A vengeful demon is conjured up to help a
man take revenge on a group of teenagers.
Directed by Stan Winston
Written by Mark Patrick Carducci and Gary Gerani
Starring Lance Henriksen, Jeff East, John D'Aquino, Kimberly Ross, Joel Hoffman, Cynthia Bain, Kerry Remsen, Florence Schauffer, George "Buck" Flower
Based on the poem by Ed Justin
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 is 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.
Although the poem has little to do with the film itself, it was a great jumping off point for one of the best monster movies of the 80's and the directorial debut of special effects master, Stan Winston. Pumpkinhead leans more into the supernatural but is a folk horror flick all the same. It stars Lance Henriksen as Ed Harley, a simple general store owner living with his son Billy in the country. The film does a great job of setting up their relationship and how much love Ed has for his son, which most seasoned horror lovers will know that tragedy will soon befall this man and it does so in frighteningly scary and sad ways.
There is a piece of clip art making that shows a map of the US with titles of horror films that were set there. Pumpkinhead covers North Carolina, where I grew up, but I was also born in California and the movie is most definitely set in the rural areas of Southern California. The geographical misdirection aside, this flick was a mainstay in the video store as its titular monster is the stuff of nightmares. I'm not sure how old I was when I first saw this but I know it scared the shit out of me, especially because of the rules this monster operates under. This creature does not simply exist to dispatch those who cross into its territory, you have to summon the beast yourself and, once it's called up, it will not stop until it has served its purpose and the final price has been paid.
The set up for this is fairly typical for the majority of 80's horror flicks: city kids go to the country for fun, they do something terrible to one of the locals, mayhem ensues. Where this movie excels is how that is executed. The film opens on a young Ed Hardy locked in his house on a night when someone has summoned Pumpkinhead, he catches sight of the beast and that image has haunted him ever since. What we know about Pumpkinhead at this point is very little other than it is a force of nature that operates with purpose. In the present a group of college-age kids have stopped at Hardy's General Store to pick up supplies on their way to a house where they are going to spend time partying, as you do. Ed has to leave the store to get something for one of his local customers, Mr. Wallace (played by the wonderful character actor George "Buck" Flower), and tells his son to stay in the store until he gets back. Outside the kids decide to ride some dirt bikes to kill some time waiting for Ed to return. Billy's dog, Gypsy, gets out of the store and Billy runs after the dog. In a highly unlikely scene, one of the dirt bike riders lands on Billy (a piss poor attempt at CPR is made) and kills him. Ed returns to find his son and Henriksen really sells his grief here and it is that grief which drives Ed Hardy to seek revenge on the outsiders who did this to Billy; Ed wants revenge and he knows who to go to.
Ed comes to where Mr. Wallace lives with his family looking to get information on where to find her and he's told nothing good will come from seeing the witch. He tells Ed, "go home and bury your boy." This warning works on two levels: Mr. Wallace knows what Ed wants to do and is telling him it is not a good idea; he is also telling him to be with his son one last time and to grieve. Not turn that grief into vengeance which will consume him. Those emotions are very real and something that we have all felt at one time or another when we've lost a loved one and especially for me now as a parent, I relate more to Ed Hardy than ever before. He wants so badly to bring his son back that he will do anything to make it happen, including going to places and dealing with people he never thought he would. As Ed makes his way to the witch's home, we finally meet Pumpkinhead's keeper, Haggis. She knows why Ed has come to her and she is very up front with him that she cannot bring his son back but she can get revenge for him. "What you are asking for has a powerful price." Haggis instructs Ed where to go and what to bring back to her and this is one of the set pieces that gave me many nightmares and is still haunting to this day. The cemetery where Pumpkinhead is located is full of rotten gourds and rolling fog, including a monstrously large gourd that Ed digs into and removes a dried husk of a body. With Ed's blood and some spell, Haggis resurrects Pumpkinhead to exact revenge on the ones who wronged Ed Hardy.
Stan Winston's background in special effects work really shines through in the sequences when the creature roams the woods and stalks the kids that will be its victims. Flashing lightning, wind, and an eerie, unsettling cicada-like trilling precedes the creature's appearance on screen so you know when shit is about to go down. Ed realizes the mistake that he has made and that this will not change the fact that his son is dead and not coming back. When he discovers that he and the creature are linked, Ed takes matters into his own hands to try and stop the creature once and for all. The thing about this creature is you cannot really kill it because there will always be someone who wants vengeance and Pumpkinhead will always be there, waiting to be called.