henriksen) is a widower with a small son of his own, Billy (Matthew Hurley). The two live on the same farm, while Ed operates a feed and grocery store. The two are at the store when a group of young adults from the city stop to pick up supplies. They are Joel (John D’Aquino); Joel’s brother, Steve (Joel Hoffman); Kim (Kimberley Ross); Maggie (Kerry Remsen); Tracy (Cynthia Bain); and Chris (Jeff East). The group is visiting a cabin owned by Joel and Steve’s family; the boys plan to spend some time dirt-biking. As they pull up at the store, Joel offends the others by making a cruel remark about Billy Harley’s glasses. As Tracy and Chris make friends with Billy, Joel unlocks his bike from the back of the trailer and takes off into the nearby hills. A truck pulls up at the store. The driver, Wallace (George Flower), tells his grandchildren to wait outside while he makes his purchases. One of the Wallace children steals Billy’s ball. The others gather around him, taunting him that if he is bad, "Pumpkinhead" will get him. Seeing that the boy is sincerely frightened, Tracy intervenes, silencing the other children and giving Billy his ball back. In the store, Ed tells Wallace that he forgot to bring his order of feed to the store, and that he will pick it up and deliver it to Wallace’s farm personally. Calling Billy inside, Ed tells him to stay put while he is picking up the feed, then drives away. Steve gets on his own bike and begins racing Joel. Billy’s dog, disturbed by the noise of the bikes, rushes outside to chase them, and Billy follows. Seeing the danger, Maggie calls for Billy to come back, but she is too late. The two bikes fly over a ridge towards the boy. Steve narrowly misses him, but Joel strikes and seriously injures him. In a panic, Joel forces Kim into his car and drives off. Tracy sends Chris to the store to look for a phone. When he finds none, he, Tracy and Maggie drive to the cabin, while Steve stays with Billy. When Ed returns, Steve tries to explain that it was an accident. Ed looks at him murderously while he picks up his son, but says nothing. At the cabin, Tracy finds that Joel has cut the phone cord. Kim explains that Joel has already been the cause of a serious accident and is on probation. When Tracy and Chris try to grab the car keys, Joel knocks Chris unconscious, locking him and Tracy up in the pantry. Back at their farm, Billy Harley dies in his father’s arms. Ed takes the boy’s body to Wallace’s farm, where he begs Wallace to tell him the whereabouts of a strange old woman (Florence Schauffler). Wallace denies knowing anything about the woman, but Bunt (Brian Bremer), Wallace’s eldest grandson, stops Ed on the road and agrees to direct him. Up in the mountains, Ed carries Billy’s body into the old woman’s cabin. The woman tells him that she cannot raise the dead. Ed asks her about the creature he saw as a child, the one that legend says can be called upon by someone who has been wronged. The woman sends him to dig up a strange grave. When Ed brings back the withered corpse within, the woman prepares a potion to which she adds some of Ed’s blood, and some of the dead child’s. As she pours in into the mouth of the withered body, it begins to move and grow whole again. At the same instant, Ed collapses in agony….

Comments: In Pumpkinhead, the titular beast looks rather like a cross between a malevolent E.T. and (not surprisingly, considering the personnel involved) one of the creatures from the Alien movies. Fittingly, the film in which it appears is also something of a hybrid, sitting – not always comfortably – somewhere between the monster-on-the-rampage movies of the fifties, and the dead-teen movies of the eighties. Present more strongly than the conventions of either of those genres, however, is the feeling of a fairy-tale – the real kind, those by the Brothers Grimm and their ilk, which were intended, not to soothe or entertain, but to terrify. Careful production design and cinematography combine in Pumpkinhead to create a creepy, atmospheric little movie that can be enjoyed on a number of levels. From one perspective, this is a good old-fashioned monster movie, where people tamper with things that Man Was Not Meant To Know, and pay the inevitable price. From another, it’s a story about a bunch of obnoxious teenagers getting slaughtered one by one – and, hey! – who doesn’t enjoy that? But there’s a third aspect to this story, an unexpectedly serious one; for Pumpkinhead, we learn, is the physical manifestation of one of the most ugly and frightening things in the world: the human lust for vengeance. As such, the monster is not just a mindless killing machine. On the contrary, it savours every moment of its work, toying with its victims in a deliberate and sadistic manner before killing them. In one instance, it pretends to have overlooked someone’s hiding place – then suddenly turns and lunges; while later, a seeming means of escape proves to have been discreetly sabotaged by the creature. The premeditated cruelty of these actions is all the more disturbing for coming from a source we know and even like. We become aware almost immediately that Ed Harley and the creature are intimately linked: they both writhe in pain as it is resurrected. When the killings start, we "see" them through Ed’s eyes. Most unnerving of all, as the desired vengeance is played out, the creature begins to look like Ed - and he like it. It is Ed. Yet for all that, when he wants to call the creature off, he finds he cannot do it. It is here that the film’s message – which, to the credit of the writers, is never intrusive – becomes apparent, and the film itself begins to stand out from the crowd. Simply, Pumpkinhead recognises what more conventional revenge dramas do not or will not: that no matter how understandable – even pure – the motive behind it, vigilante justice is a wild thing that cannot be controlled, often striking down the innocent along with the guilty.

