Monsters! Pumpkinhead

WHAT DOES THE PROTAGONIST WANT? Ed Harley is a simple country man with a small boy and a small business. When a clutch of "city folk" do him grievous harm, he calls upon a backwoods witch-woman to raise the spectre of Pumpkinhead to mete out vengeance.

WHO IS THE MONSTER? Pumpkinhead is described by one of the locals as "some kind of demon." He is the personification of class resentment and bloody revenge.

WHAT IS THE WARNING? Revenge plots, it may surprise you to learn, often don’t turn out well.

Pumpkinhead packs four distinct acts into its 85-minute running time. Its first act (27 min) is practically a filmed play, mostly taking place at Ed’s ramshackle country store, where Ed hangs out with his young son and folks both above his station (the city-dwellers, out for a vacation in the woods with their sports cars and dirt bikes) and below (a passel of hillbillies, with a pickup truck full of unwashed children) pass by. After a couple of squaring-off encounters of mutual distrust, one of the city folk, who might has well have a neon "ASSHOLE" sign attached to his head, accidently runs over Ed’s son while Ed is off delivering some feed to the hillbillies. Asshole, the script would have us believe, is on parole for another, earlier traffic accident and is facing serious jail-time if he is caught for running down Ed’s son. Asshole takes off on his dirtbike, The Girls go off to get to their cabin to call for help and Asshole’s brother Hapless is left to mind the injured boy. Ed returns, finds his boy, shoots Hapless a dirty look and carries his boy home, where he dies in Ed’s arms.free stats

As Act II begins, Pumpkinhead asks us to split our attention between Ed, who’s just lost his son, and The City Folk, who are trying to figure out what to do now that their vacation has kind of been ruined by the whole "running over the kid" thing. The problem here is that Ed is a deeply sympathetic character, an honest man who has been deeply wronged, and the City Folk are a bunch of idiots in flashy clothes we can’t stand. The script would like us to attend to both storylines, but every moment we’re away from Ed feels like a betrayal of our sympathies. Asshole, it turns out, rules this batch of city folk with an iron fist — he cuts the phone lines and beats CityGuy We Don’t Hate Quite So Much with a log, then locks CGWDHQSM and His Girlfriend in a closet, all in order to keep them from reporting the accident.

Meanwhile, Ed takes his dead son to the Creepy Old Witchwoman, in order to ask her to raise the spirit of Pumpkinhead. Ed must perform a ritual to bring Pumpkinhead to life, and the bulk of the 17-minute Act II recounts the simple succession of actions Ed must perform to bring Pumpkinhead to life.

The 17-minute Act III lets Pumpkinhead loose, and much of it involves the City Folk getting picked off, one by one, in a "siege at the cabin" scenario. Pumpkinhead is a cool-looking design, but for a demon of vengeance unleashed, he doesn’t do anything very distinctive or interesting. He picks people up, then throws them back to the ground, then picks them up again and throws them back down. At one point he sticks a rifle through one victim’s chest, at another point he sabotages a victim’s motorcycle. Now there’s a mean hellspawn, a demon who messes with your ride.

Poor Ed, who can "see" Pumpkinhead’s acts of vengeance as they occur, instantly has buyer’s remorse and sets about trying to destroy the creature he has created. Act III brings Ed, the surviving City Folk and Pumpkinhead all together at the hillbillies’ place, where Ed shoots Pumpkinhead and Pumpkinhead — hold onto your hats — does not die.

The 34-minute Act IV also splits into two narratives, one involving the two surviving City Folk, CGWDHQSM and HGF, teaming up with a Hillbilly Kid to try to elude Pumpkinhead, the other involving Ed as he tries to figure out how to get out of this mess. We are a tad more invested in HK than we are the City Folk, as HK is both a stand-in for Ed’s son and the modern version of Ed himself (who had an encounter with the murderous Pumpkinhead when he was a boy). The two story-strands meet up back at Ed’s place, where Ed finally realizes that the only way to end Pumpkinhead’s rampage is to kill himself. This makes narrative sense, but, again, since we deeply sympathise with Ed and couldn’t give two hoots about the City Folk, Ed’s gesture of self-sacrifice feels hollow and unfortunate instead of tragic.

