When a group of teenagers inadvertently kill his only son, Ed Harley (Lance Henriksen) seeks the powers of a backwoods witch to bring the child back to life. But instead, she invokes ‘the Pumpkinhead’ – a monstrously clawed demon that, once reborn, answers only to Ed’s bloodlust. But, as the creature wreaks its slow, unspeakable tortures on the teens, Ed confronts a horrifying secret about his connection to the beast – and realizes that he must find a way to stop its deadly mission before he becomes one with the creature forever. (From Scream Factory’s official synopsis)
Stan Winston’s Pumpkinhead (1988) is an enduring curiosity that constantly overcomes its shortcomings by doing select things very, very well. It’s one-half major motion picture – with Hollywood production values and a powerful central performance from a still-popular character actor – and one-half a DIY ‘weekend project,’ put together by an effects studio that simply wanted to make their own movie. It almost wasn’t even released when distribution company De Laurentiis Entertainment Group went bankrupt at the end of the ‘80s. Pumpkinhead’s lasting critical acclaim and cult popularity begins with a simple, concept-driven screenplay (written by Richard C. Weinman, Gary Gerani, Mark Patrick Carducci, and Winston himself, all reportedly inspired by a poem by Ed Justin) that satisfied the worldwide horror audience’s innate hankering for spooky folktales. Such faux-folk concepts had been the been the bread & butter of the biggest slasher franchises of the ‘80s, from John Carpenter’s Halloween (1977), to Sean Cunningham’s Friday the 13th (1980) and Wes Craven’s Nightmare on Elm Street (1984). Those violent “dead teenager” movies grew alongside creature features, like John Landis’ An American Werewolf in London (1981) and Joe Dante’s The Howling (1981), that were built on increasingly elaborate special effects. One of the biggest names in these types of FX was the late Stan Winston, whose C.V. included work on James Cameron’s The Terminator (1984) and Aliens (1986), the first two Predator movies (1987, 1990), and Steven Speilberg’s Jurassic Park (1993). Pumpkinhead became the natural extension of all of these fads, by connecting B-movie mythology, the ghastly murders of young coeds, and state-of-the-art creature effects into a neat little package.
While Pumpkinhead wasn’t originally written with Winston and his studio’s strengths in mind, it was still the perfect foundation to build a movie around impressive creature prop. And, boy, what an impressive creature prop the Pumpkinhead demon is. It never garnered the same level of pop culture adoration that H.R. Giger’s xenomorphs or Winston’s own Predator (or Yautja, for the comic fans in the house), but its ghastly dimensions (long arms, protruding shoulder bones, shallow ribcage, et cetera), alarming stature, and expressive face are still remarkable in our post-digital era. For his part, first-time director Winston appreciates his limitations, opting to embrace the pulpy melodrama and hyper-stylized imagery inherent in the project. Once the Pumpkinhead demon is released, the director and cinematographer Bojan Bazelli pour a veritable toolbox of MTV clichés onto the screen, infusing the Southern Gothicism with swirling smoke, hurricane-strength wind machines, vivid monochrome gels, and blinding strobe lights. At its best, it’s like an unlikely collaboration between Mario Bava and Razorback (1984)/Highlander (1986) era Russell Mulcahy. Winston doesn’t have as strong of a handle on dialogue-driven scenes, but the supernatural sequences are stunning enough to be sad that he gave up on feature direction following the critical and box office failure of his sophomore effort, A Gnome Named Gnorm (1990). Still, it’s a small sacrifice, given the breadth of his groundbreaking special effects output during the following decade.
Pumpkinhead’s most relevant problem is that it never quite manages to justify a complete feature-length treatment. Even at a modest 86 minutes, it would probably work better as part of an anthology or a single episode of a 60 minute series, like Tales From the Crypt. The narrative really lags anytime it drifts focus away from the creature and the rural characters to investigate the hardships of the cursed urban dirt bikers. The Pumpkinhead’s victims are dull by design, like their ‘80s slasher teen equivalents, but they really need to be complex enough that we understand why Ed Harley is willing to sell his soul for vengeance against them, yet hope that Ed can stop the demon when he changes his mind. It doesn’t help that the younger characters are put up against Lance Henriksen’s blistering performance. In fact, Henriksen is so powerful and compelling that he unbalances the entire movie. Even the monster pales in comparison to the abject fury on the actor’s face when he glares off well-meaning assistance from the kids that accidentally killed his boy.