The care taken with the characterisation of Ed Harley holds Pumpkinhead together, and the casting of Lance Henriksen in the role is – along with the monster itself – the film’s greatest asset. The early stages of the story let us know Ed: we feel his strength, his single-mindedness, and above all his love for his son. (Matthew Hurley’s casting is also an asset: instead of your usual smarmy, movie-pretty brat, this is a real and likable little boy.) When Billy is killed we feel every bit of Ed’s pain, and we even empathise with his desire for revenge. And yet – we know what Ed does not: that while Joel may indeed be a Grade-A jerk, his hitting the child was an accident; that the kids did not just "run off", they went for help. (This aspect of the story links neatly to the film’s opening sequence, where the victim swears that he did not commit the crime in question. We never learn whether he was guilty or innocent, but we know the young Ed heard that desperate cry – and saw what happened, regardless of it….) Rarely indeed for this type of film, a certain amount of effort has also been put into the characters of the soon-to-be victims. In Joel, we apparently have one of the dead-teen genre’s most beloved stereotypes: the Resident Asshole. (Watching these films, I always find myself wondering why the other characters hang out with these guys.) After watching him insult Billy, run the child down and take off, then prevent the others calling for help, we are practically willing the monster to come and get him. But then something unusual happens: Joel changes. Normally in this type of film, this character is a Compleet Asshole from the very first moment we see him to the very last (for a prime example of what I mean, see I Know What You Did Last Summer). Here, however, Joel begins to suffer remorse. Having acted initially out of fear and panic, when he has time to think about what he’s done, he rejects Steve’s offer to take the blame himself and resolves to do the right thing. But of course, by then it is too late. Joel is killed by the monster - but not immediately. To further his punishment, both his brother and his girlfriend are killed before his eyes, before he himself is taken…. Interestingly, the film draws a parallel between Ed and Joel, both of whom act without thinking, out of pure emotion, and set in motion chains of events they are helpless to control. In fact, the film’s explicit moral seems to be that any action taken in the heat of the moment is likely to be, not just wrong, but catastrophic.

This unexpected touch in the character of Joel aside, the potential victims in this film don’t differ all that much from the rest of their cinematic comrades. As soon as we see Joel and Kim in his sports car, Joel drinking while he drives, we know they’re a pair of goners. Similarly – despite her insensitivity in photographing the locals as if they were wildlife – it doesn’t take long to peg Tracy as Final Girl. She’s the intelligent, level-headed one, who intervenes to stop the tormenting of the youngest Wallace child, and takes charge when Billy Harley is injured. As for the others, they sit somewhere in that indeterminate grey area of likely but not certain monster fodder. Chris is weak, not deserving of Tracy. Steve is well-meaning, but dominated by Joel. As for Maggie, she’s exactly the type of character that Andrew Borntreger (of Badmovies.org) or Apostic (of B-Notes) might sum up with the shorthand title Whiny Girl. (In fact, I’ll have to remember to check and see whether either of them has actually done so….) In what’s possibly intended as a reference to Judith O’Dea’s character in Night Of The Living Dead, from the moment of the accident Maggie zig-zags between a trance-like state and snivelling hysterics. Pumpkinhead gets her, eventually, and we’re not all that sorry to see her go. Her death is interesting, though, in that it sums up the film’s surprisingly dismissive view of religious conventions. When Maggie falls victim to Pumpkinhead despite her fervent prayers for deliverance (while Maggie prays, Tracy arms herself "in case God doesn’t show up"), the creature not only seizes her by the throat – around which she wears a crucifix - but contemptuously carves a cross into her forehead with its claws before killing her. Similarly, towards the end, Tracy, Chris and Bunt take refuge in an abandoned church – which the creature enters without hesitation. We are led to infer from all this that Ed Harley was not a God-fearing man, and that consequently the manifestation of his vengeance is not to be stopped by the usual means. A way of stopping the monster does finally become apparent, but not until long after Ed’s desire for revenge has been sickeningly quenched. The final scenes of Pumpkinhead do hold the usual kicker, but in this case it’s a legitimate one. Before granting his desire and resurrecting the monster, the old woman warns Ed of the price he will have to pay; and although the monster is finally defeated, we are left with the grim knowledge that Ed’s actions have damned him forever. Suitable to its fairy-tale feel, then, Pumpkinhead is above all a dark little cautionary tale about some of the more unpleasant aspects of human nature. Disappointingly, this promising film has given rise to nothing of consequence either before the camera or behind it. I haven’t seen the sequel – Pumpkinhead II: Blood Wings – myself, but the people who have tend to use the word "sucks" quite a bit while discussing it. As for directorial debutante Stan Winston, after three more less than successful attempts at directing genre films, he seems to have made a permanent return to doing what he does best: summoning up monsters of his own….

Footnote:  Aaarrgh!! Well, I knew I'd read it somewhere. It was in fact Dr Freex who coined the evocative term "Whiny Girl", in his masterly dissection of Shriek Of The Mutilated.