Pumpkinhead has a script better than any movie called Pumpkinhead has a right to have, and while there are a number of elegant touches to the narrative, there are also a large number of groan-worthy cliches, moments of forced drama and scenes of ham-handed suspense. There is also something sluggish and static about its circularity and pacing — Ed recriminates a lot, and the City Folk run around and scream a lot, and so the extremely simple story feels like it takes longer than it should. It’s essentially a Southern Gothic drama with a monster thrown in, Deliverance meets The Golem, with a protagonist who spends too much time on the sidelines of his own story as his nemeses hog the screen-time and his creation runs amok.

Comments

42 Responses to “Monsters! Pumpkinhead”
  1. craigjclark says:

    I never saw this one, largely because it came out after I had grown out of my early interest in horror movies (largely because the early ’80s was a terrible time to be interested in horror movies what with all the Halloween and Friday the 13th clones and precious little else), which raises an interesting side question: Do all young boys like horror movies? Are they drawn to them because of the taboo involved or is there something else at work?

    Also: You should totally do Mars Attacks!

    • Todd says:

      I think young boys are attracted to horror movies because of the insights they have into how a body can be destroyed. Also, we were talking the other day about how they are, in some regard, power fantasies. Boys are repelled by the fear but fascinated by the horror, and envious of the powerful monster.

      I would like to analyze Mars Attacks! at some point, if only to find out what went wrong, but not in this series.

      • stormwyvern says:

        How about we pretend Beauty and the Beast is a monster movie and discuss that tomorrow?

        Because tomorrow’s my birthday?

        • craigjclark says:

          I second this motion. Beauty and the Beast is one of the most wonderful films ever made. (We are talking about Cocteau’s live-action version, right?) And it’s not like we have to pretend. Just because the monster is benign, that doesn’t make it any less of a monster.

          • stormwyvern says:

            Truth be told, I meant the Disney version, but I wouldn’t have any problem talking about the Cocteau one either.

            • Todd says:

              They are both excellent, but time does not permit. At some point I’m going to do a whole series on Disney animated movies. In the meantime, happy birthday!

              • stormwyvern says:

                I’m looking forward to that, as I’ve devoted more time to Disney movies than is probably healthy and consequently enjoy talking about them.

                And thank you for the birthday well-wishes.

      • mitejen says:

        power fantasies.

        Having been a weirdo tomgirl who got beaten up and picked on a lot when I was little, I agree with this summation; horror movies, more and more, have become about empathizing with the villain rather than the victims, because the victims’ role is supposed to be about challenging an unstoppable force through courage and intelligence, and that’s much harder to write. The victims (with the exception of Jamie Lee Curtis, Sigourney Weaver and Linda Hamilton, oddly) don’t get many sequels, it’s the monsters that do because the victims are so often badly written fodder for the monster to kill. I wrote a long rambling post on this concerning the Alien Vs. Predator movies, about how if you don’t empathize with the human characters then you have no emotional investment in the film and the filmmaker failed.

        That’s why I liked Pumpkinhead so much, for all its uneven character dynamic. You really empathized with Ed but ultimately knew he had to do the right thing, and stop the killing. He didn’t become mad with power, but he had an emotional reaction to a situation (making a pact with the devil) he later regretted. And I loved Lance Henriksen in this.

        • johnnycrulez says:

          You can look at any given horror movie in a franchise and tell how good it will be based on how much screentime the villain gets.

          In the first movie the villain usually gets very little. It’s mainly the protagonists trying to survive, and those are almost always the best. Nightmare on Elm Street 3 is the best of the sequels for that same reason, Freddy is in it pretty often but ultimately the story exists for the protagonists to try and survive.

          • mitejen says:

            I totally agree.

            The oddities are the ones where the protagonist is likeable or at least interesting enough to carry the film, and subsequent sequels, like the Alien and Terminator movies. Even though I know those are considered more sci-fi.

        • Todd says:

          All you have to do is look at the Saw movies — they ask us to delight in the ridiculously complicated machinations of this absurd killer, who does nothing with his time but create baldly implausible scenarios for living human bodies to be torn apart. There is no identification with the protagonists in these movies, the audience is meant to identify with the devious torturer — which is why they’re called “torture-porn.” They ask us to nod sagely and acknowledge the moral superiority of a man who kidnaps, tortures and kills in the most gruesome fashion imaginable. What could better illustrate Mr. Clark’s question?

