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What is Pumpkinhead?

Stan Winston's 1989 film Pumpkinhead is sadly underrated. The movie is a simple story of revenge, with a grief-stricken father allying himself with a hideous otherworldly power to destroy the careless killers of his young son. Effects for the eponymous monster were by the same team that produced them for Aliens and Predator, which means that the monster looks vaguely familiar and that the effects are extremely well done. If you know what to look for in this movie, you will find one of the best horror movies of its type, and I take it as my task here to point these out.

Review and discussion. Spoiler warning.

The real problem with Pumpkinhead is one of writing. To be precise, the story developers (Mark Patrick Carducci, Stan Winston, and Richard C. Weinman) and screenwriters (Carducci and Gary Gerani) had one excellent idea about a fantastic resurrected monster of revenge; this element of the story, with its eerie Appalachian folk ambience and almost Gothic themes, was obviously a winner, and is the heart of the movie.

Unfortunately, the writers ran short of ideas to make this kernal viably hook into a larger, relevant story. They settled (in the worst sense of that word) for one of the most boring and hackneyed storylines in the horror repertoire as a framing narrative: the group of teens whose innocent outing turns into a slashfest. This story, with its crass uncomplicated teens and banal setting in the mountains outside LA (subbing none too convincingly for the Appalachians), is totally at odds with the dark inner story set in the register of folk legend, rural magic, and oppressive atmosphere.

The result is that viewers see the silly framing narrative for the whole story, or detect the dissonance between the movie's two hearts and not unreasonably register contempt. So I'll ask you to ignore the supporting armature of the teen-victims story and look with me at some memorable features of the terrifying horror story buried within.

The redeeming features of Pumpkinhead.

Ed Harley (Lance Henriksen, well cast) has lost his son through a terrible accident. He lives in the depths of Pennsylvanian Appalachia, surrounded by dirt-poor hardscrabble neighbors (though the careless could mistake the Appalachian trees for California oaks). These people live in a rich sea of folklore, and the most terrifying story of all is of the gratuitously cruel Pumpkinhead. The demon, or monster, has appeared at intervals amongst the feuds of these mountain people, and when Pumpkinhead appears, people bar their doors and shutters against the desperate pleas for sanctuary of even their closest friends. Ed himself witnessed one such terrifying event as a child and is thoroughly familiar with the legend.

Driven by grief, Harley makes his way deep into the Californian Appalachian wood to the fog-shrouded hut of the wonderfully overacting witch/wise woman named Haggis (Florence Schauffler). Here the scenery (on "black ridge") is of a hut on the edge of a swamp(!). We've moved from the poverty of the Appalachians to the boggy mysteries of the bayou. Haggis' hut has moss hanging from its members, oil lamps, an owl on a perch within.

Haggis is an elemental figure. Beneath the owl's gaze, sound effects tell us that there are mice (maybe rats) running freely. Haggis is illuminated at first from behind (she is facing away from us): we see that her hair has the thin wispy quality of the extremely aged; her voice is a whispering rasp.

At first she refuses all of Harley's valuables, knowing that he's come to summon Pumpkinhead. But he will not be put off by her protestations. Finally she comes around:

"What'cher askin--got a powerful price." "Leave the boy." (What does she need to do with the body?)

We then cut to Harley walking through the skeletal remnants of roots and branches till he reaches a hump of earth, clearly at Haggis' demand. Once there, he digs through putrescent layers of earth, past obscene pumpkin vines, until he reaches . . . a shriveled thing, which he picks up and then drops, wretching in disgust.

Harley forces himself to bring the shriveled thing to Haggis as bidden. She cuts his hand, and lets the blood drip onto the thing of "pure vengeance." She then takes the hand of the dead boy, cuts it, and lets its blood drip onto the thing.

The shrivelled thing begins to flesh out, while Harley loses the life force it gains. In a sense it is born from him, and, as we learn later, it is tied to him. The monster is tall, lean, bony, with ropy muscles. An evil grin marks the face on a bulbous cranium shaped (wait for it) like a distended Pumpkin.

Pumpkinhead starts killing the people who killed Harley's son in typical, (or should we say, stereotypical) manner. More interestingly, as Harley becomes more complicit with each death he starts to lose his humanity, which the director signals by having his own dog growl at him. Most interestingly of all, each death brings to Harley a strong sensation: we are never told whether this is the pain of the murder, the orgasmic delight of vengeance wrought, or progressive loss of Harley's soul and replacement with Pumpkinhead's evil.

Whatever it is he feels, Harley retains yet enough humanity to regret his choice. He returns to Haggis to call the demon off, to no avail. This is the second plot point, at which Harley decides to try to eliminate the evil he has stirred up. Haggis (who has clearly been through all this more than once) has nothing but contempt for his weakness. After all, she warned him:

Haggis: "What did you think? It'd be easy? Neat and clean and painless?"
Harley: "God damn you!"
Haggis: "He already has . . . he already has."

At this point the power of the movie unfortunately begins to fade. The grisly tale of Ed Harley is diluted by contact with the fecal teen slasher thread as Harley meets up with them and seeks to protect them. But the movie has one final breathtaking scene in reserve, as Pumpkinhead chases the youths through the abandoned stageset Appalachian countryside during a storm (showing that Winston is aware of the dramatic effectiveness of the pathetic fallacy).

A local waif leads the two remaining youths to an abandoned church--itself skeletal remains, backlit with fog and blue lights. The justification: as it is hallowed ground, "he might not like it." Pumpkinhead comes with the storm: he stands at the door, straining to come in, a monstrous 12-foot figure backlit in the ruined doorway. He visibly struggles against the residual power of God in the abandoned holy place, entering at last as though he were walking in molasses, struggling with each step. The kids are long gone as Pumpkinhead moves towards the altar, and spots the burned ruin of a cross. He reaches, picks it up, and bashes it against the wall as a symbol of unholy victory (and then scampers off after the kids).

The end is predictable; Harley commits suicide when he realizes that he and the monster are fusing, killing it (with the inevitable "he's not quite dead yet" shocks). In the final scene of the movie we see Haggis placing the dead Harley into the pit where Harley found Pumpkinhead, and the cycle begins again.

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