October means various things to different people. For sports fans, it's the start of the baseball playoffs and the race to the World Series. For lovers of nature, it's the time when woodland foliage stops giving off the green and begins mellowing into those recognizable autumnal colors. It's also the signal that scare season has started, the thirty days (plus or minus) that movie studios, media distributors and television programmers believe all horror lovers hunger for. As All Hallow's Eve shines its sugar-coated light on mountains of merchandising – candy, decorations, and clothing to name just a few – a flood of fright films typically wash over the entire marketplace. In fact, from the looks of things, you'd swear that most movie macabre isn't even made until the days start growing shorter and the wind picks up that brisk fall feeling. As proof of this commercial concept, the DVD racks are currently overflowing with all kind of product. While most are simple repackages of previously released titles, the unknown quantity occasionally makes an appearance. Case in point – The Pumpkin Karver. This 2004 slasher wannabe from First Look Pictures is desperate to recapture the '80s ideal of slice and dice cinema. All it really manages to maintain is the era's direct-to-video dullness.
It's Halloween, and brother and sister Jonathan and Amy are preparing for the evening's festivities. He's carving the pumpkin and she's getting dressed. Suddenly, Amy's boyfriend Alec shows up, acts like an asshole, and sets up a rendezvous with his gal pal for later on. While still trying to locate her clothes, Amy is attacked by a masked maniac. In an act of self-defense, Jonathan kills the intruder. It turns out to be a very deadly accident.
A year later, Jonathan and Amy have moved to a town called Karver, and are about to attend the local high school's annual booze-based blow out. As the usual suspects show up – disgruntled jock, doughy dumb guy, skinny stooge, a couple of complete clods and a bevy of semi-fetching females – Amy is concerned. Jonathan has been having visions of that night 12 months before, and he's acting really odd. As the party begins jealousies flare up, beer gets blasted, and people start dying. An old man who owns the property says that it's the work of a pure Pumpkin Karver – someone with a knack for knowing how to use a blade. All eyes turn to Jonathan. But he believes that its his past coming back to haunt him – literally.
Back before many modern horror mavens were making gravy in their Underoos, the slasher film was dominating all aspects of cinema. From the local passion pit to the Mom and Pop video store, individuals looking for a little ritualized slaughter could easily satiate their jones with numerous derivations of the creepy killer format. Studios hungry for the always available dread dollar would dream up as many possible permutations of the now familiar boo blueprints as possible – angry janitor, pissed-off gardener, harassed high school student, mentally challenged family member – lay in the necessary vice-ridden victim-ology and bring on the buckets of blood. While the results were usually routine, they were also endearing in their slapdash similarity. Somehow, filmmaker Robert Mann never received his splatter film guide. In just his second movie behind the lens, this less than impressive director gets far too many of the necessary nuances of his junky genre effort wrong, forcing us as film fans to fill in the blanks along the way. This makes his seasonable stumble, the not so cleverly named The Pumpkin Karver a real chore to sit through. Though ably made and rather inventive in some of its ideas, this is just supposed to be a good old fashioned killer on the loose entertainment. We are supposed to laugh with the film, not at it, and all the flaws are supposed to be eradicated by lots and lots of thick and gooey gore. Sadly, there is nary a decent drop of blood to alter our addled attention span.
In what will be the first of many, many mistakes, Mann makes the misguided decision to offer up a minor amount of grue. Most of the deaths occur off screen and provide little in the way of arterial spray. One big dope does get a drill through his belly, but the organ grinding result is more silly than sickening. All other killings are ruined by a music video style of editing, a lack of engaging F/X, and a questionable approach to pacing. The Pumpkin Karver is the kind of movie that spends an inordinately large amount of time trying to mythologize the concept of the "carver", giving the notion all manner of metaphysical, supernatural and paranormal powers. There are also hints of Satanism, cosmic evil, and the ability of the dead to return from the grave. Nothing is ever set in this movie – not the motivation, not the characters' personal and familial circumstance (we apparently have the only high schoolers in the US capable of living on their own without a single responsible relative around) and definitely not the storyline's foundation. How Jonathan and his sister Amy came to be so independent, how she ever got hooked up with a schnook like the instantly unlikable Alec, and why the big dope decides to pull the pointless (and ultimately fatal) prank are never explained. Neither is a drinking game involving the eating of bugs, a doom and gloom old codger who definitely overstays his narrative welcome and an ending that seems to suggest everything from mental illness to actual shape shifting as the reason behind the massacre. In fact, it's safe to say that The Pumpkin Karver is a movie made up of more questions than answers.