          • mitejen says:

            *nods*

            Saw was a series I was going to bring up, but felt like I’d possibly spent my rambling quota for the day.

            • johnnycrulez says:

              The first Saw was, of course, the best of the movies. Probably because most of it is spent in one room where we get to identify with the two main characters.

              • mitejen says:

                And weren’t those characters Danny Glover and Cary Elwes? I can’t think of a weirder combo. I still haven’t seen it (I blinked and missed it in the theater, and then suddenly there were like 5 more), but I’ll get around to it one day.

                • Todd says:

                  Not exactly. Cary Elwes was the “A-story,” one of the two guys locked in the room, while Danny Glover was the “B-story,” the detective trying to solve the case (AND MAYBE THE KILLER HIMSELF OMGWTFBBQ!!!!1!!! okay not really).

      • stormwyvern says:

        There’s also the “prove you can handle it” aspect, the same reason that kids ingest ridiculously hot or sour candies. The experience may be unpleasant, but you get respect for being able to endure it.

  2. johnnycrulez says:

    Unrelated, but I was wondering if you had heard of the Troy Davis case? He is scheduled to be executed tonight even though there isn’t very much evidence to suggest he deserves it. It’s upsetting to me, and I figured I’d spread the word.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Troy_Anthony_Davis

    http://www.amnestyusa.org/troydavis

  3. danielwarner says:

    Thanks for a great post.

    I’ve never seen this movie, but your breakdown and analysis was interesting and entertaining.

    I’ve just started my own study of story craft (for making better comics rather than movies) and have been reading scripts. It was interesting to learn that some CRAPPY movies actually had lively, interesting scripts. Shocking really.

    I’m looking forward to catching up on your past essays and looking forward to the rest in this series.

    • mitejen says:

      It’s amazing how many good scripts or pitches get ruined by Hollywood execs and investors. It’s a subject I’m fascinated with, because so often it involves the financial people grossly underestimating the audience’s intelligence.

      • Todd says:

        And a number of other factors, usually involving the financial people trying to make their “product” (ie the story) less “risk averse” (ie full of things that have worked before, ie cliches). And then there is the monstrous egos of a lot of these people, who think that they are the authors of the screenplay, and the proof is that they have hired the screenwriter, which in their minds automatically makes them better artists.

        • mitejen says:

          I know! I was thinking the other day how bizarrely hilarious it is that conservative, small town Americans think of Hollywood movies and culture as this seething cauldron of liberal orgies and drugs, when the products that Hollywood turns out are so often restructured at the production stage to align with conservative, small town American values, to the detriment of story, character development, or a depiction of anything remotely resembling real life.

          Cracked ran a feature the other day on films that would have been great if their original endings were kept, one of which was the recent ‘I Am Legend,’ with Will Smith. I still haven’t seen the movie, just the fantastic original ending, which of course is only available on the DVD. It completely changes the theme of the film and makes it truer to the source material.

  4. inkboy says:

    I saw this when it originally came out on video and was pretty underwhelmed – not as disappointing as RAWHEAD REX but enough people liked it to spawn several sequels (insert “Legend of Curly’s Gold” joke here). Your review makes me curious to watch it again, if only for the bike sabotage (that’s just nuts). Todd, if you can do a writeup for PUMPKINHEAD I really think you should give GINGER SNAPS another try. Of course, it may not fit into this monster series but it is a good film. But then, I also liked PARENTS.

  5. pirateman says:

    Throughout Pumpkinhead I kept thinking that it was a movie made by people who had never seen any other horror movies – ie, the fact that just showing this demon running around was enough to be entertaining, rather than making him unique in any way. The whole thing just seemed too bland and pedestrian. A horror movie without a hook or a gimmick… The opposite of Jeepers Creepers, I guess, which seemed like it was all hooks and gimmicks.

    • Todd says:

      It wouldn’t surprise me if the bulk of the work in Pumpkinhead went into making the creature walk and move and throw things — it probably didn’t occur to them until the thing had been designed and built that it didn’t have anything unique or interesting about it. The movie occasionally reminded me of an episode of Superfriends, where characters in possession of vast super-powers would deal with their nemeses by picking them up and twirling them over their heads. It’s a little inexcusable, ten years after Alien, for a monster movie to fail to make its monster distinctive.

