Like Grasping a Hot Coal


Pumpkinhead - 1988
see link for writing team credits
Directed by Stan Winston

On the subject of anger and vengeance, Buddha said, "Holding onto anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at another; you are the one who gets burned."  In a genre (and let's face it; a society) that so often takes vengeance as a given, even a virtue, Pumpkinhead is a film that seems to embrace this lesson from Buddha.  In creating an object lesson on this theme, it throws some curveballs at us that stymie common genre expectations, but ultimately leads to an atypically poignant conclusion.

The other thing that Pumpkinhead embraces is kick-ass monster craft.  The film was directed by Stan Winston, who is best known as the legendary make-up and animatronic effects wizard involved in The Terminator, Aliens, Predator and much, much more.  As such, the titular beastie, Pumpkinhead is bizarre and menacing, and goes through an evolution that demonstrates the film's thematic core.

Once upon a time in the Appalachian hills just north of Los Angeles, a widowed and taciturn farmer (Lance Henriksen) lives with his sensitive and quick-witted son.  Early scenes establish the affection between them, so you just know it's going to end poorly for at least one of them.  Meanwhile, we're introduced to a group of young people on their way out to a weekend of dirt bikes and doin' it at a mountain cabin, and because they're young people headed into the woods, you just know that it's going to end poorly for several-if-not-all of them, but especially the greasy dickweasel drinking and driving the Trans Am.

Our ill-fated parties come into contact at the ramshackle general store plopped next to a ribbon of California concrete.  Through an awkward convolution, our farmer and general store operator, Ed Harley, leaves his beloved son at the store while he runs home to pick up some feed for the grandpappy of the dirt-caked hillbilly family.  Two of the young people decide they can't wait five more minutes to get to their cabin (despite covering the last 50 miles in about 20 seconds) and break out the dirt bikes for some totally radical shenanigans, dude.

Engines rev.  Dog bolts.  Boy chases.  Bikes jump.  One misses.  One doesn't.  Billy is down.

This scene is key.  Where most horror films would make all the young city folk crass and indifferent to justify what's coming later, here they make a genuine (if inadequate) effort to get help.  They try to help him.  They run into the store, but there's no phone to be found (nor indeed any outward indication that the roadside shack is connected to any utility services).  Eventually they leave one friend with Billy to wait for help after the previously mentioned dickweasel who hit him splits from the scene because he already has a DUII on his record.  At the cabin, they even try to call emergency services, but dickweasel rips the cord out of the wall and locks his friend in the closet.  What's so "key" about this is that most of the young people are trying to help.  Only the DUII greaseball is demonstrably evil, and possibly his weak, enabling girlfriend.

Finally, Ed gets back and finds his son, battered but still alive.  The young person who stuck around tries to explain that it was an accident, receiving only a hateful glare from Ed in response.  Rather than attempting to get help for his boy, Ed simply takes him home, as is standard behavior for horror movies.  The boy expires and Ed is awash in sorrow and rage.

So he bundles up the boy and puts him in his truck and sets out to find the witch woman of local legend to get satisfaction one way or another... like you do.

In a crumbling shack deep in the swamp (you know, that swamp up on Black Ridge), Ed finds the witch woman who sends him to a lost cemetery to dig something up, and the ritual is performed.  The something rises, and a commitment has been made to the path of vengeance.

What follows should be a fairly rote elimination of young people, and to a large extent that does happen, but then something else happens.  With each death, Ed feels pain, and quickly comes to realize that he is hurting people who don't deserve to die, as well as hurting himself.  He tries to get the witch woman to take it back, but that's really not how witches work, now is it?  He has literally unleashed the beast, and it won't stop until it's done.

Along the way, the son from the hillbilly family gets involved (it was he who told Ed where to find the witch) and like Ed, tries to save the remaining young people out of remorse for his role in summoning the Pumpkinhead demon.

With each death, Ed feels more pain and becomes more savage.  He eventually realizes that Pumpkinhead feels his pain, and another encounter with the demon demonstrates that it is transforming into him, and he into it.  The solution, at this point, is pretty obvious, especially for a man who has little left to live for.

The incident is over, but the legend lives on through this tragedy, and the groundwork for a franchise has been laid.  If you hadn't heard of Pumpkinhead before, you will be even more surprised to learn that there have indeed been a series of films made with the monster.

So, is it good?  Well, as discussed, its twists on standard fare both make it an odd watch, yet provide some of its most satisfying considerations.  It doesn't simply glory in setting up "good guys" and "bad guys."  Ed is absolutely our protagonist (rather than the traditional vacationing young folk), and he is given a powerful cause for his pain and anger, but the way he reacts is a mistake that hurts innocents as well as himself.  The young people are generally more thoughtful and caring than the typical slasher meat.  Yeah, one is a complete and absolute colostomy sack in belted 80s jeans who arguably "deserved" what he got, by horror movie standards. His girlfriend was an accessory and his brother was simply irresponsible, but the other 3 were essentially innocent, and they didn't all survive.  Okay, the witch is definitely going to Hell and she knows it, but she didn't really do anything that Ed didn't ask for and she did try to warn him.

That's vengeance for you.  It's really pretty easy to justify doing wrong things when motivated by anger, but that doesn't make them not wrong things.

Stan Winston was definitely a better monster maker than he was a director.  He clearly learned a thing or two from James Cameron about the use of black and blue palette, and stuck with it.  The acting ranges from Henriksen-reliable to it's-a-good-thing-they're-pretty, but let's face it, that's not what we're here for.  The monster parts are cool, and THAT is what we're here for.  Pumpkinhead is kind of an odd design, but hey, he's a demon.  How do I know they're not weird creatures with crazy-ass shoulder bones?  The witch's swamp shack and the graveyard full of pumpkins were particularly well-designed and creepily beautiful set-pieces.  In the end, it's an uneven but satisfying monster movie with a little something unexpected; a soul.

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