Release Date(s)1988 (September 9, 2014)
Studio(s)MGM/UA (Scream Factory)
- Film/Program Grade: A-
- Video Grade: B
- Audio Grade: B+
- Extras Grade: A
The late, great Stan Winston was a legend in the makeup effects field, winning several Oscars for his groundbreaking work on such films as Aliens and Jurassic Park. But Winston’s work as a director in his own right is considerably less celebrated. One of the two features he helmed, the family comedy A Gnome Named Gnorm, isn’t even available on DVD (and, unfortunately, doesn’t exactly look like a classic). But his directorial debut, Pumpkinhead, holds up a lot better than many of its contemporaries.
Lance Henriksen stars as Ed Harley, proprietor of a general store way out in the middle of nowhere and a single father raising his cherubic bespectacled son (Matthew Hurley). When the boy is accidentally killed and abandoned by a group of hot-dogging teens on motorbikes, Ed seeks out an ancient crone named Haggis (Florence Schauffler) and pleads with her to summon an ancient demon of vengeance known locally as Pumpkinhead. Once Ed realizes how high the price of revenge really is, he regrets his decision but it’s too late. Pumpkinhead won’t rest until his job is complete, so Ed goes after the beast himself, hoping to kill it any way he can.
I first saw Pumpkinhead in the late 80s (on VHS…it didn’t make much of a dent theatrically) and I enjoyed it well enough. If anything, it looks even better almost 25 years later, in part because nobody’s making movies like this anymore. Pumpkinhead is an awesome monster and a big contributing factor to its effectiveness is the fact that it’s real (and extremely well performed by effects artist Tom Woodruff Jr.). It’s genuinely creepy to see this tall, taloned creature stride into a room and stalk its prey. Winston left the design of the creature up to his protégés at Stan Winston Studios but his knowledge of the craft means he knows exactly how to film this creature so it doesn’t look like an effect. With director of photography Bojan Bazelli behind the camera, Winston knows when to reveal the creature and when to hide it in shadows.
If all Pumpkinhead had going for it was its titular monster, it’d probably still be enough to make it a fun popcorn flick. But the story (ultimately written by Mark Patrick Carducci and Gary Gerani) is genuinely compelling. Henriksen is terrific in an intense and complex role. Even the city kids aren’t quite as one-dimensional as they often are in movies like this. It all adds up to a movie that’s a whole lot more memorable than your standard cabin-in-the-woods horror fare.
Scream Factory gives Pumpkinhead the Collector’s Edition treatment with a solid HD transfer. It was a tiny bit softer than I expected but Bazelli’s moody cinematography is well represented. The 5.1 DTS-HD audio isn’t terribly active but it’s fine and the disc also provides a 2.0 version. The release is one of Scream Factory’s more extras-packed titles of late with a good mix of old and new supplements. Previously released extras include a good audio commentary with Woodruff, fellow effects artist Alec Gillis and co-writer Gerani, moderated by Scott Spiegel, an hour-long documentary called Pumpkinhead Unearthed, seven minutes of behind-the-scenes footage with some cool looks at the development of the Pumpkinhead costume, and a brief interview with action figure sculptor Jean St. Jean. There are some good new interviews with producer Richard Weinman and actors John D’Aquino and Matthew Hurley (running approximately 15 minutes each). Remembering The Monster Kid is an affectionate tribute to Stan Winston, running over 45 minutes long. A trailer and still gallery wrap up the package.
Pumpkinhead is both a testament to the lasting power of practical effects and a tribute to the effectiveness of a simple story told extremely well. It’s like a spooky campfire story told in the dark. If you have a good storyteller, those are the kind of stories that stay with you and raise the hairs on the back of your neck. And with his first outing as director, Stan Winston proved he was a very good storyteller indeed.
- Adam Jahnke
Be sure to read more of my reviews in this year's Hell Plaza Oktoberfest! by clicking on the image below...