Thursday, 31 October 2013

Pumpkinhead - Review

Released in 1988 supernatural creature feature Pumpkinhead was filmed over 36 days in various Los Angeles locations during the summer of ’87.  It received a limited cinema release in the US that brought precious little in the way of either fanfare or substantial box office success before being released onto the video rental market where it found moderate cult success.

Pumpkinhead stars Lance Henriksen as Ed Harley, the owner of a road-side country store, whose son is mortally wounded in a dirt bike accident perpetrated by one of a group of city kids on a camping holiday.  He takes the boy’s body to a backwoods witch called Haggis (yes, really) and implores her to bring his son back to life.  She disappoints him in that respect but against here own advice assists him in his desire for vengeance by helping to conjure up a demon (the titular Pumpkinhead) to exact terrible retribution on the kids he holds responsible for the terrible tragedy.

As the directorial debut of special effects wunderkind Stan Winston, Pumpkinhead is elevated from a below average supernatural thriller to something moderately watchable predominantly as a result of the still impressive practical creature FX.  Perhaps surprisingly the demon wasn’t designed, built and brought to life by Winston himself.  Instead he chose to take a step back to allow him to focus his efforts 100% on directing and delegated the effects work to a five man team comprised of John Rosengrant, Tom Woodruff Jr., Shane Mahan, Richard Landon and Alec Gillis.  Having variously worked on some classic eighties monster movies such as Predator, Aliens and Fred Dekker’s underrated classic horror mash-up The Monster Squad they were eager to show what they could deliver without the direct supervision of their mentor.  Deliver they did and, to their credit, they unleashed a wonderfully macabre creation in the form of the eponymous vengeance demon.  An intimidating eight foot high masterpiece of foam and spandex which was inhabited by Woodruff Jr. (who was supported by an extremely uncomfortable unpadded harness throughout the shoot) Pumpkinhead is a walking nightmare brought to life.  The head alone contained 19 tiny servo-mechanisms which allowed off camera control of the demon’s expressions.  All of this adds up to one of the most memorable horror movie villains of all time.  It’s just a shame that the movie that was built around it isn’t better than it is.

One of the main problems (there’s more than one) with the movie is that none of the kids are sufficiently well developed enough to squeeze so much as a single drop of sympathy from the viewer.  As one by one they meet their end at the impressively crafted hands of Pumpkinhead all I managed by way of response in most instances was a shrug.  This in turn leads to the next problem.  In a horror movie of this nature if the viewer doesn’t really care about the victims then all that’s left in terms of entertainment value is the pleasure of seeing them dispatched in spectacularly nasty, hopefully gory fashion.  There’s no disputing that the movie delivers a wonderfully crafted creature but it fails dramatically to deliver anything in the way of crushed heads, ripped limbs and flying viscera.  The kill scenes are relatively dry and mostly uninspired.  Even the most effective moment is a direct steal from the brilliantly orchestrated opening scene of Dario Argento’s Suspiria

Another more damaging problem is that it’s neither scary nor particularly exciting.  The demon is intimidating enough but the scenes in which it features lack much in the way of energy or invention. In terms of acting the movie is a mixed bag. No-one disgraces themselves but the blandness of the script likely doesn’t assist them.  Only Lance Henricksen rises above mediocrity even taking the opportunity to chew the scenery to entertaining effect during a couple of scenes.  But he’s nowhere near the form of his performance as Bishop in Aliens or his career best performance as Jessie in vampire noir masterpiece Near Dark, but at least his character’s plight gives the movie an emotional hook onto which the viewer can hang his/her attention.   

It's impossible to deny that the problems with the script, the predictability of the outcome and a complete lack of identification with any of the protagonists have a negative effect on the overall effectiveness of Pumpkinhead.  The movie isn’t a total failure and it’s clear why it gained a cult following that persists to this day but it really should have and could have been better.


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