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The Test of Time: Pumpkinhead (1988)

We all have certain movies we love. Movies we respect without question because of either tradition, childhood love, or because they’ve always been classics. However, as time keeps ticking, do those classics still hold up? Do they remain must see? So…the point of this column is to determine how a film holds up for a modern horror audience, to see if it stands the Test of Time.

DIRECTED BY STAN WINSTON

STARRING LANCE HENRIKSEN, JEFF EAST, FLORENCE SCHAUFFLER, TOM WOODRUFF JR.

Alright all you hardcore horror heads and ardent archivists of all things macabre, here’s a genuine query for ya: who is your all-time favorite horror movie makeup/SFX artist? Is it Dick Smith? Rick Baker? Maybe Tom Savini? Let us know below!

I for one will always keep the late great Stan Winston among one of my favorite hall-of-fame monster makers and movie makeup majordomos. His work on ALIENS and PREDATOR alone is the stuff of inimitable legend. Of course, Winston only directed on film during his illustrious Hollywood career, that being the wondrously wicked and nastily nihilistic 1988 creature-feature, PUMPKINHEAD. Damn this movie kicks f*cking ass! Now, just a few weeks back we cast a little adoration for the unlovable leftover, PUMPKINHEAD II: BLOOD WINGS, so it only seems right we flip the coin. Perfect timing too, as PUMPKINHEAD celebrates the 30th anniversary of its theatrical release this November. Good luck Test of Time, our money says PUMPKINHEAD is about to toweringly triumph. Let’s find the f*ck out below!

THE STORY: Believe it or not, the story of PUMPKINHEAD was inspired by a poem written by Ed Justin. The poem goes as follows:

Keep away from Pumpkinhead,

Unless you’re tired of living,

His enemies are mostly dead,

He’s mean and unforgiving,

Laugh at him and you’re undone,

But in some dreadful fashion,

Vengeance, he considers fun,

And plans it with a passion,

Time will not erase or blot,

A plot that he has brewing,

It’s when you think that he’s forgot,

He’ll conjure your undoing,

Bolted doors and windows barred,

Guard dogs prowling in the yard,

Won’t protect you in your bed,

Nothing will, from Pumpkinhead!"

Yeah, I’m sh*tting my pants after reading that, too. Word is Winston took that poem and placed it into the savvy screenwriting skill-sets of scribes Mark Patrick Carducci (NEON MANIACS, BURIED ALIVE) and Gary Gerani (VAMPIRELLA) to adapt into a feature length script. Once Winston read the script and saw that it had a compelling story with just a handful of characters and only a couple of locations, he knew PUMPKINHEAD was the perfect vehicle to make his directorial debut. He told MGM and the De Laurentiis Group that he’d happily design the FX of the film as long as he got to direct. The grand irony being, Winston was so busy with other responsibilities on set, that he ended up passing the FX work over to a handpicked team lead by the great Howard Berger in the same year he co-founded the now formidable KNB FX team. Not that Winston didn’t initially design and approve any alterations to the Pumpkinhead aesthetic; it’s just that he left it in the hands of capable collaborators while overseeing the rest of the picture. Dude was so egoless he happily gave younger talent a chance to contribute in his area of expertise!

Plot wise, you should know by now. After a terrifying and tone-setting opener set in 1957, in which young Ed Harley witnesses a horrifically hulking grotesque mutant-monster thing savagely slay a turned away refugee, the real story begins. Instilled with a sense of scarred sympathy, Ed never forgets. Cut to the present, Ed (bona fide boss, Lance Henriksen) now grown up as a grocery owner and paterfamilias of his own rural clan that includes young son Billy and dog Gypsy (yup, the same dog, Mushroom, featured in GREMLINS). With no time wasted, a quartet of dirt-biking city slickers begins burning up the rustic landscape around the Harley home until one of them accidentally runs down young Billy, killing him instantly. Worse yet, the young punks just take off without saying a word. One kid feels so bad he stays behind, but when Ed retrieves his son’s corpse, an evilly vengeful burn in his eye tells the kid he’s in serious trouble. That he is! Ed carries Billy’s corpse to the Wallace house, where he learns that a witch, aptly named Haggis (Florence Schauffler), takes residence on a nearby hill. Ed consults the nasty harridan and learns he must exhume a fetid corpse from a pumpkin patch graveyard located at Razorback Hollow. Ed abides, and soon a 12-foot ghoul with giant claws, an oblong head, extruding shoulder blades and hideous visage is summoned to exact a merciless scourge of vengeance on those teenage punks!

WHAT HOLDS-UP: There’s a timeless quality to PUMPKINHEAD that really preserves it in a kind of non-anachronistic amber. We’ll get into exactly why below, but because the movie is one that takes place on a rural ranch, often lit with candlelight, achieved with in-camera SXF devoid of computer generated imagery, you’re really not sure what period the movie is set in while watching much of it. It hasn’t aged much because it has an ageless quality, by design. But where the movie really retains its exhilaration is in its splendid low-tech, high-concept practical FX work, the viscerally-charged atmosphere and foreboding milieu, and last but certainly not least, the emotional impact of the movies finale and corresponding performance by Lance Henriksen. Without this holy triumvirate, PUMPKINHEAD would’ve rotted long ago!

