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Pumpkinhead
(1988)

Director: Stan Winston
Cast:
Lance Henriksen, Jeff East, John D'Aquino


When I was young, I had dreams, dreams of what I wanted to achieve when I reached adulthood. There were many different occupations that I was seriously thinking of reaching for after finishing school, and one of those occupations I was thinking of was being a television or motion picture actor. Growing up, I took every opportunity to practice my thespian skills, such as the time in third grade when I was in the class production of Robin Hood and I wowed the audience with my portrayal of Robin's sidekick Much. Years later, I was in a more professional production when as a teenage I was in my high school play's Romeo & Juliet. Though it was around that time when I started having second thoughts about becoming an actor. The work I did in that Shakespeare play was definite hard work. And if that work was hard, I could only imagine the work and strain that would come with a multi-million dollar movie or television show. I found myself further resisting the idea of becoming an actor when one day my mother came home from the local library with a book for me called Acting In Television Commercials For Fun And Profit, by Squire Fridell. The book gave me every step one had to take in order to become an actor in commercials, and it was an eye opener. From that book, I learned that just to land an agent to represent you was a lot of tough work as well as expense that you'd have to pay out of your own pocket. And if by luck you managed to get an agent, you'd have to struggle though the cutthroat business of casting calls, which to me looked even harder to do despite all of the helpful advice that the book gave me.

There were other things about the acting profession that I eventually learned about that contributed to my ultimate decision to not become an actor - loss of privacy, for one thing. But I would like to talk about one potential problem aspiring actors may find themselves eventually experiencing, and that is the problem of typecasting. Typecasting can come in two ways. The first way is that an actor is so identified with a certain acting assignment that casting directors refuse to entertain the idea of the actor playing any other role. For example, Adam West spent years trying to resurrect his acting career once Batman was cancelled. Then there is the typecasting that has actors only finding work in roles similar to what he played before. Bela Lugosi, for one, found that his accent and his famous horror roles limited the kind of roles he was offered. Don Adams was a serious man in real life, but after Get Smart he found himself playing one comic part after another, which frustrated him. "Why don't they ask me to play Kramer Vs. Kramer?", he once complained. Actually, while actors like those two may have found typecasting frustrating, over the years I have found a number of actors who haven't minded it at all. Danny Trejo (Point Blank) has both said that he loves to work and enjoys playing bad guys on the silver screen, so he doesn't mind playing one thuggish bad guy after another. The late Richard Lynch, several years before his death was interviewed by Fangoria magazine, and said during the interview that he didn't mind playing one creepy bad guy after another as long as he received steady work.

Which leads to the actor I would like to talk about, the star of the movie I'm reviewing here, Pumpkinhead. That star happens to be Lance Henriksen. Now, I know that he has acted in the past in major studio movies (Dog Day Afternoon, Close Encounters Of The Third Kind) and has also played sympathetic roles (The Terminator, Aliens), those particular roles Pumpkinheadhaven't come up again that much since the mid-1980s. Since then, he has mostly played somewhat creepy individuals in low budget films. I used to wonder what he thought of this change in his career. I've concluded that he probably doesn't mind that much. He works a lot, for one thing, and I've noticed that he always seems to give a professional performance. Also, he has a good number of fans, including me. When I found Pumpkinhead in a thrift store, I was pretty sure I would at least get a good performance by him. In Pumpkinhead, Henriksen plays a man somewhere in the American countryside named Ed Harley, a devoted single father of a young boy named Billy. One day, when Ed is momentarily away from Billy, a group of rowdy teens on motorcycles drive up to the Harley property. One teen, Joel (D'Aquino, No Way Out), drives his motorcycle recklessly, and runs down Billy, severely injuring him. Except for one teen named Steve (Joel Hoffman, Slaughterhouse), Joel and the rest of the teens immediately flee the scene. When Ed returns and sees what happened to his son, he is understandably upset. He angrily brushes aside Steve, and when Billy dies soon after, Ed takes his son's corpse to Haggis (Florence Schauffler, Bachelor Party), who is the local witch, in the hope she can revive his son. Although Haggis tells Ed she can't raise the dead, she does tell Ed she can help him with his next to strongest ambition - revenge against the teens. Ed follows her orders to dig up a corpse in a nearby pumpkin patch, and with some blood and a little magic, the corpse - named Pumpkinhead - is revived. The former corpse, now a full-blooded demonic creature, wastes little time in tracking down the teens and starts killing them one by one. But Ed quickly learns that revenge, at least in this case, soon starts to look a lot less appealing due to some unforseen circumstances...

