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Saturday 11 April 2009

Pumpkinhead (1988)

Director: Stan Winston
Stars: Lance Henriksen, Jeff East, John DiAquino, Kimberly Ross, Joel Hoffman, Cynthia Bain and Kerry Remsen

One of those few late eighties horror movies I somehow managed to miss at the time, Pumpkinhead was directed by Stan Winston who for some reason did not also do the special effects. Given that he's one of the true greats of the field, who designed the Terminator, that seems a little surprising. I wonder how he felt about that. Maybe they were protegees of his or some such that he guided through the work needed. I really hope they weren't just folks the studio forced on him because that must have frustrated him silly. I'm leaning towards the former because it's done pretty well indeed.

We begin back in 1957 with something weird going on at the Harley farm. Someone's outside with blood on his face screaming to get in, but old man Harley won't let him. He knows what's going on, enough so that he wants to keep a locked door between him and whatever's outside. Naturally whatever's outside is the Pumpkinhead of the title, and the brief glimpse we get is enough to show us that he's a huge and scary monster. Little Eddie sees him through the window and the image stays with him all the way through till the present day.

In the present day, Ed Harley (not the one Fletch pretends to be) runs a grocery store in the same small town and has a kid of his own, little Billy, who looks like the Milky Bar Kid. Ed himself is played by no less a genre name than Lance Henriksen. The day we meet them we also meet two other sets of kids. One is a local bunch of young'uns, who are all bedraggled filthy urchins who live on a farm that looks like a shanty town. They have names like Jimmy Joe, they walk around with pigs and they chant stories about Pumpkinhead to scare each other. They all belong to Mr Wallace, who's memorably played by Buck Flower.

The other is a set of city kids who have driven up in their SUV to mess around in a cabin on the mountain. While buying stuff at Harley's grocery store, they chase around on their dirt bikes and in a freak accident, Joel crashes into little Billy on his bike and kills him. Most of this bunch are just youths who are still young enough to know everything, but Joel's a nasty piece of work. They want to help but he makes them leave, even ripping out the phone cord in the cabin so that they can't ring for help. He's already on probation for another 'accident' in which he hurt a girl, so does all he can to avoid going to jail or worse.

Unfortunately for Joel, of course, Ed Harley knows about Pumpkinhead, so goes to the cabin of the local weird woman, a wizened old hag called Haggis, who apparently has the power to wreak vengeance on those who have been wronged. Haggis sends him on to a local graveyard deep in the woods, where folks bury kin they're ashamed of. It's an awesome set and there Harley digs up a corpse from a grave surrounded by pumpkins, to bring back to her to work her magic on. Soon Pumpkinhead is alive and doing what Harley wished, but he has more than a few second thoughts about what he set in motion.

This is far from a flawless film but there's a tone to it that rings very true. Henriksen is never bad, but he gets some great scenes here as a father whose son is killed, leaving him utterly alone. When he realises what he's done, he tries to stop it but of course that's not as easy as it might sound, and he feels every kill rush into him. On the victim side of things, Joel deserves everything he gets but the rest don't share in his guilty, or if they do it's to a much lesser degree. In fact, some of these kids are among the most sympathetic victims I've seen in horror movies. Usually I couldn't give a monkey's for any of them.

The monster is memorable and well built, as well as being a tricky little thing. It's also not explained too well so we're deliberately left trying to work out the rules as the film runs along. We realise the way out just before Ed Harley does himself, and we learn the secret shortly thereafter. It's a good secret, well written and well put together, just what a vengeance demon should be. In fact, there's nothing really bad about the film at all, which suffers only unfairly by comparison to what else the participants were doing at the time. Henriksen was coming off Near Dark and Aliens and Buck Flower was about to make They Live.

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