Del and Mladen review ‘Pumpkinhead’

Image courtesy of MGM/UA.

“Pumpkinhead” Starring Lance Henriksen, Jeff East, John D’Aquino and Florence Shauffler. Directed by Stan Winston. 86 minutes. Rated R. Amazon Prime.

Del’s take

They had me at the cicadas.

If I remember the South for anything it will be sluggish July afternoons, when the chore of taking a breath is like sucking a wad of steamed broccoli into your lungs, as cicadas hidden within the needles of longleaf pines screech and screech and screech screech screech. According to folklore the infernal bugs “hibernate” underground for 17 years until one night they awaken to scale a nearby slash pine – yes, it’s always at night – squeeze from their shell, pump up their wings and fly away to enjoy a brief yet incandescent third act of noisy fornication.

That rhythmic screeching, like chalk chalk chalk on a blackboard, is stamped onto my brain. So, when I heard it used as an audio effect in “Pumpkinhead” I knew the story was taking place somewhere below the Mason-Dixon, where the ever-increasing heat has baked the brains out of everybody who lives there, transforming them into Trump supporters.

The horror.

I didn’t let that stop me from enjoying “Pumpkinhead’s” other charms. The movie, which was released way back in 1989, has become a cult favorite despite early panned reviews. The directorial debut of special effects wizard Stan Winston, “Pumpkinhead” inspired a straight-to-video sequel, two made-for-TV sequels, a comic book from Dark Horse and even a video game.

Plus, it stars one of my favorite underrated actors, Lance Henriksen, who appeared in several James Cameron movies along with Bill Paxton and Jeanette Goldstein. He brings just the right touch of doom to his role as grieving father Ed, who sets off the horrific chain of events in “Pumpkinhead.”

The story goes like this: As a young boy, Ed witnessed a man being killed by a monster and knows that with the help of the right people, he can summon a demon to avenge the death of his young son Billy, who was accidentally run over by a dirt bike rider who had come to the back woods with his friends to party.

With the guidance of Haggis (Florence Shauffler), a crone who lives in the deep woods, Ed summons the Pumpkinhead demon and sets it loose on the teens, choosing to disregard her warning that Pumpkinhead is as dangerous to those who evoke its presence as those intended to receive its wrath.

The result is well-choreographed and photographed slaughter that follows a predictable path with only a slight deviation there at the end. Lessons will be taught and for some, learned, while for others there may be no moral to this story.

“Pumpkinhead” is one of those fun B movies that works if you can get past the threadbare writing and horror movie clichés. It calls forth an eerily gothic atmosphere you have never seen from Henry James or even V.C. Andrews. Henriksen delivers his patented emotionally wounded performance – you can’t help but sympathize with the guy, even if events leading up to his actions follow a corny, well trodden horror movie trail.

The real star here is the Pumpkinhead demon, which I thought worked very, very well. It’s a movie monster you haven’t seen before and in ways reminded me of the atavistic horror of “Alien.” It produces a similar quality of dread, even if the cornpone story doesn’t.

“Pumpkinhead” has lots of gross and gore, which should forestall whiny lectures from Mladen about R ratings and blood spatter. It’s a necessity for any serious horror movie collector or fan. Watch it in 2021 about mid-October, after the real horror of 2020 has mostly faded from memory.

I give it a B.

Mladen’s take

Del and I have been friends for a long time. And, still, he’s simply unable to judge the depth and breadth of my intolerance for inadequate moviedom mayhem, violence, and cussing.

“Pumpkinhead” is a good movie. I throw it an A- for the superb creature effects, which offset the movie’s quasi-“Deliverance” vibe. However, there are no dismemberments or intestines spilling from sliced abdomens. Shoot, plenty of blood is spilled, but no depictions of arterial pulse squirting. Sure as hell there is very little swearing, if any, that I recall and there is definitely no damned nudity. So, forgive me Del, but I’m whining, anyway, though, really, it’s closer to satisfied grumbling because the “Pumpkinhead” plot is solid.

In fact, I had little trouble overlooking the plot’s trigger, a grieving father mischaracterizing the city slickers’ accidental mistreatment of his geeky son. What unfolds is horror movie commentary on the ruin that engulfs those seeking revenge. For, you see, Ed the father becomes entwined with the monster he unleashes. When Pumpkinhead kills, Ed feels it.

Quick, what excellent recent movie uses the same type of symbiotic relationship between man and beast as an integral part of the story? Answer: “Sputnik.”

It’s Pumpkinhead who has me enamored by this late 1980s film. This is a lovingly, carefully, patiently, and nicely crafted terror animal. The only non-practical, i.e. without makeup, and non-mechanical visual effect in the movie is blurred and swaying filmography showing Ed sensing that Pumpkinhead is about to strike.

Pumpkinhead, by the way, is a tall guy in a costume. The creature is a decaying pink and skeletal. It has no hair, a tail, claws for hands, pseudo-hooves for feet, and long bony protrusions from the shoulders. Its legs at the knees bend like a heron’s, forward, if I recall accurately. Its teeth are long, crooked, and cracked and eyes white, opaque, and all-seeing. Pumpkinhead is a conjured beast, maybe risen from the fires of hell, making a living in the material world. Pay attention to the shrunken monster’s face when it’s re-buried.

Pumpkinhead’s interaction with reality as we understand it is very nicely executed in its namesake film.

There’s our nightmare walking past a window as though taking a leisurely stroll while the kid killers inside the cottage talk about what to do. When Pumpkinhead prowls through the house, it ducks beneath doorways. It swivels and tilts its head to listen. And, Pumpkinhead has no trouble looking straight at you while contemplating, I imagine, what to do next. It kills your ass and then hangs around for a moment to watch the reaction of your friends. There are no rampages. Just a methodical hunt to pick off the offending, big-hair youths. Wait till you see how the monster decides to handle a rifle. Pumpkinhead is scary as hell because it’s very human.

To me, Pumpkinhead has a subtler charisma than the Xenomorph in “Alien,” more natural finesse than the Predator in “Predator,” and a finer malevolence than Freddy in “A Nightmare on Elm Street.”

It’s my hope that no dumbass 21st century producer decides to re-make “Pumpkinhead.” This is a story and a monster that stand on their own. The beast borne of revenge shouldn’t be risked by a crappy re-do.    

Mladen Rudman is a former journalist and technical editor. Del Stone Jr. is a former journalist and author.