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Pumpkinhead (1988)

May 2nd, 2011 by unkle lancifer · 19 Comments

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.


Tags: General Horror

19 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Father MerrinNo Gravatar // May 2, 2011 at 9:20 am

    Both Mr. Henriksen and “Pumpkinhead” rock! Long live Frank Black! And yes, “Terminator” would have been way better with him as the T-101.

  • 2 ChrisNo Gravatar // May 2, 2011 at 9:52 am

    This is one of my absolute favorite movies, and you my dear Unk, have definitely brought it justice with your piece. Though, I do have to disagree with you about the punks. While they did a despicable act, I do find compassion for them as well. While yeah, they didn’t have to flee, these are teens, and they’re scared. They do leave behind the one guy and he gets “the stare” (oh man, chills down the spine I tell you!), but I really felt bad for him at that moment.

    Even the other characters, they show remorse. The main prick (with the police record) is even played as “Oh man, I really fucked up, didn’t I? I better set things straight.” Based on the sequence where he lets the two kids outta the closet, I think if the ol’ demon didn’t attack, these folks would’ve gone to the police.

    To me, that’s the power of the film. While it does anger you, sadden you, and touch your heart (the scene where Ed’s washing his little boy’s hands gets me ever time), it can be read in different ways in reguards to the characters. But it does make one thing certain, and that’s that revenge through demonic magic? Probably not the best of ideas.

  • 3 Buck TheoremNo Gravatar // May 2, 2011 at 9:58 am

    This came out in the era that I still remember as ruled, for me, but a handful of films beginning with the letter P: Pumpkinhead, Parent, Pin and the sublime Paperhouse. Pumpkinhead is a fantastic monster and, like all good horrors, the film itself is rooted in very real human despair and loss. Henrickson’s fury is, as you say, just as tangible as Winston’s excellent creation. Oodles of atmosphere and a sense that, when things go wrong no one is safe and nothing shall be fair.

  • 4 Andre DumasNo Gravatar // May 2, 2011 at 11:13 am

    I had a lot of trouble with Pumpkinhead. I loved the atmosphere and the pure “witchy-ness” of the witch, (she’s so witchy!) but I for some reason could NOT get past the fact that the teenagers did absolutely nothing to warrant Lance’s attacks, save for the one douchey brother.

    In fact, my review about Pumpkinhead to this day makes me want to delete it because of the huge amount of YOU’RE WRONG responses I got. I still enjoyed the film to a point but I had such a huge problem because it felt like we were suppose to be in agreement that these teens were vile killers.

    Then again, it also reminds me of a Slasher film. Yes, most of them are dickheads but some of them aren’t, and they still get killed. But I don’t know….something about Pumpkinhead feels different. It feels not right. There’s no enjoyment in the methods that they die and it fills me with sadness.

    I also had a strange tonal problem with it, as Pumpkinhead does start to feel like a Slasher once all the kids start biting it. The great emotion and characterization that happened before then seems to fly out the window and gruesome deaths replace it.

    Ugh I don’t know! I love the Lance, (You and Henriksen!) but what is wrong with me? Why can’t I just except Pumpkinhead for what it is??

  • 5 FijiMermaidNo Gravatar // May 2, 2011 at 12:35 pm


    I, in general, agree with you. It’s an enjoyable enough flick to watch once in a while, but it’s not classic to me. The stand out element of this movie is Pumpkinhead himself, fantastic looking monster and like Unk said part of the practical effects coolness that CGI never has. It’s one of Stan Winston’s coolest looking monsters.

  • 6 John Kenneth MuirNo Gravatar // May 2, 2011 at 1:17 pm


    Great review of Pumpkinhead. I agree with you about Henriksen’s performance in the film; he really makes us (and those pesky teenagers…) feel his pain. I’ve always found Pumpkinhead enormously affecting, and wish that the lackluster sequels hadn’t undercut the original so much. In the second film, the hero just had to talk Pumpkinhead down; whereas Ed had to sacrifice his life to stop the curse.

    Thanks for this great contribution to the Lance Henriksen blogathon!


  • 7 Joe MaddreyNo Gravatar // May 2, 2011 at 1:38 pm

    Lance –

    You’ve given some great insight into the film… Another thing that makes Pumpkinhead so complex is Ed Harley’s anger AT HIMSELF in the third act. Then, of course, there’s Lance Henriksen’s anger at himself for making Pumpkihead 2 & 3….

  • 8 TaylorNo Gravatar // May 2, 2011 at 1:47 pm

    I’ve always been a Lance Henriksen fan, but it wasn’t until pretty recently that I noticed that — in addition to being a steely-eyed ultimate badass — he’s actually a really effing good actor. When he applies his intensity to purely good-guy characters (like in Powder, or even total crap like Survival Quest) it’s incredibly magnetic.

    I’ve always thought of Pumpkinhead as an also-ran of late-80s horror, but I’ve discovered that Henriksen and some of the spooky supernatural atmosphere have made it surprisingly rewatchable for me.

  • 9 unkle lanciferNo Gravatar // May 2, 2011 at 2:42 pm

    Thanks everybody for ALL these great comments!

