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Directed by the late, great special effects titan Stan Winston (his first feature as a director) based on the poem by Ed Justin, 1988's Pumpkinhead is the tragic tale of a man named Ed Harley (Lance Henriksen) who owns and operates a local grocery store in the deep south. He lives alone with his son, Billy (Matthew Hurley), and they have a quiet life until a bunch of city slickers on dirtbikes show up and accidently kill poor Billy while he's out playing. Ed is, quite understandably, distraught but so too is he angry. Rather than take this to the local authorities to sort out, he decides to visit a local swamp witch named Haggis (Florence Schauffler) with the express intent of conjuring up a demon known to the locals as Pumpkinhead. As the legend goes, if one man does another man wrong, the wronged party can summon the demon to take revenge on his behalf.
But what of those city folk? There's an even half dozen of them, made up of three couples. First is their de facto leader Joel (John D'Aquino) and his pretty girlfriend Kim (Kimberly Ross), then there's Joel's kid brother Steve (Joel Hoffman) and his girlfriend Maggie (Kerry Remsen), and last but not least, Chris (Jeff East) and his girlfriend Tracey (Cynthia Bain). They're aware of what they've done but have no idea what's in store once Haggis helps Ed in his quest for unholy vengeance. For that matter, Ed has no idea what he's in for either, as he starts to experience himself their murders at the hands of the monster he has unleashed. When Ed tries to have Haggis send the monster back to whence it came, she lets slip that this is not possible, leaving a very weary Ed to deal with the demon all on his own…
Pumpkinhead is a low budget triumph of creature effects and atmospheric set design. Granted, a little more character development would have gone a long way, particularly in how we are meant to regard the six city folk Ed deems responsible for Billy's death, but putting that issue aside for a moment there's a lot to like about Winston's film. Plenty of fantastic colorful lighting and loads of foggy locations help to entrench the picture in the traditional visuals you'd associate with folk lore, from the eerie cemetery where the titular beast rises to the ancient church where a key set piece plays out. All of this is ‘stuff' is ripe with southern gothic mood all of which serves to aid in ramping up tension and suspense. The monster effects help in this regard too, with Pumpkinhead looking a little bit like Giger's Alien but with more of an organic feel in place of the cold, smooth, sleek look of his interstellar counterpart. The beast is impressive when he comes to life, leering with cold, dead eyes and towering over his human prey with dead flesh clinging tightly to the skeleton that protrudes from it.
As far as the cast go, Henrisken does most of the heavy lifting here. His Ed Harley is a tortured soul to be sure and he carries the film with his performance. As an actor, he's always had a knack for darker roles and he definitely gives this one his all. Florence Schauffler is also quite good in her heavily made up turn as the witch. Maybe she overplays it a bit but this is not a part that calls for subtlety so it works. The rest of the cast… they're fine, they're just not given nearly as much to do, they're basically just there to serve as fodder for the beast. There are moments where the script toys with adding depth and looks like it's going to maybe delve into themes of redemption and sacrifice but it never really gets into it the way a really intense and intelligent script could have.