The acting is average, with everyone in the cast overdoing the cynical, socially extroverted teen bit. Especially irritating are a pair of chumscrubbers named – get this – Bonedaddy and Spinner. Their friends occasionally call them 'Beavis and Butthead' and the comparison is apt except for one crucial difference: when Mike Judge's animated idiots show off their stupidity, we actually LAUGH. The script here, co-written by Mann and someone named Sheldon Silverstein, thinks adolescents speak in nothing but hyper-clever bon mots of perfectly observed pop culture irony. No one has a rational conversation. Instead, dialogue tends to sound like a read through of some nimrod's indie rock blog. We expect the characters in a slasher film to be dim, but the individuals populating this pathetic example of the genre are dumber than a pile of prairie dog pellets. Still, if Mann had just stayed within the confines of the manner of movie he was making, if he didn't let the prophetic old coot steal the movie in scene after scene, if he let the kids get down to some diddling before going for the garrote, had he continued with the facial reconstruction the so-called Karver was supposed to provide his violated victims, we might have something here – a very minor entry into the slice and dice arena, but a recognizable diversion at least. Instead, The Pumpkin Karver is like that left over Jack-O-Lantern left rotting on your neighbor's porch through the first couple weeks of November. Not only does it stink, but it no longer represents the holiday it once so nobly celebrated.
As said before, this movie doesn't look half bad. The 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen image is clean, crisp and loaded with aesthetic detail. The colors are correct, the contrasts sharp without excess enhancement, and there are a couple of atmospheric vistas thrown in for good cinematic measure. Lancaster, California – the movie's location - looks very good in this visually interesting, but otherwise ordinary film.
Even in a so-called Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound presentation, the aural elements associated with The Pumpkin Karver are fairly average. The score is unexceptional, the dialogue is easily discernible and the mood is rather mundane. The channels are rarely challenged, and the lack of spatial ambience makes for a mediocre sonic situation.
Aside from a collection of trailers and a photo gallery, the added content for this release is negligible at best. The only major bonus feature is a full length audio commentary by director Mann. Completely believing in the power and proficiency of his efforts, this is a dry, by the book description of The Pumpkin Karver's production. Aside from letting us in on the casting process, and how he came up with the ideas in the film, this is a discussion loaded with endless redundant detail. Toward the end, the continuous flow of film how-to gets to be a bit much, but for anyone looking for the nuts and bolts of indie movie making, this alternate narrative will be right up your alley. Everyone else will have tuned out long before.
Though it honestly deserves a Skip It for how deadly dull it can be at times, this critic is convinced that there is still an audience for this kind of retro retardation. No matter how hard or long director Mann argues that this is a psychological thriller, the stink of a million mediocre Voorhees, Myers and Krueger souls lay scattered on top of The Pumpkin Karver's concepts. As a result, a Rent It is more in order, since it will allow those with any inkling toward giving this title a spin a reason to run out and drop their dosh. It also warns the rest of the fright fanbase to avoid this feeble fear film. While it has been in artistic dire straights for the better part of a decade and a half, the slasher genre is probably due for a comeback – and maybe when Rob Zombie delivers his revamp of the Carpenter classic Halloween, the time will be right for a rebirth. But if the resurrection of the '70s/'80s standard is predicated on the success of something like The Pumpkin Karver, the cinematic spree killer will be dead and buried for a long time to come.