I was into punk music before I was into horror movies, so when I realized that the Misfits song “Pumpkin Head” was inspired by a film, I had to see it. Stan Winston’s Pumpkinhead was itself inspired by a poem by Ed Justin, whom the main character, Ed Harley, is likely named after. The movie is Winston’s directorial debut, but his team’s special effects would help launch an incredible career, creating effects for movies such as Aliens, Terminator 2, Jurassic Park, Edward Scissorhands, Ghoulies, Galaxy Quest, Avatar, and many more. I’m almost certain that the monster, Pumpkinhead, is at least a little inspired by H.R. Giger’s xenomorph from Alien, but it’s got plenty of its own special qualities too, and like the 1979 sci-fi icon, it still looks fantastic in 2020.
The movie starts off 30 years in the past, where a man is running through a storm from an unknown creature. He comes to the Harley residence, where he bangs on the door and begs to be let in. Though Mr. Harley’s son and wife question why he doesn’t let the man in, Mr. Harley refuses to open the door, reminding his family that they’ve got nothing to do with whatever’s happening. Little Ed Harley watches through the window as the monster kills the man, obscured by night.
In the present day, Ed Harley now has a little boy of his own. He owns a roadside store, where he leaves his boy, Billy, and their dog, Gypsy, while he goes to run an errand. (Gypsy is played by talented dog actor, Mushroom, who is also featured in Gremlins.) A group of teens on their way to a cabin stop by and ride around on their dirt bikes. When teen Joel flies off a hill and into Billy, he freaks out and leaves the kid for dead. While the rest of the teens run to find help, teen Steve waits with the ailing Billy. When Ed comes back to find his unconscious son with the sincerely apologetic Steve, he stares daggers at the teen, and takes Billy home, where he soon dies.
Ed learns about a witch that can help him avenge his son’s death. He digs up a corpse, which the witch resurrects using his and Billy’s blood, and the demon of vengeance, Pumpkinhead, rises once again. Meanwhile, at the cabin, Joel cuts the phone line and locks his friends in the closet so they won’t rat on him about the incident. When Joel’s guilt overcomes him and he decides to turn himself in, it is too late—Pumpkinhead has arrived.
Judging by how little this movie is talked about (in normal, non horror-fanatic circles, that is), I’d say that it’s quite underrated. The title Pumpkinhead might turn some people off, as they might not know that the antagonist is not, in fact, a man with a pumpkin for a head. Granted, Pumpkinhead does have a rather bulbous cranium, and certainly has a humanoid figure, but he is one of the coolest, if not the coolest, of all the movie monsters I have seen. Not only does he have an impressively creepy design, but there is a mythical quality that surrounds him. In the film, he’s the kind of monster that kids have nursery rhymes for, the kind that brings thunderstorms and darkness with him, the kind that when you discover he’s actually real, he’s more terrifying than you imagined.
I could gush about the monster all day, but he’s only a part of what makes this movie so great. Lance Henrikson injects pathos into the role of Ed Harley, which is something that is often lacking in slasher movies. Also unique is the ultimate rejection of vengeance, which usually prevails in slashers. It is actually surprising how good-hearted some of the characters are, and even the worst of them (Joel), attempts to redeem himself. It is a refreshingly hopeful movie, where the characters actually meditate on their actions and change something about themselves. I didn’t love the music during the happy moments– it had Lifetime movie vibes, but the scary accompaniments were serviceable.
I really enjoyed Pumpkinhead—the monster, the characters, the use of candlelight and lightning storms in several shots. It is a dark, cautionary fairy-tale. “Keep away from Pumpkinhead, unless you’re tired of living”.