Stan Winston was legendary in the film industry. Before he died, he won three Oscars for visual effects (Aliens, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, and Jurassic Park), one for makeup (Terminator 2 again), and racked up a total of six other nominations. He either led or was part of the effects and makeup teams that worked on The Thing, The Terminator, Ghoulies, Predator, Leviathan, Edward Scissorhands, Batman Returns, Interview with the Vampire, Avatar, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. In short, the man had a hell of a career turning the unreal into the real. In horror, he was a master monster maker. But, a man has to branch out, explore new opportunities. Enter Pumpkinhead.
From 1988, Pumpkinhead marks Winston’s debut as a director. Set in rural somewhere — the feel of the setting and the local characterizations bring to mind West Virginia or somewhere up hollow in Appalachia, even though the look of the place suggests somewhere north of L.A. — Pumpkinhead tells the story of a monster brought forth by witchcraft to wreak vengeance on behalf of a grieving father.
Things begin innocently enough. A group of vacationing teenagers show up at a country store run by Ed Harley (Lance Henriksen, reliable as ever). While Ed is off running an errand, one of the teens runs over his son while riding a dirt bike, killing him. When Ed returns, he’s not happy, especially since most of the group fled the scene, leaving one poor kid behind to try and explain that it was all just an accident. Ed doesn’t buy it, and in his rage he seeks out a witch in the deep woods to try and resurrect his boy. She can’t help him, but does offer him revenge in the form of Pumpkinhead. Once the creature is raised, the movie takes off.
Pumpkinhead is a relentless beast, pursuing and killing the teenagers one after the other. But Ed is a good man at heart, and when he sees what his anger has unleashed, he decides he has to stop it, leading to an effective ending I won’t spoil here.
Winston didn’t helm a revolutionary picture, nor is it all that original. But the film’s pacing is tight, its storytelling very professional. Without interviewing them, it’s impossible to know how much of this is Winston and how much credit belongs to the film’s editor, Marcus Manton. Either way, they did a fine job. There isn’t a wasted moment anywhere in the film.
There are a few things which keep Pumpkinhead from clawing it’s way out of the depths, however. Not the least of which is an overbearing synthesizer score that just keeps going and going and going. It is cheapness at its worst. Pumpkinhead isn’t the first film, nor will it be the last, to be guilty of using an awful synth soundtrack (watch a horror film from the ’80s or ’90s, and it’s a normal part of the experience), but Pumpkinhead had a chance to rise above that dreck. Too bad.
Another problem is the lack of talent in the cast. Missile Test loves Lance Henriksen, but when he’s the best actor in a film by miles, and also saddled with a leading role, there’s a low ceiling on just how good said film can be. Well, I take some of that back. Brian Bremer, as Bunt, one of the locals, put in a good performance. This was his debut, and he’s been in nothing of note since, but he was one of the bright spots in the cast.
In the end, Pumpkinhead is too good to be considered a b-movie, but not good enough to be considered a fine film. Mediocre isn’t the right word to describe it, either. For creature feature fans, though, it’s a must see.