North American Pumpkinhead fans had a lot to complain about for many, many years. Seemingly unaware of what a cult hit the film had become, MGM dumped it out on a barebones, 1.33:1 DVD. They finally released a special edition, anamorphic disc in 2008, but, by that time, viewer focus was already shifting to HD and the release received little fanfare (I have to admit that I forgot it had been released). The film did air in HD on television from time to time and I assume Scream Factory’s new Blu-ray version was sourced from that transfer by the people at MGM, not in-house. The lack of compression makes a bit difference, especially in those really dark scenes where Winston and Bazelli use such strong colored lighting gels. SD versions were particularly noisy in the monochrome orange scenes and hard to discern whenever heavy blue shades are involved. However, the HD upgrade is not as sharp as some viewers may have been anticipating. The use of smoke and diffused light, along with the general darkness of even the daylight sequences (the sun is setting throughout most of these), creates problems for finer details and the overall grain levels consistently fluttering over the image, dulling some of the dynamic ranges. There are some other print damage artifacts, but these rarely go beyond small white flecks. Generally speaking, I believe this slightly muddy look was an intended part of the film, especially the daylight scenes, which feature flattened gamma levels and are burned by yellow highlights. The more high-contrast nighttime images fare better. These are similarly grainy, but with finer textures, sharper edges, and a punchy depth of field. The vivid, stylized colors are bright without overwhelming the transfer with blooming edges or low-level noise. Some of the black levels are a bit underwhelming, but I’m not sure if they could be deepened without undermining the smoky motifs.
As far as I can tell, Pumpkinhead has always been presented with its original stereo audio (like many late-80s releases, it was mixed for an analogue Ultra Stereo release). Scream Factory has broken with tradition by presenting an uncompressed, DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 remix, one that I assume was mixed for HD television at MGM. The differences between the 5.1 and 2.0 mix (which is also presented here in DTS-HD MA) are negligible. The remix is tidier, thanks mostly to the discretely centered dialogue track (this includes the easy-to-miss words that Pumpkinhead hisses at its victims), but doesn’t do a lot to change the basic channel-to-channel movement of the sound. The only notable directional upgrades I noticed include the motion of the roaring dirt bikes that appear at the beginning of the film and a few of the Pumpkinhead’s off-camera noises. The environmental ambience that makes up the rural landscape and the rattling noises that accompany the title creature wherever he goes (I’m not sure if these count as music or effects) sound very similar between the two tracks. Composer Richard Stone (who was best known for his work on John Hughes movies and a number of mid-‘90s animated television shows) mixes period-friendly keyboard horror cues with southern-fried influences to underscore the rural gothic tones (during happier moments, the guitars, fiddles, and harmonica pick up quite nicely). The 5.1 mix doesn’t make a huge difference, but the LFE upgrade gives the disturbing, driving bass tones some oomph.
Commentary with co-screenwriter Gary Gerani and creature FX creators Tom Woodruff Jr. and Alec Gillis, moderated by Intruder and Hostel: Part III director Scott Spiegel. This is the same commentary that appeared on MGM’s special edition DVD.
Pumpkinhead Unearthed (64:00, HD) – This is an HD version of the behind-the-scenes documentary that showed up in parts on the DVD special edition. It features a number of cast and crew interviews and traces the production from its earliest inception in the ‘70s, through casting, filming, effects, production design, Stan Winston’s direction, and cult popularity.
Raw, video-shot behind-the-scenes footage (7:10, SD)
Night of the Demon (16:30, HD) – A new interview with writer Richard Weinman.
Redemption of Joel (14:00, HD) – A new interview with actor John D’Aquino.
The Boy with the Glasses (14:30, HD) – A new interview with actor Matthew Hurley.
Demonic Toys (4:50, SD) – A look at the fabrication of a Pumpkinhead collectible toy/statuette.
Remembering the Monster Kid: A Tribute to Stan Winston (49:10, HD) – A new documentary that gives the cast and crew a chance to rain praise on the late director and creature effects progenitor.
Trailer and trailers for other Scream Factory releases
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