If I’m such a big fan of LANCE HENRIKSEN why is it that I always seem to dread or avoid watching PUMKINHEAD? A big heavy stone sinks slowly down the well of my stomach just thinking about it. I’ve always assumed that because the plot of the film springboards off of the heartbreaking death of a child that I considered it too emotionally taxing for a casual view. That would make sense but that never stopped me from throwing PET SEMETARY on multiple times over the years. The little boy in PUMPKINHEAD’s motorbike mishap is no more tragic than Gage Creed’s Mack Truck flattening and I think I know which vehicle I’d rather be smashed by. Sitting myself down and forcing a revisit with PUMPKINHEAD recently made it all suddenly so clear to me. The fact is, this movie conjures up an emotion that I find much more difficult to deal with than fear or sorrow, it conjures up (quite literally even) anger. It’s about nothing, if not anger.
The role of Ed Harley fits HENRIKSEN like a well-worn, workman’s glove. Ed runs a small back road store. A humble sign declares “Harley’s Groceries” and it’s all kinds of charming when you notice the sign has been personally updated by hand to include “And Son.” Ed is raising his young child Billy (MATTHEW HURLEY) on his own and, in a handful of brief scenes, it is made clear that the two have an exceptionally close bond. In fact, we get the idea that ALL they have is each other and it suites them both just fine. Billy is not your typical movie kid either, meaning he’s not obnoxious; rather he comes across as sweet, humbly happy and a bit self conscious about the fact that he has to wear glasses. He dotes on his beloved dog in the same manner his dad dotes on him.
Enter the douchebags and I’m already starting to feel my blood boil; a group of arrogant, self-entitled twentysomething “city folk” roll on to the scene like they own the place bringing with them their loud stupid asshole motorbikes. They have a ringleader who’s meant to be the biggest dick in the bunch but I seriously hate them all. This is actually the one weakness of the film for me, as it would really help the “horror” element if there were a single person in this group who I did not want to see mercilessly torn to shreds.
When Ed leaves Billy in the store to run an errand (Ed would NEVER do that but whatever) Billy gets smooshed by a moron’s bike while chasing after his pooch. Ed returns to find his son splayed out in the grass and then, as he carries his broken body back towards the store, the lone remaining dumbass asks if he can help. It is at this point that LANCE HENRIKSEN throws a glare that is the absolute highlight of the movie for me. This guy can act. I can feel the vibrations of that laser beam hate stare as I write this now. Forget the titular creature, HENRIKSEN can dispatch an army of vengeance demons out of his peepers whenever he desires.
Filled with fury Ed tracks down a local witch to aid him in his revenge against the callus cretins who robbed him of his world. He has grown up hearing stories of a demon that can be summoned to balance the scales and has no trouble believing them as he once witnessed the creature bitch slapping a luckless victim as a child. Once activated, the demon operates like a speeding freight train of ruthless retaliation and cannot be stopped. The witch advises that one must simply wait for it to “run its course.”
Unlike me, Ed eventually begins to have second thoughts about his choice of actions. He realizes as the line between himself and the monster blur that he is losing himself little by little to the manifestation of his anger. One of the film’s poster taglines read “A grim fairy tale.” And that sums up PUMPKINHEAD rather nicely. Although the opening is very much grounded in the real world once night falls we’re strolling on the pages of a storybook. This is a morality tale about the price paid when we allow ourselves to be taken over by hate. I get that I really do but all things considered I still say sign me up.
PUMPKINHEAD is an impressive directorial debut from the late STAN WINSTON, one of the most talented men ever to work in the field of make-up and special effects. Cinematographer BOJAN BAZELLI would go on to help craft another visually stunning horror tale, 2002’s THE RING. Although it wasn’t a huge success upon original release, PUMPKINHEAD’s reputation has solidified over the years and it’s easy to identify it now as one the stronger and more original (not to mention atmospheric) horror films of its decade. If you ever find yourself cozying up to CGI, I would suggest checking out PUMKINHEAD again to remind yourself just what is being lost. The effect of Pumpkinhead himself is a joy to behold and it’s obvious that WINSTON knew exactly how to present the beast to his best advantage.
No special effect however, can outshine LANCE HENRIKSEN’s performance. It’s absolutely impossible not to be moved by the pain he expresses on screen and this role gives him a chance to expose an earthy nurturing side that apparently comes naturally to the guy. I stand pleased now that I figured out exactly why I have been quietly keeping my distance from this movie for years. I hate to see HENRIKSEN suffer to this extreme. It really pisses me off.