PumpkinheadAn eighties horror film that at least tries to spin a character-based, emotion-centered yarn that doesn’t rely on derivative splatter. It’s not entirely successful, but director Stan Winston and star Lance Henriksen deserve points for effort.

The late Stan Winston was and remains one of the top special effects men in the business. 1988’s PUMPKINHEAD marked Winston’s directorial debut, and also a rare starring role for the veteran supporting player Lance Henriksen.

The film wasn’t a huge success, but had enough of an impact to inspire a straight-to-video sequel in 1994, two further made-for-SciFi Channel sequels in 2006 and ‘07 (both starring Henriksen), and a two-issue comic book series from Dark Horse.

Back in the 1950s Ed Harley, a boy living in a secluded country town, witnesses a man killed by a monstrous something outside his bedroom window. Flash forward to 1988, when the thirtyish Harley is raising his young son in the same town. There Harley runs a tiny grocery store, where one day a bunch of rowdy big city teenagers turn up. They commence a bunch of dangerous motorbike stunts and accidentally kill Harley’s boy in the melee.

Understandably upset, Harley tracks down an old woman who lives deep in the woods. He’s desperate to avenge his son’s death, and the old bitch obligingly conjures up a nasty creature—the same one Harley witnessed as a youngster.

The asshole teenagers are hiding out, ironically enough, in Harley’s house, where they’re set upon by the critter. It kills them off in a succession of bloody demises, leaving only the guy who did the actual killing and two others alive.

Harley, meanwhile, is having second thoughts about his course of action. He tells the old woman to call off the creature, but she denies his request, leading him to shout “God damn you!” Her reply: “He already has.

Harley decides to help the surviving teens fight off the Pumpkinhead. He’s still upset, however, and almost completely insane…

Over the years Lance Henriksen has become known for playing psychopaths in movies like NEAR DARK, JOHNNY HANDSOME and HARD TARGET. In PUMPKINHEAD he made a valiant effort to expand his range, and for the most part succeeds in creating a well rounded and complex protagonist. The teenaged antagonists, alas, are straight out of the standard horny-young-people-in-over-their-heads eighties movie playbook (see most any FRIDAY THE THIRTEENTH or NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET sequel for confirmation).

Stan Winston’s direction is thoughtful and measured, and has a nicely atmospheric visual sheen (Winston and cinematographer Bojan Bazelli particularly like the Ridley Scott-esque shafts of sunlight effect). Winston also conjures some decent scares (an unexpected appearance by Harley’s dead son being the most affecting), wisely keeping the titular creature off-screen for the first hour or so. Unfortunately Winston has to unveil the thing eventually, and its budget-lite ALIEN-esque appearance isn’t quite up to the standards of the genius who helped create the amazing special effects of THE THING, ALIENS, PREDATOR, TERMINATOR 2 and JURASSIC PARK.

Yet for all its shortcomings I’m still inclined to grade PUMPKINHEAD on a curve. It’s a good movie and deserves an appreciative audience, albeit one that isn’t too demanding.

Vital Statistics

De Laurentiis Entertainment Group/United Artists

Director: Stan Winston
Producer: Bill Blake
Screenplay: Mark Patrick Carducci, Gary Gerani
Cinematography: Bojan Bazelli
Editing: Marcus Manton
Cast: Lance Henriksen, Jeff East, John D’Aquino, Kimberly Ross, Joel Hoffman, Cynthia Bain, Kerry Remsen, Florence Schauffler, Brian Bremer, Buck Flower, Matthew Hurley, Lee DeBroux, Peggy Walton Walker, Devon Odessa, Mayim Bialik, Madeleine Taylor Holmes, Tom Woodruff Jr.