A Journal Of The Dark Arts
Witchcraft meets folk horror meets creature feature in Pumpkinhead, a frightfully good tale of Appalachian terror that holds up exceedingly well!
Witches on film don’t exist solely to bewitch young maidens and terrorize small dogs. They’re not simply a silhouette flying across the moon. They’re not there simply to perform cute tricks with a bunny wrinkle of the nose. As in real life, witches are more than a bogey(wo)man to terrorize small children after dark. As often as not, witches can be a symbol of empowerment, of justice for the disenfranchised and marginalized who are so often powerless in thus world of men.
So it is with 1988’s Pumpkinhead, the directorial debut of special FX wizard Stan Winston. And while Pumpkinhead‘s main raison d’etre is for Winston to lavishly, lovingly linger on his gooey, Alien-like Demon Of Vengeance, there’s more pulsing through the veins of this witchy folk horror movie.
The setup for Pumpkinhead is so simple it could come from some sort of regional folklore or ghost story. Ed Harley (Lance Henriksen) owns and runs a General Store in a small rural Appalachian village. He’s a single father to Billy (Matthew Harley), cute as a button with his coke bottle glasses, the most adorable thing this side of Macauley Culkin in My Girl. The pair live a quiet, idyllic existence in a small-but-cozy country shack with their dog, Gypsy.
All of that changes one day when Ed and Billy go to tend the store when a group of city folk come into town for a weekend of dirt biking and drinking. Resident Bad Boy (and outright asshole) Joel (John D’aquino) starts showing off on his dirt bike after he’d been drinking. Billy comes darting out of nowhere, chasing his dog, and gets mowed down. Already on probation, Joel grabs his girlfriend Tracy (Cynthia Bain) and tears ass out of there, leaving his brother Chris (Jeff East) with the body and to face the father’s wrath.
Gutted, Ed Harley goes to one of the local hollers in search of an old woman known only as Haggis. Haggis (Florence Schauffler) is said to be a witch with the power to summon Pumpkinhead. Harley’s already a believer, as he’d caught a glimpse of the monster exacting its vengeance. Haggis instructs him to go to a hidden cemetery in a pumpkin patch and dig up what he finds and to bring it to her. When he does, she works her unholy, unwholesome magick, bringing the shriveled being to life to wreak its bloodthirsty revenge.
From here, Pumpkinhead ostensibly becomes a slasher, as the gigantic demon picks off the city dwellers one by one. There’s a twist, though, saving Pumpkinhead from being another color-by-numbers 80s slasher. After resurrecting the demon, Ed Harley is bound to it, experiencing its vengeance through its eyes as he watches the group get picked off, one by one.
Remorseful, Ed Harley resolves to stop the demonic curse, at any cost.
I’ll not ruin the suspense. There’s no need to deliver a play-by-play of dismemberment and bloodshed (both of which are on copious display.) If you’ve not seen Pumpkinhead, you should do so immediately! If you have, yr due for a rewatch as this late ’80s gem really is a diamond in the rough, in a sea of straight-to-video slashers and endless sequels.
Pumpkinhead is often billed as a vehicle for Stan Winston work his special FX magick. It’s beloved by lovers of practical effects but is often maligned for shoddy writing and uneven pacing. That’s unfair, in my opinion.
For one thing, Pumpkinhead has heart. There’s a touching on-screen chemistry between Lance Henriksen and Matthew Harley. Some take issue with the fairy tale-like quality to the tale, but that’s what makes it work for me. The scenes between Ed and Billy are often shot in a glowing, numinous golden hour, giving the moments a beatific quality that makes the darkness and horror to come all the more viscerally striking and potent.
Pumpkinhead works with horror at its most elemental. It’s as much ghost train ride and haunted attraction as an out-and-out 80s horror movie. Like the interior of Haggis’ ramshackle shack on the edge of a swamp, which seems populated by every form of creepy crawly creature you could imagine, from tarantulas to vultures. It lends a classic flavour to Pumpkinhead that make it a fun, chilling romp, while simultaneously being actually scary, at times.
Its also a somewhat rare example of an American folk horror, which are more often set in the Old World of England, Ireland, or Europe. There’s a distinctive flavour to these hill tales that bring to mind stories from classic American horror writers like Ambrose Bierce or H. P. Lovecraft. The hills of West Virginia (or wherever Pumpkinhead is supposed to take place) is just as chilling of a setting as the Translyvanian Alps or British moors, if not more so. For those of us living on this side of the Atlantic, the setting brings these terrifying tales closer to home, more chilling and more relatable. It also provides some unique set pieces that make Pumpkinhead worth viewing, alone – a graveyard overgrown with rotting pumpkins, a burned out church being reclaimed by nature. M. R. James could do no better, in his Gothic old world way.
Strip back the Americana, and you will find some themes nearly universal among folk horror, most notably the theme of urban vs. rural. Surprisingly, here the countryfolk are viewed more sympathetically – a welcome change of pace from the championing of rationality and reason so often found in folk horror. It gives some dignity to the country folk while still acknowledging their often terrible beliefs.
Pumpkinhead is so, so much more than just anothe slasher or creature feature. It’s got heart, great acting, outstanding production values, a killer soundtrack, an eerie setting, and a monster for the ages.
I’m giving Pumpkinhead four-and-a-half pumpkins, only detracting half a Jack O’ Lantern due to perhaps showing the monster just a touch too much. When yr monster looks this good, its certainly understandable!
Welcome to 31 Days Of Horror! Each day this month, i’ll be reviewing and recommending horror movies, in addition to other media, art, and culture relating to the Horror genre. Make sure to check back as this site’s about to run red with more delicious horror madness than you could shake a stake at.
We’ve got a pretty stacked queue already, but am always open to suggestions, recommendations, and just knowing what y’all would like to see on this site. And what are y’all watching, reading, and listening to, this Season of the Witch?
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