Pumpkinhead is a 1988 horror film that had a limited release, but over the years, it has gotten a bit more love and a cult following. It is also notably the directorial debut for Stan Winston, a special effects artist who worked on Terminator 2, Batman Returns, and Jurassic Park. Given Winston’s main focus on practical effects, one of the reasons that Pumpkinhead has such a special place in the hearts of horror fans is the practical effects.
The movie follows Ed Harley, first introduced to us as a child hiding from ‘something’ with his family. When a man goes to their door for help, Ed’s father turns the man away, but Ed is able to overhear the man later dying. Flash forward, and grown-up Ed Harley has a son around the same age as he was at the start. Pumpkinhead is believed to be a myth in the town used to scare kids into behaving, but Ed still vaguely recalls that night. An accident happens, and Ed’s son is killed, and he goes down the path of revenge and finally learns what Pumpkinhead is.
The movie is pretty simple, nothing we haven’t seen before. A creature is summoned for revenge, and the person who summons it has to deal with the consequences of that choice. Ed Harley, at first, is fine with what he has done, but once he is forced to face the pain and the reality of it, he regrets it and wants to help the remaining teens survive. The problem being once Pumpkinhead has been summoned, there is no stopping it; at least that’s what they believe.
The kills and the final two acts are pretty intense and interesting. Pumpkinhead is creative in how it takes out each of those it has been called to get revenge on. Where the film suffers is pacing. The introduction is a bit too long, drawing out things between the teens that cause Ed’s child’s death and what we know is coming. By the time we even get to Pumpkinhead, actually hunting, more than half the movie’s run time is gone, so it means that we are rushed through the climax a little more than I would like. There isn’t a lot of time for tension to build, we know each time we are faced with the teens, they are going to die, it happens rather quickly, and there is not a lot of suspense.
That doesn’t make it a bad movie, just not a very scary or suspenseful one. I have maintained, and will continue to do so, that there are different ways for horror movies to be good. This one is entertaining, even if it lacks the tension element that I like. The intro drags a little, as I said, but once Ed is on his path for revenge, the movie is solid and enjoyable. It is also helpful that Ed and most of his victims are pretty sympathetic. Only one of the characters is really guilty of anything, while the rest have been pulled into a mess they didn’t want.
Also, as mentioned, the special effects are top-notch. Winston had been nominated for his special effects works a few times before his passing and worked on some great films. His talent with practical effects already shows in this. Pumpkinhead is a well-designed monster that looks great. The kills are again well done, and what is lost as far as horror in a bit of lacking tension and suspense is made up for in the great kills and the awesome creature.
The movie also has a pretty incredible ending shot, if not the most unexpected. Beyond that, there is not a lot to say. Some horror films pack a deeper message, some are just fun, entertaining horror romps. I find Pumpkinhead falls more into the latter. It naturally has some themes dealing with the nature of grief and the desire for revenge, although it’s not reinventing the wheel. This is not a knock; I have said and will say that not everything needs to do that and solid entertainment for the purpose of entertainment is not only good but necessary.
So bottom line? I agree with all of those that consider this an under-watched gem. I think most genre fans have probably given this one a go by now versus, say, a decade or so ago, but if you haven’t joined the party, you should do so. Nonhorror fans I would probably be a bit more hardpressed to give a recommendation to. If you like horror and practical effects, it’s entirely worth it and worth a revisit.