Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Census Bloodbath: It's The Not-So-Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown!

Year: 1988
Director: Stan Winston
Cast: Lance Henriksen, Jeff East, John D'Aquino
Run Time: 1 hour 26 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

1988. The year before the unironic slasher genre died its final death. In this No Man’s Land of cinema, slashers had to go weird or go home. Very few bona fide classics were born from this desperate time (though I must confess I’m partial to American Gothic and Cheerleader Camp). The only two non-Freddy/Michael/Jason movies from the entire year that still carry any shred of public respect are, naturally, also two of the last 80’s slashers to actually spawn franchises: Child’s Play and Pumpkinhead.

We’ve already talked Chucky to death, so let’s take a gander at that latter, more nebulous franchise. Pumpkinhead has three sequels, though none of them were released in theaters and a whopping two were produced for TV. There’s a reason for this sprawling but dismal legacy: Pumpkinhead boasts a terrific, instantly iconic villain, but now matter how hard it tries, it just ain’t a great movie.

But let’s pause for the plot before we bring that zinger in for the spike.

In Pumpkinhead, grocery store owner Ed Harley (Lance Henriksen – and it’s impossible not to think they’re calling him “Ed Hardy”) is living a peaceful country life out in the sticks with his son Billy (Matthew Hurley). Their rural idyll is disrupted when a group of teenage dirt biking city slickers comes to town, because this is 1988 and they just don’t make horror movies without a heaping platter of Meat. Let’s dish ‘em out.

We have Chris (Jeff East of Deadly Blessing), a dopey fella with a curly tangle of hair; Tracy (Cynthia Bain), one of those annoying girls who brings her camera everywhere and constantly forces people to pose for pictures; Maggie (Kerry Remsen of A Nightmare on Elm Street 2), who is an empty shell of a human being with the single character trait of being vaguely religious; Steve (Joel Hoffman of Slumber Party Massacre II), who rocks a tangerine sweatband; Joel (John D’Aquino), a leather jacketed douche with a probation officer and a heart of stone; and Kim (Kimberly Ross), who exists, at least according to the film’s IMDb page.

After Joel accidentally runs over Billy with his dirt bike, killing him, Ed seeks revenge, enlisting the witch haggis (Florence Schauffler) to help him raise Pumpkinhead, a local avenging demon who is sent on the warpath to wipe out the teens.

Actually, one of those would definitely come in handy in my neighborhood.

The obvious thing to bring up at the top of a Pumpkinhead review is that it was directed by one Stan Winston, the special effects wizard behind all your favorite things: Terminator, Jurassic Park, Aliens, Predator, Iron Man, Edward Scissorhands… When it comes to lifelike creatures from the pits of Hell or the far reaches of science, he’s your guy. Pumpkinhead is his first of only two directorial efforts, and you get the sense that he rather dearly wishes the human actors on set were made of latex and hydraulics, because he doesn’t seem to want anything to do with them otherwise.

Lance Henriksen does a fine job, which is par for the course, and Florence Schauffler is clearly having a blast as the reliably creepy Haggis, but the Teen Meat here is especially lean. Nobody has a distinct personality, to the point that I actually had to struggle to find ways to described them back there in the plot section. Me! I find characters to care about in Friday the 13th movies, for God’s sake! These flavorless teens are portrayed by a bevy of actors that crowd listlessly around the set like a school of minnows. And don’t even get me started on the crowd of overactors playing the hillbillies around town. With Pumpkinhead, you’re constantly trapped between too much and not enough.

It certainly speaks to Stan Winston’s priorities that Pumpkinhead, a demonic presence motivated solely by revenge, has gallons more charisma than all the people in the film combined. Of course, his design is genius, with enlarged bone spurs at the shoulders, knobbly clawlike hands, and a head halfway between a Xenomorph and the inside of a cantaloupe. He smirks, drools, and lumbers around in enough shadow that his reality is unquestionable, and unquestionably grotesque. His scenes are the only ones that really sing with anything like tension, humor, or really any emotion whatsoever, which is no small feat for what is essentially just a dude in a rubber suit.

Godzilla, eat your heart out.

I think Pumpkinhead would be a much better movie if it weren’t a teen slasher. All the elements are there: a terrific monster, a folkloric parable on the price of revenge, and a heartbreakingly sweet father-son relationship (Billy’s death may or may not have drawn a tear or two from tis hardened horror hound’s eye). Hell, it even has the hella rad exchange “God damn you!” “He already has…” This could have been a bona fide classic.

Unfortunately, even though the genre was dying off, nobody in the late 80’s could possibly be allowed to make a cerebral supernatural flick without some of that sweet, sweet teen killin’. The body count is rather clumsily jammed into a twenty minute segment of the third act, mowing down tissue paper teens in a rather pretty but unmoving display of bloodshed that, for all this film’s effects budget, is positively miserly when it comes to dishing out the gore. It’s dissatisfying and it defies the laws of cinematic geography and logic, but even more dismaying, it’s just dull. In the wise words of Sergio, “this would be better if it was worse.” At least then we’d be able to laugh at it.

It’s a real shame Pumpkinhead turns in such a wan, empty effort at storytelling and performance because – visually speaking – Stan Winston is up to some great work here, along with The Ring cinematographer Bojan Bazelli. Winston’s woods explode with otherworldly blues and blacks, the interiors smeared with blood red. Light, color, and smoke perform an elegant dance across the frame, especially during the scenes that take place in Haggis’ hut or the abandoned, blasted-out church tucked into the wilderness. It’s a genuinely beautiful movie, if a little too pop arty to be truly timeless.

I thank Pumpkinhead for delivering a deliciously strange, otherworldly villain in the titular demon, but I’ll never feel the need to visit its arid patch ever again. There’s enough in there to more-or-less require a one time viewing from horror fans, but it’s ultimately a heady disappointment.

Killer: Pumpkinhead (Tom Woodruff Jr.)
Final Girl: Tracy (Cynthia Bain)
Best Kill: Joel is impaled on his own shotgun. You gotta love kills that use weapons in unintended ways, and Joel certainly deserved one.
Sign of the Times: Steve’s death is indicated by a bloody headband hanging from a tree branch.
Scariest Moment: Pumpkinhead creeps around outside the window of the cabin while Maggie prays.
Weirdest Moment: While on a grocery stop, Joel instantly decides it’s a good time to go dirt biking.
Champion Dialogue: “If you wanna stay here and play with the vegetables, that’s fine with me.”
Body Count: 7; Not including Pumpkinhead, because y’all know that sucker’s got three sequels.
  1. Prologue Man is eviscerated by Pumpkinhead.
  2. Billy Harley is run over by a dirt bike.
  3. Steve is eviscerated by Pumpkinhead.
  4. Maggie is eviscerated by Pumpkinhead.
  5. Kim is dropped out of a tree.
  6. Joel is impaled on a riddle.
  7. Ed Harley is shot to death.
TL;DR: Pumpkinhead is a disappointingly empty supernatural slasher that doesn't deserve its terrific villain.
Rating: 6/10
Word Count: 1276

1 comment:

  1. I agree Brennan. Me and my girlfriend watched this together two Halloweens ago and found it to be lackluster. The pumpkinhead monster looks amazing, and his birth scene in that creepy cabin is a testament to the film's mis-en-scene, but once pumpkinhead starts going around killing people, the movie falls apart. I probably will never watch the sequels, but that's your job man so I can't wait to read about them!