Let’s begin with the ominous ambience. Shot by Yugoslavian DP Bojan Bazelli (who shot two of the best 90s crime flicks in KING OF NEW YORK and KALIFORNIA), there’s such a palpable sense of atmospheric dread in PUMPKINHEAD that not only holds up, but augments the overall story. Whether it’s the chillingly cold blue exteriors starkly opposed to the feverishly hot orange exteriors, Winston puts us in places and positions that just feel properly portentous and frightfully foreboding. Ameliorating this sense of ambient dread is the inveterate wafts of fog blowing by every single frame of the film, with howling whips of wind and aurally suggestive soundscapes. Two set-pieces in particular really stand out and hold up, they of course being the titular graveyard festooned with deformed pumpkins and Haggis’ hideous homestead. The scene where Ed must dig up Pumpkinhead’s corpse in the aforesaid graveyard is pitch-perfect, and is only outdone by the resurrection scene inside Haggis’ cabin. The odious adornments – live owls, taxidermied deer-head, crawling tarantulas, etc. – match perfectly with the neon lighting and macabre machinations that rightly call to mind the great Mario Bava, whom the screenwriters were openly inspired by. The sensorial surroundings of PUMPKINHEAD remain first-rate!

Speaking of, the design, makeup and VFX work of Pumpkinhead itself is still quite a sight to behold and to be mortified by. Much of it speaks for itself, but one of the things I always loved about the flick is the way in which Winston does not shy away from showing his creature onscreen. So many times we lament, and often praise, a director for keeping its baddie in the dark for much of the run time, thereby preserving suspense and keeping the terror as fresh as possible. JAWS is the ultimate example. But we know that was a last resort when the damn shark broke down. In PUMPKINHEAD (played by creature co-designer Tom Woodruff Jr.), Winston deliberately revels in the horror by keeping the camera trained on the monster through most of the movie. You’d think it’d grow tiresome after awhile, but because of the variety of shots and lighting choices, Winston keeps us off-balance by mixing in startling facial close-ups in full light to far-off silhouetted long-shots with Pumpkinhead’s spindly body contorting in the distance. One minute he's high up in a tree and the next his growling in your f*cking face! The result yields extremely strong and starkly lasting imagery. Having just clocked the flick again this week, I was shocked by how many times I involuntarily sputtered “holy shite” under my breath. You can tell Winston was proud of his newborn monstrosity, and he had every reason in the world to be so.

The last thing that struck me when revisiting PUMPKINHEAD is just how emotionally impacting the story is, surely made so by the sterling turn by genre vet Lance Henriksen. This dude f*cking owns it once again, particularly in the first half of the film when dealing with the grief of his lost son, which is unthinkable to begin with, to driving around with the little boy’s corpse in his truck looking for vengeful plans of attack. The turn is made even more sympathetic when Ed’s moral compass disallows him to sit back and watch Pumpkinhead exact its reign of terror. Ed tries to do what’s right and quash the demonic curse that has resurrected Pumpkinhead, but in the end it’s too late. By the time Pumpkinhead is deadened, Ed can’t rid the evil kinship. The dour and deeply nihilistic down-ending to a story that sees a man lose his son, take vengeance, only to die in the end himself, is a hard pill to swallow. The emotional exigency of PUMPKINHEAD endures 30 years later!

WHAT BLOWS NOW: Aside from the fact its mastermind, Stan Winston, can longer appreciate his own achievement, not too many senescent weak-spots can be found in PUMPKINHEAD. One thing I think hurts its overall stature nowadays is how similar looking PUMPKINHEAD is to what Winston did in ALIENS and even PREDATOR – the angular dome of the baddie, the drooling jaw and long rat-like tail, etc. It may have been an unforgivable transgression at the time, especially since PUMKINHEAD came out only two years after ALIENS and one before PREDATOR, but think about how inundated we’ve become with such iconography since. All those sequels, remakes, offshoots, prequels, etc., they tend to make the kinship between PUMPKINHEAD and the Xenomorph all the more visible. Not to mention the accessibility of said images on the internet. I still think, on the whole, the creature of Pumpkinhead is still wildly and wickedly original, it’s just that it tends to get linked with, if not overshadowed by, the even more popular Winston creations. Which, frankly, does blow now!

THE VERDICT: To be honest, I expected a little more wear and tear around the edges of PUMPKINHEAD, but am glad to report for those who haven't seen it in ages that the film’s sheen hasn’t been effaced too much. The bottom line is, for a first-time feature made for a mere $3.5 million, with all of its FX done practically and in-camera, PUMPKINHEAD is one hell of a creature feature. It’s retained its power for many reasons, but chiefly among them are the viscerally realized atmospheric setting, the top-tier monster design with concomitant makeup and VFX, and the emotional turns in the story delivered primarily though Lance Henriksen’s solid performance. Throw in a disturbing downer of an ending, and PUMPKINHEAD shows why it’s so well enshrined!

STREAM PUMPKINHEAD HERE

GET PUMPKINHEAD ON DVD HERE

GET PUMPKINHEAD ON BLU-RAY HERE

Source: AITH

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