Pumpkinhead is content to remain a picture that plays more to its strengths as a monster movie than anything else and there's absolutely nothing wrong with that. In fact, when you get right down to it, Pumpkinhead is a monster movie done right. It offers up scares, atmosphere, a great lead character and some excellent effects work. If it doesn't pull back the layers and delve deep under the surface of its ideas, so be it, because this is a genre film that does what it does very well.The Blu-ray:
Pumpkinhead arrives on Blu-ray in an AVC encoded 1080p high definition transfer framed at 1.85.1 widescreen. Despite the fact that this is a very dark movie filled with shadows and beams of light and plenty of atmospheric fog, the film is also a pretty colorful on in its own odd way and this Blu-ray release replicates the film's swampy color scheme quite nicely. Blacks are nice and deep and while there is some minor crush and some minor compression evident on the transfer detail is typically pretty solid. The source material used shows no serious print damage of note, just a few minor specks here and there, while skin tones look lifelike and natural when they're supposed to an properly sickly and pale when they're not. Grain is present throughout as it should be but never overpowering or distracting and all in all, the movie looks good.Sound:
Audio options are provided in English 2.0 and 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio with optional subtitles provided in English only. The stereo mix will appeal to those who appreciate the film's roots while the 5.1 mix is there to appease those who want a bit of surround sound. As to how the two tracks compare, the 5.1 mix, not surprisingly, spreads out some of the sound effects and the score into the rear channels with decent results. You'll pick up on this when Pumpkinhead emerges and during the finale as well as a few other more active scenes that take place during the film. The stereo mix obviously can't do this but instead presents a more ‘true to source' track. Both options offer nicely balanced levels and clean, clear dialogue. There are no issues with hiss or distortion to note and both tracks have good depth and range.Extras:
Carried over from the previous DVD special edition release that came out a few years ago through MGM is a commentary track with co-screenwriter Gary Gerani and creature effects creators Tom Woodruff Jr. and Alec Gillis. This is a solid discussion that lets Gerani talk about the origins of the story and some of the influences that worked their way into not just his script but the very look of the movie itself. Woodruff and Gillis share some interesting technical stories about some of the issues that arose during the shoot getting the monster to do what it was supposed to do. They talk about where some of the ideas for the look of the monster came from, what it was like working with director Stan Winston on location and more. Lots of good information here, this is a very informative track. Scott Spiegel moderates it and keeps everyone engaged and on topic.
Also carried over from that DVD is the extensive hour long documentary Pumpkinhead Unearthed, which is broken up into six parts. Interviewed here are Gary Gerani, Cynthia Bain, Kerry Remsen, Brian Bremer, Florance Schauffler, Lance Henriksen, Alec Gillis, Tom Woodruff Jr., Shannon Shea, Richard Landon and Cynthia Charette and there are a lot of interesting stories told. Henriksen talks about his character and how it was hard for him to go back to being himself between takes while the effects guys share some interesting bits about the locations and the work that they had to do there. The seven minute Behind The Scenes featurette that was also on that aforementioned DVD is also included here, it's basically a collection of footage shot on set during the shoot with an emphasis on the suit and the animatronic monster head. We also get a five minute piece called Demonic Toys which is an interview with a sculptor named Jean St. Jean who was tasked with creating a scale model of the monster. Remembering The Monster Kid is a touching tribute to the late director of the feature, Stan Winston, that runs almost fifty-minutes in length and is made up of yet more interviews with the cast and crew. Obviously focused more on their relationships with Winston than the movie itself, Henriksen appears again here along with Woodruff, Gillis, Shea and Bremer to discuss what it was like to work alongside a great talent like Stan Winston.
A few new interviews are included on the disc too, starting with Night Of The Demon, a sixteen-minute piece with producer Richard Weinman. This covers some of the same ground as the material with Gerani as it talks about the various attempts to adapt the poem before this movie came around but it also talks about Winston's tempestuous relationship with Dino DeLaurentis, the script and some of its problems (and how they were corrected) and a fair bit more. The Redemption Of Joel is a new fourteen minute interview with John D'Aquino in which he talks about playing his character the way he did and what it was like working with the different cast members on the picture. The Boy With The Glasses also runs fourteen minutes and it's an interview with Matthew Hurley who talks about working on this picture at a young age and how his parents weren't really into the idea of him starring in a horror picture at first.
Rounding out the extras are a still gallery, a trailer for the feature, trailers for a few other Scream Factory titles, animated menus and chapter selection. Additionally, this release features reversible cover art inside the case and that case in turn fits inside a cardboard slipcover.Final Thoughts:
Pumpkinhead holds up well both as a monster movie and as a backwoods morality tale, deftly mixing supernatural elements with backwoods horror motifs in really interesting, effective ways. Henriksen's performance anchors the picture but he's surrounding by a good supporting cast and some fantastic creature effects. The Blu-ray special edition from Shout! Factory offers the film in a strong transfer with good audio and on a disc loaded with extra features. Highly recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.