Directed by Stan Winston
Distributed by Scream Factory
Despite the subjectivity of nearly every horror film in existence, there are a handful of titles that more or less remain above reproach because they’re just so damn beloved. These are the films that would make you question a person’s love of the genre if they claimed not to be a fan. When it comes to a title like Pumpkinhead (1988), horror fans should fall into one of two categories:
1. Those who love it.
2. Those who haven’t yet seen it.
After toiling away in Hollywood since the early ‘70s, special FX pioneer Stan Winston finally got the chance to direct his first feature length film (and it should have stayed his first and only, if you’ve seen his one other theatrical picture, 1990’s A Gnome Named Gnorm). Pulling from a concept screenwriter Gary Gerani had kicking around in his head since the late ‘70s, along with a poem written by Ed Justin, Pumpkinhead is a seminal supernatural creature feature; a morality tale pitting film’s two oldest foes against one another – good vs. evil. Swathed in atmosphere and anchored by a strong lead in Lance Henriksen, the true star here is the eponymous demon of vengeance, Pumpkinhead, who remains one of cinema’s most realized, emotive creations of latex and mechanics ever produced. Even heathens who only find the film to be decent can’t argue the beast Winston’s team conjured up isn’t an enduring icon of horror; its legacy only diluted by some truly atrocious sequels (although, being a child of ‘90s horror, I have to admit to fostering a soft spot for Pumpkinhead II: Blood Wings (1994) despite the fact it is entirely unnecessary).
Ed Harley (Lance Henriksen) is a simple man. He lives in a modest cabin with his young son, Billy (Matthew Hurley), and their dog, Gypsy (who also played the Peltzer family pet in 1984’s Gremlins), since his wife passed away many years ago. By day, Ed and Billy run a local market & feed store by the roadside. One day, some city folk stop by on their way to a weekend getaway in the woods. Ed is forced to leave the shop when he forgets some feed for Mr. Wallace (played by John Carpenter crony George “Buck” Flower), leaving Billy “in charge” momentarily. And in that moment, Billy is run down and killed by Joel (John D’Aquino), a hothead dickhead who drinks constantly, thus ensuring that even when he does have a legitimate accident (see: Billy) he still has to go on the lam. Steve (Joel Hoffman), Joel’s brother, does the right thing by staying behind and trying to speak with Ed when he returns. As you might imagine, Ed is not thrilled.
Ed drives back down to the Wallace’s place, hoping to get in touch with an old woman who lives in these parts. She’s rumored to be able to conjure up something to even the score; a demon that Ed witnessed killing a man (Dick Warlock, in a very brief role) back when he was a young boy. One of Wallace’s kids shows him the way, down into the swamp where Haggis (Florence Schauffler) lives in a ramshackle cabin. Ed wants vengeance, which Haggis can provide… at a high price. Ed is instructed to dig up a malformed corpse from atop a small plateau within a pumpkin patch. He returns with the body, Haggis performs a ritual and the corpse transforms into the gargantuan demon of vengeance, Pumpkinhead. Numerous deaths follow.
It’s a tale as old as time – good vs. evil, revenge, justice, consequences. Pumpkinhead doesn’t succeed by doing things differently; it succeeds by getting a number of variables right, including the casting of Henriksen, who brings a strong sense of gravitas to the picture; delivering an atmospheric, almost gothic aesthetic set deep in the woods of Califo…er, the South; and, most importantly, Pumpkinhead as a character is unforgettable. Winston was mostly hands off during production because he had so much to manage running the ship. Thankfully, his shop contained a number of insanely talented individuals – Tom Woodruff Jr., Alec Gillis, Shannon Shea – that they were able to craft such amazing work in the span of several weeks. As a malevolent creature from another world, Pumpkinhead feels organic; it moves and emotes with as much realism as possible. Verisimilitude aside, the design is just flat-out spectacular, too. You almost can’t blame these producers for making sequels because it’s the kind of movie monster you want to see more of. Note I did say “almost”.
Henriksen is such a damn solid actor. He’s got this soulful charm to him, whether he’s playing a villain or a hero. It’s a magnetic presence. Side note: the guy is just like that in real life, too. Total class act. Here, as Ed Harley, he’s a man who makes a rash decision based upon raw emotion and a sense of total loss; he needs these kids to feel as he does, in this moment. Only after Ed is vicariously linked to Pumpkinhead does he understand the error of his choice, a wrong he desperately tries to right until the very end. It’s hard to imagine anyone doing a better job filling Harley’s boots.
The film’s road to theaters was not an easy one, fraught with studio change-ups, a poorly-timed wide release date and very few screens. Still, it thrived upon hitting home video, where mass audiences were finally able to appreciate the hard work Winston and co. had done. It’s possible for some this is one of those “rose-tinted memory” films that might not hold up for first-time viewers more accustomed to CGI creatures and hot-bodied teens in their horror. I stress “possible” because, really, you can’t love horror and not love everything about Pumpkinhead. It’s a brisk romp through the swamp, full of creepy creature moments and gorgeously lit, looking like a southern-fried Mario Bava flic.