Pumpkinhead was the directorial debut for makeup/visual effects guru Stan Winston. He is also listed as one of the four credited writers who worked on the script. I have no idea which aspects of the screenplay he contributed. However, he and the three other writers managed to give this story some twists that save the movie from falling in the trap of becoming standard and predictable in that B movie fashion you are no doubt familiar with. The characters in the movie, for one thing, are a lot more human than you usually get in a horror movie of this nature. The teenagers in this movie are mostly sympathetic. Joel is a jerk, but it's clearly shown several times that the other teenagers do not approve of his actions or words. After the accident with Billy, the teens are clearly shaken, some of them even crying. They do leave the scene, but it's to get help, and unfortunately Joel stops them from contacting the authorities. Except maybe for Joel, these are not people you'll want to be slaughtered. While you may sympathize with the teens, at the same time you'll see things from Ed's point of view. Before Billy is killed, we see just how much Ed loves his son and is devoted to him, such as the scene when he washes his son's hands and tells him a story about Billy's great-grandfather. We also see how much Billy loves his father, such as the next scene when Billy gives Ed a homemade present. So when Billy is fatally injured soon afterwards, the grief and rage that Ed experiences is a lot more convincing than you usually get in movies concerning revenge. A lot of this is in part to Lance Henriken's performance. While he may not be the first actor you think of when you think of cinematic devoted fathers, he does an exceptional job with this part of his character.

Also, when Henriksen's character subsequently seeks revenge, you are able to understand his subsequent drastic actions, even if you don't totally approve of them. As I said earlier, the teens, except for Joel, had no part in the accident and did want to do the right thing after the accident. Pumpkinhead clearly has a different opinion on revenge than you usually get in a B movie, namely that innocent people can get hurt along the way. That's not all the movie suggests about revenge. The Chinese have a saying that if you go on the road for revenge, you better dig two graves, and Ed eventually discovers how true that is. That's because with every victim the demonic Pumpkinhead kills for him, he is struck with a wave of agonizing feelings when the particular victim is slaughtered. This is a clever and wise twist, but at the same time I found it a little vague. Was Ed feeling the agonizing pain Pumpkinhead's victims were going through? Or was he just experiencing torment in general? The movie never makes this clear enough. That is not the only flaw to be found in the movie's script. Another problem is pacing. While I did appreciate the time the movie took to set up the situation and make the characters more human, at the same time the pacing of the movie is disturbed. Believe it or not, it takes more than half of the movie before the demonic Pumpkinhead is resurrected from the dead and starts to kill the teens, which may make many viewers impatient. There's evidence to suggest that the screenwriters realized this, because the first scene of the movie dives into Ed's childhood past thirty years earlier, when as a boy he witnessed Pumpkinhead kill a local resident. While this flashback scene does gives some monster thrills, and suggests to audiences early on that there will be more monster mayhem later, it eventually dawns on the audience that this scene really does nothing for the story.

The long wait for monster mayhem is not the only problem that may concern some die hard horror fans. The delivery of two key ingredients found in many other B horror movies - blood and gore - will be disappointing to many viewers. There simply isn't that much stuff on display here. In fact, had a few raw words spoken by some of the movie's characters been eliminated, there is a good chance the movie would have got a PG-13 rating instead of an R. (Needless to say, there's no sex or nudity on display, though some deranged women may like the scene where Henriksen is not wearing a shirt.) But there are compensations for the lack of B movie ingredients like those, not just those that I mentioned earlier. For one thing, there is the Pumpkinhead monster itself. While the movie had a budget of less than 4 million dollars, what we do get to see of this monster is pretty impressive. It's tall, and given a lot of detail all over, so obviously some real work went into making this creation. Director Stan Winston makes sure that none of the seams show by carefully showing the monster in bits and pieces, or in a darkened environment. While we never see the monster completely under heavy light, we see enough so we can comfortably put the pieces together in our minds and have a good idea of the creature. Winston also shows directorial talent elsewhere, such as the unusual lighting given to much of the night scenes, creating atypical colors and shadows you usually don't get in a low budget horror movie. Winston may have directed the terrible movie A Gnome Named Gnorm, but Pumpkinhead shows that under the right circumstances he had movie-related talent beyond making special effects creations. One can only imagine what other interesting movies he could have directed had he pursued this particular behind the camera role some more.

(Posted July 23, 2016)

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See also: The Convent, Race With The Devil, Route 666

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