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Another sterling 1980s horror flick too long off the radar
on 27 February 2006
It's funny, I used to love horror flicks of the '80s as mindless, rollercoaster ride popcorn-guzzlers. But revisiting such gems as 'Fright Night', 'A Nightmare On Elm Street', 'Elvira, Mistress Of The Dark' and the excellent, not-yet-on-DVD 'From Beyond', I'm charmed by the thoughtfulness and subtlety of their execution (pun not intended). 'Pumpkinhead', the directorial debut of special effects legend Stan Winston just about deserves a place in that canon of great '80s trash-which-is-not-trash.
The background to Pumpkinhead's production is enough to warrant a footnote in the movie history of that decade: Stan Winston turned down the chance to direct 'A Nightmare On Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors' for the sake of bringing this movie to fruition. Thankfully Elm Street 3, ultimately directed by Chuck Russell, is a fine movie which so convincingly recast Fred Krueger as a wisecracking antihero that Wes Craven in his 'New Nightmare' had to posit its razor-fingered protagonist as the fictional murderer he is, mysteriously coming alive to invade the lives of the real Elm Street cast in order to recapture his original air of the sinister. Pumpkinhead was shot in a mere 36 days on a budget of 3.5 million dollars (the cost of a TV commercial by modern standards), sitting on a shelf for nearly a year while the DeLaurentis Group sold the movie rights to United Artists. It's by some way Winston's best work as a director, and possibly, alongside the classy vampire road movie 'Near Dark' the finest picture in which the always memorable Lance Henrikssen had a starring role.
History lesson aside, what of the plot? According to the folklore of the movie, a demon exists for every one of man's manifold sins. The 'Pumpkinhead' of the title is a living embodiment of utter vengeance which rises in the name of any man severely wronged by another. As a young boy Ed Harley, resident of a splendidly atmospheric American backwoods witnesses what may be the slaying of a man accused of child murder by that very creature. Thirty years later and a father of one, Ed finds his young son severely injured by the motorbike antics of a group of snotty young city folk. Intent on revenge after his son dies in his arms with a dramatic last breath of "Daddy", Ed, in the vagueness of his childhood experience only half aware of the Pumpkinhead myth makes his way to the genuinely frightening Haggis, an ancient hag played with aplomb by Florence Schauffler in order to awaken the beast which he hopes will lay his anger to rest. As you can likely imagine, it lays plenty to rest, and the creature doesn't quite serve Ed as predictably as he first thinks.
As far as revealing what happens over the course of its short 86 minutes, I'll leave it right there. The final twist in the tale comes as a real surprise, even a philosophical one if you want to see it that way. Like so many movies of the era, its limited number of sets and suspenseful camera angles lend it a sense of claustrophobia which is almost cozy. But the amiably low budget feel does no favours for its scenes of carnage, which come across as choppy, pandemonious and vague as to what is actually happening. Plus, the ponderous beginning and 'Deliverance'-like murkiness of its locations make it rather boring on repeated viewings, albeit headily atmospheric in parts. The blurrily rapid death scenes sit oddly next to the eerie calmness of the rest of the movie.
But maybe I'm nitpicking; 'Pumpkinhead' is a watchable and sometimes compelling movie, and one which will be particularly enjoyed by '80s horror fans like me. And at this price, it's hardly too much to ask for a little slice of horror flick history.