    I don’t know why I am so hard on the Pumkinhead kids….wait, yes I do, it’s because of all my years working in retail!

    It really irks me how they just intrude and act like they own the place for some reason.

    I guess Billy’s death was an accident but how could any of them just leave him there and not even call an ambulance?

    Bad kids!

    I think I enjoy this movie more now than I did when it came out. As mentioned by Fiji, the special effects are just amazing and they are the type that I fear we will never see again.

    And I do think that this is a great role for Henriksen. It suits his salt of the earth quality very well I think.


    I just read your review and I LOVE it, everyone should check it out….

    you are so nice to them rascally kids! Bless your heart. I must be getting old!


    It is a great pleasure to parytake in the Henriksen blogathon! Can’t wait to read what others have come up with!

    Father M,
    Was LH in line for the T-101 role? I did not know that! That would have been very interesting indeed!

    I’m sort of curious about checking out the Pumpkinhead sequels now but I know he becomes CGI in 3 and 4 and I don’t think I can take it!

  • 10 EshbaalNo Gravatar // May 2, 2011 at 3:34 pm

    Just be careful when watching Pumpkinhead 2. You will either stab yourself in the head from stupidity or laugh yourself silly.

  • 11 Andre DumasNo Gravatar // May 2, 2011 at 3:37 pm

    Hahah thanks Unk.

    The thing is though. They tried to help. They stayed with him and were trying to explain to Lance what happened. But then he shooed them off and yelled at them! Oh jeez I remember it like it was yesterday!

  • 12 unkle lanciferNo Gravatar // May 2, 2011 at 3:51 pm


    I know I saw the sequel years ago and I don’t remember any of it!

    I do remember that Punky Brewster is in it though!

    It’s a shame. I think such a good series could have sprung from that first movie!


    Just one kid stayed behind and the rest went to the cabin. The ringleader was afraid to report it because he was on probation.

    I guess I should give the one who stayed behind a break but

    I just think that if they knew there was a kid and a dog in the vicinity they should have just never gotten on those darn bikes!

    I should admit though that I tend to dislike all vehicles and modes of transportation except the hot air balloon!

    They’re all too loud!

    Boy, that really does sound like a cranky old guy.

    If only I had a cane to shake around!

    “Get off my lawn you whippersnappers!” 🙂

  • 13 EshbaalNo Gravatar // May 2, 2011 at 3:53 pm

    You can be like that old codger in Monster House. Except he had a REASON for being cranky. And was Steve Buscemi. Who is awesome.

  • 14 unkle lanciferNo Gravatar // May 2, 2011 at 4:00 pm

    Haha. I am totally Steve Buscemi! But I think I might be Steve Buscemi in GHOST WORLD.

    “What are we, in slow motion here? C’mon, what are you, hypnotized? Have some more kids, why don’t you!”

  • 15 Amanda By NightNo Gravatar // May 2, 2011 at 4:40 pm

    I actually think Pumpkinhead is probably too good. Like you, I get very upset at the son’s death. It’s just not a fun film. I guess when I saw it, I wasn’t in the mood for depressing and let’s face it, the title Pumkinhead makes it sound a little silly and more fun.

    That’s probably why I saw the second one a gazillion times. My friends and I loved it. Not as good as the first, but it has a real rewatchable quality for me. Bless Jeff Burr!

    What I remember most about the original is the son’s death and Lance trying to fix things after they’ve gone to far. That’s really poignant, realizing that although you are full of hate and anger, it will never bring back your son. It’s an effective message, but like I said, the movie is too bleak for me. I’m all neon lights and pastel blazers!

  • 16 ZombetteNo Gravatar // May 2, 2011 at 5:35 pm

    I really, really like Pumpkinhead. It is a creppy story with an awesome creature!

    I swear every time I watch it I get teary eyed when poor little Billy dies.

    I also find it really cool that the person who makes the wish/spell is the one who is Pumpkinhead. Very, very cool concept.

  • 17 ZombetteNo Gravatar // May 2, 2011 at 5:35 pm



  • 18 craigNo Gravatar // May 2, 2011 at 6:37 pm

    My problem with PUMPKINHEAD is that the second half can’t hold up to the first half. It always felt like there was a great concept there that got missed by the endless stalking that takes place after the first hour. Its set-up is more heart-breaking than most 80’s horror movies and it’s a wonderful first hour. If anyone hasn’t read a book called MR HANDS (by Gary A Braunbeck) definatly grab a copy. It’s similiar in theme and plot, and absolutly captures what the movie was going for (not to mention it will drain you of all your blood and skeletal support and leave you limp and exhausted).

  • 19 le0pard13No Gravatar // May 2, 2011 at 6:56 pm

    I completely agree with you re: Pumpkinhead vs. Pet Sementary. The former is so much harder to take, and I first saw this before I became a father. It’s much more difficult now as a parent. Still, it was such a fantastic role for Lance Henriksen. Kudos also go to Stan Winston for this. Even for films released in the 00s, some of the CGI effect have dated pretty badly already. This film doesn’t, and that’s due to the brilliance of SW. Excellent contribution to the LH Blogathon! Thanks.

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