Wednesday, June 8, 2011

REVIEW: Pumpkinhead (1988)

Director: Stan Winston
Starring: Lance Henriksen, John D'Aquino, Brian Bremer

In the 80s, horror movies liked to take somber situations and just spruce them up, adding supernatural characters and freakshow-esque monsters to make sure each story lodged in your brain like a terrible urban legend, a cautionary warning not to do anything dumb – lest the monster come after YOU next. And nothing exemplifies that more than Pumpkinhead, the 1988 slasher that taught us never to commit a hit-and-run, or else we’d be hunted down by a supernatural vengeance demon bent on tearing us to shreds. Sound cheerful enough yet? Let’s dig in.

The story starts off showing us the epitome of neighborly love – a love so great that one farmer won’t even open the door when his fellow man is clawing at it outside, screaming in pain as an unseen monster attacks. All the movie’s hallmarks are already in place: the wild blues and oranges of the lighting, the strong winds and the desolate country atmosphere. All awesome things, for sure.

The main story, though, centers on a shop owner on the side of a desert road played by Lance Henriksen. He and his son live rather ideally and have a simple life, with no real troubles. The first few minutes are just him and his son enjoying their morning – which surprisingly works to establish character and make us care about these people. Imagine that. A horror film actually playing to our emotions.

But then a bunch of teenagers on their way to a cabin in the woods, because that was all teenagers had to do back in the 80s, stop at the shop to get some stuff and also show off their motorcycles. Here we also see a bunch of country kids playing around, and they give us our first real explanation of the movie’s monster – if you’re wronged, you can summon Pumpkinhead and he’ll get revenge for you.

During the motorcycle showing-off, the typical 80s badass of the group, complete with leather jacket and mullet, accidentally hits the kid while flying off a dune and kills him. They decide to just leave to go to their cabin and call for help there, except the mullet-guy is worried because he already has two prior offenses and can’t go to jail for a third. So the logical solution is naturally to cut the phone lines in the cabin and go ax-crazy, holding anyone who wants to do the right thing and help the kid hostage in the closet.

Meanwhile the father is grief-stricken, and I have to say this is the first bit where we really see why Lance Henriksen was the right choice for this movie. He really brings out the sadness and rage a parent would feel for his child, and the earlier scenes with the two of them bonding together really drive it home that this man has lost the shining light of his life. He takes a drastic action and gets one of the country kids to help him find an old witch who may be able to help him.

This is another reason why this movie is cool – shamelessly cheesy horror clich√©. I mean, it’s an old witch lady who lives on a mountain and has a house full of burning candles, skulls, animal skins and other stuff that you’d expect to find in a haunted house, and it’s all just so awesome, setting a great atmosphere for what’s to come. You really feel the grief that Henriksen’s going through, adding a lot of raw power to the proceedings.

She tells him she can’t bring his son back, but she does give him the opportunity to get revenge, which he takes quite readily. And so the creature is unleashed. Whenever it kills, Henriksen feels it on his own body – because that’s the price of vengeance, you see; it hurts you as well as whoever you’re inflicting it upon.

The movie goes on as all of the kids are eventually killed off. Henriksen realizes that what he did was a mistake, and tries to help the kids defeat him. There are some really great shots like one where you see Pumpkinhead up in this huge tree, with the girl he killed dangling down from its longest branch. The atmosphere is always really occult and seedy. The lighting and special effects are great, which is no surprise, as director Stan Winston has done special effects for movies like Avatar and Terminator 2.

The end of the film builds up tension to a boiling point. Lots of people die and lots of blood is spilled, but the terror, unlike many slasher films, comes more from the idea that these kids are being killed off by a completely alien, unstoppable, ancient force all for a MISUNDERSTANDING (albeit a very tragic one). They were trying to go get help, but because the one guy didn’t want to get caught, he stopped them, and Henrikson’s character thought they were all a bunch of hit-and-run scumbags. And he cast an ancient evil curse on them for it. Essentially, these kids were damned to Hell for no good reason, for a misunderstanding by a fellow human being. Thus is the fallacy of all men. That is the horror of Pumpkinhead. This is one of the great 80s horror flicks, definitely a cut above the average. Go see it.