Fans of Pumpkinhead have likely purchased this film at least a handful of times – VHS (which had the best cover art of any release), a full-frame DVD, a special edition widescreen DVD and now, finally, the reigning kings of horror on Blu-ray, Scream Factory, have delivered what should be taken as the definitive version, with a 1.85:1 1080p image that looks just great. Barring an extensive 4K restoration, this is the best the film will ever look on home video. There’s not much to complain about here. The picture relies heavily on colored lighting and a brooding atmosphere to heighten the horror, with many shots bathed in hues of red or blue. That blue, in particular, looks very effective when coupled with all the smoke pumped into the shots when our characters are trying to escape from the woods. Black levels are stable and rich; and they need to be because nearly the entirety of the film takes place in dimly-lit woods. Contrast takes a bit of a hit at night, when details tend to get obscured by shadow, though much of that lost detail is just inherent to such low lighting. Unsurprisingly, the image looks best during the daylight scenes, when finer details are able to more fully show themselves. No digital tweaking has been done here; no DNR or unnecessary tampering. Other than a few minor specks, the print used here is in great condition. Some minor compression issues pop up in the background of a few scenes; nothing major, though. I’ve seen this movie a hundred times on a half dozen formats on this is unquestionably the best it has ever looked.
As usual, fans have the choice of an English DTS-HD MA in either 5.1 surround sound track or 2.0 stereo. Now, the film was originally mixed in Ultra Stereo and the additional tracks added for a more immersive experience aren’t completely needed. The multi-channel option does sound a bit fuller than the stereo track, so this will simply come down to a matter of preference for most. Personally, unless a 5.1 channel track is terribly done it’s usually my go-to pick simply because the soundfield is expanded more fully. If you’re a purist, however, just know the 2.0 stereo track gets the job done nearly as well. Dialogue tends to sound a bit thin and flat on either track, lacking presence. Rears get some sporadic play during tense moments, never quite delivering enough audible cues to be totally immersive. The highlight here is composer Richard Stone’s score (someone get on a vinyl release, ASAP), which is perfectly constructed for the film. Stone uses a great deal of Southern instrumentation here, including some great pieces done with slide guitar and harmonica. There’s nothing generic about this score. Subtitles are included in English.
Continuing on with their mission to provide amazing releases, Scream Factory not only included ALL of the bonus materials found on the previous special edition DVD but they’ve also included newly-produced featurettes in an effort to absolutely pack every bit of space on this disc with awesome material. In addition to the returning audio commentary, documentary, trailers and featurettes, the disc also includes new interviews, a retrospective on Winston and an image gallery.
Ported over from the previous DVD is this audio commentary, featuring co-screenwriter Gary Gerani and creature FX creators Tom Woodruff Jr. and Alec Gillis, moderated by filmmaker (and super fan) Scott Spiegel. It’s a mostly-active session, with all participants getting plenty of time to discuss their respective contributions to the film. Everyone does quiet down on a few occasions, leaving awkward gaps of silence, and some info is redundant if you watch the other bonus features first. Still, if you want to know everything you possibly can about the production, this is an essential listen. Pumpkinhead Unearthed is a six-part documentary that runs just over an hour. No stone is left unturned here, as nearly every available principal cast & crew member is interviewed about their work on the film. This documentary was excellent when it arrived with the SE DVD, and here, presented in HD, it’s no less interesting to watch all over again. Behind the Scenes is a vaguely-titled piece that looks at the genesis of Pumpkinhead as a practical creation.
Most of this footage consists of the special FX crew guys testing out a rough form of the Pumpkinhead suit, as well as sculpting the “hero” head and seeing the entire thing all put together on set. Night of the Demon with Richard Weinman is an interview with the veteran producer, who has some vivid recollections about working with Winston, including one moment of testosterone overload when he and producer Dino DeLaurentiis got into a screaming match. Dino, of course, won. The Redemption of Joel with John D’Aquino is an interview with the film’s big jerk. Ironically, he originally wanted to play the Jeff East good guy role, but wound up playing the heavy. He makes mention of his death scene being very painful due to the rig in which he was hoisted up. The Boy with the Glasses with Matthew Hurley is an interview with the actor who played Ed Harley’s son. Young Billy is all grown up, looking very much like you’d expect Older Billy to appear.
Being so young during the time of filming, he’s got nothing but golden memories of his time on set. He points to Henriksen as making a great effort to keep him comfortable during the shoot. Demonic Toys is an interview with Jean St. Jean, sculptor at SOTA toys, who talks about the process by which he created the 20” tall Pumpkinhead figure that was put out many years back. It looks badass, but I’ll say this: it can’t stand for sh*t. Kids, leave most of your toys in the box. Trust me. Remembering the Monster Kid – A Tribute to Stan Winston is a slightly moving, slightly long remembrance of the FX legend. Stan was a major innovator in the film world; this is undeniable. Some of his contemporaries (mostly those who worked on this film) show up to wax fondly on how much they admired him. A couple tales of his temper are worked in, though nothing all that revelatory or shocking is told. This could’ve had more substance to it, but as an effusive tribute it’s not half bad. A still gallery containing 102 images and the film’s theatrical trailer, looking rather rough, complete the extra material.
The cover art is reversible, allowing for display of either newly-commissioned art (which is some of the best to grace a Scream Factory title) or the original theatrical key art, which, frankly, isn’t all that awesome. Nobody would’ve minded if they chose the VHS art, but this is a very minor quibble. A slipcover featuring the new art is included on first pressings.
4 1/2 out of 5
5 out of 5