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Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #423

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Also known as Vengeance: The Demon
Number of Views: Three
Release Date: October 14, 1988 (Limited), January 13, 1989
Sub-Genre: Supernatural/Monster Movie
Country of Origin: United States
Budget: $3,500,000
Box Office: $4,400,000
Running Time: 86 minutes
Director: Stan Winston
Producer: Bill Blake
Screenplay: Stan Winston, Richard C. Weinman, Gary Gerani, Mark Patrick Carducci
Based on a poem by Ed Justin
Special Effects: Tom Woodruff Jr.
Cinematography: Bojan Bazelli
Score: Richard Stone
Editing: Marcus Manton
Studios: De Laurentiis Entertainment Group, Lion Films
Distributor: United Artists
Stars: Lance Henriksen, Jeff East, John D’Aquino, Kimberly Ross, Joel Hoffman, Cynthia Bain, Kerry Remsen, Florence Schauffler, Brian Bremer, George ‘Buck’ Flower, Matthew Hurley, Lee de Broux, Peggy Walton-Walker, Chance Michael Corbitt, Dick Warlock, Devon Odessa, Joseph Piro

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Suggested Audio Candy:

Richard Stone Pumpkinhead

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How far would you go to avenge a fallen loved one? I’m sure for most of us the answer to that question would be as far as it takes. We like to think ourselves rational level-headed people and most of us would never dream of committing atrocities towards another human being. However, should said perpetrators be responsible for the death of our own kindred, things can take on an altogether darker complexion and it is astonishing just how far we are willing to go in such circumstances. Two wrongs may not equate to a right but that doesn’t stop us from taking on the role of executioner should it involve the premature passing of a loved one. I consider myself as pretty thick-skinned; folk can say what they want about me and it is water off a duck’s back. However, wrong a family member and I swiftly become far less civil.

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When Pumpkinhead arrived in 1988 it was marketed as a “grim fairy tale” and that pretty much sums it up to perfection. Based on a short poem by Ed Justin, and with a screenplay from Mark Patrick Carducci and Gary Gerani which was inspired by the work of Mario Bava, it marked the directorial debut of the late, great Stan Winston. Known worldwide for his magnificent special make-up effects on films such as The Entity, The Thing, and Starman, Winston took a leap into the unknown as he settled into the director’s chair for what would be one of only two full-length features, the other being the forgettable Upworld.

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Unfortunately for him, De Laurentiis Entertainment Group had recently been declared bankrupt and, as a result, his film only ever received a limited theatrical run under the alternative mantle Vengeance: The Demon. It barely managed to recoup its initial outlay and looked set to become lost in the sands of time alongside other late eighties fare which arrived on the scene just a little too late to flourish. However, it struck something of a chord with horror aficionados and ended up spawning three sequels spread across the following twenty years, with a reboot also mooted to be in the works. None too shabby for a film which was considered something of a waste of everybody’s time and energy.

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At its heart, Pumpkinhead was a good old-fashioned morality tale given a fresh sheen of eighties emulsion and playing to audience’s slasher sensibilities in the process. It told the parable of widower Ed Harley (Lance Henriksen), a softly spoken, well-meaning chap who enjoyed the quiet life on his rural farm with infant son Billy (Matthew Hurley) and seemingly incapable of harming another. I’m sure that Pamela Voorhees was a delightful lady right up until the moment when her son perished when not given the correct supervision during a dip in Camp Crystal Lake. However, she was far less cordial once her beloved Jason joined the algae sub-aqua and that was on account of simple neglect.

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The same could be said for the group of teens responsible for the accidental demise of young Billy but the fact that all but one of them fled the scene of the crime left a particularly putrid taste in Ed’s mouth and he took the law into his own hands whilst grieving the unthinkable. After seeking out the local crackpot necromancer Haggis (Florence Schauffler) deep within the nearby woods, he was offered the chance for retribution and left with instructions to head to an ancient burial ground, dig up a corpse, and return to Haggis for the next phase of her vile process. Using the blood of Billy along with his father’s own donation, she concocted the infamous demon of Razorback Hollow, Pumpkinhead. This creature only existed to punish those liable for taking his only son and Ed was all-in at this point, desperate to make them pay for their unforgivable indiscretion.

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Pumpkinhead burned deliberately slowly for almost the entirety of its opening two acts and then spiralled down a familiar path as the teens in question began to rue their cowardice. It is here that Winston’s film began to teeter precariously close to standard stalk and slash fare; while the performances from the teens combined with an uninspiring script offered little in the way of characters to sympathize with. Having said that, there was one factor which raised this effortlessly above the mediocre and this was Henriksen’s glorious turn as the tormented father in question. Having already worked with the actor on James Cameron’s The Terminator and Aliens, extensively in the latter given that Bishop really went through the ringer and back again by the film’s conclusion, the director spotted something unique and offered him leading man duties without second thought.

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Henriksen has rarely been better than here as embittered parent Ed and, when you consider this man’s formidable résumé, that’s some compliment to pay. Not only did he portray the heartbreak of a broken man superbly, resulting in a scene which resonated on the deepest psychological level imaginable, but he turned on a sixpence once he realized the implications of his erratic actions. This is not an easy transition to make with any notable degree of success but he managed it effortlessly, turning in one of the finest performances of the entire decade and making sure we remained compassionate of his plight as he wrestled for control of his soul.

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Every time the titular Pumpkinhead was called into action, Ed became ill, vacating his body momentarily as his rage fuelled the demon’s thirst for vengeance. This made each dispatch far more personal and kept the film from veering into the ridiculous as it often threatened to. Also worthy of plaudits was the lush cinematography of Bojan Bazelli which doused the mist-shrouded woods in a blueish hue and helped create a wonderful Southern Gothic atmosphere which set it apart from its contemporaries. Pumpkinhead was no classic and instead had to be content with being a solid morality tale and above-par horror movie. However, Henriksen’s performance along with assured direction from Winston raised it above the ordinary and, if nothing lese, was every bit the “grim fairy tale” it was marketed as.

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Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 7/10

Grue Factor: 2/5

For the Grue-Guzzlers: Winston was far too busy focusing his lens to supervise the FX but Tom Woodruff Jr.’s monster was suitably nightmarish and towered above its victims with ease. Once the time was nigh for it to have its revenge, grue was largely overlooked and, a couple of moments aside, Pumpkinhead wasn’t a particularly gory affair, with one grisly impalement standing out.

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4 thoughts on “Pumpkinhead (1988)

  1. ” his film only ever received a limited theatrical run under the alternative mantle Vengeance: The Demon. ”

    I don’t quite understand this sentence. The film was released as Pumpkinhead in the US and was widely released. It played at the theater where I worked.

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