      • craigjclark says:

        It wouldn’t surprise me if the bulk of the work in Pumpkinhead went into making the creature walk and move and throw things

        This isn’t too far off the mark considering the film was the directorial debut of Stan Winston, who is best known for his creature effects.

  6. johnnycrulez says:

    Would Candyman count as a monster movie? It’s really good, and the title character is sort of a monster.

  7. robjmiller says:

    The sequel

    Apparently I have never seen this movie, and had gotten it confused with its straight-to-video sequel when I made my comment yesterday concerning this and incomprehensible asian horror.

    By the way, do not bother watching the sequel. It uses a few elements from the original and then just steals the rest from Friday the 13th: deformed kid is abused by teenagers and dies, years later old witch dies causing the kid to be resurrected as a monster with standard teen-killing spree. Supposedly the recent made-for-tv sequels ignore this piece of crap and pick up the story from the original.

  8. serizawa3000 says:

    On a sort of related note, I met the man who was Pumpkinhead: Tom Woodruff Jr., who worked for Stan Winston for many years before going off to form FX company Amalgamated Dynamics with Alec Gillis. The only technical thing I asked him about Pumpkinhead (I haven’t actually seen the movie though I mean to) was if he had to walk on stilts. I also read in the last issue of Rue Morgue (a horror magazine from Canada) which had a feature on Pumpkinhead, about how Stan Winston and his people wanted to make a sort of Ray Harryhausen-tinged horror film…

  9. stormwyvern says:

    One question: I am currently looking at the screenshot of the titular monster that you have so helpfully provided and realizing that I can’t think f any earthly reason for him to be called “Pumpkinhead.” The title conjures up images of a masked serial killer wearing a rather large jack o’ lantern on his head, maybe with some random violent gashes or spatters of blood in addition to the carved face to heighten the scary. But while the actual Pumpkinhead does look like pretty well designed monster, there seems to be no indication in his appearance of hoe he got his name. What gives?

    • Todd says:

      Pumpkinhead derives from a poem of the same name, which apparently had some kind of significance for the filmmakers. Why, I don’t know, there’s nothing distinctive about it or the name. The movie takes pains to explain that the demon is buried in a pumpkin patch, but no serious attempt is made to explain the name. Which wouldn’t be so bad, except that it’s kind of a lame name — who would march up to a box-office, lay down ten bucks and boldly state that they wanted to buy a ticket for a movie called Pumpkinhead?

      • stormwyvern says:

        The poem does have a good sort of creepiness to it, if not anything to suggest that Pumpkinhead is particularly unique among vengeance demons. I can’t tell from Wikipedia if the peom is actually used in the film. If not, the whole thing seems very much a waste. You’re right that “Pumpkinhead” is not a particularly interesting or fear-inspiring name. So if the filmmakers neither connected it with the creepy poem nor gave the audience the expected pumpkin-headed monster, the name isn’t really doing anyone much good.

        • Todd says:

          The poem is recited in the movie by some of the hillbilly children in a gesture of taunting. I can’t say it’s particularly effective.

  10. greyaenigma says:

    I’ve often hoped that when they make the movie of my life, it’s not such a life that they choose Lance Henrikson. (Even though I’m a fan of his.)

    I did catch this one somewhat vaguely years ago. It completely failed to catch my attention, probably for the reasons already described — I didn’t feel compelled to empathize.

    (I also agree with the power fantasies theory.)

  11. noskilz says:

    I’d suggest giving the sequels a wide berth – Pumpkinhead 1 was OKish, but the sequels are just awful – especially bad Sci-Fi original picture awful.

    Could monsters be a little like some people’s fascination with dinosaurs or sea life: odd outlandish creatures. I tend to practically work up a monster manual entry: where does it live, what’s its M.O. and why. Perhaps that’s why I find it very difficult to care much about purely human monsters – there’s no shortage of them, ancient or modern, I’m not very likely to find the villain’s rationales persuasive and, as a news junkie, I run across accounts of many of them. Not that I’m totally consistent: for some reason The Abominable Dr Phibes, The Phantom of the Opera, The House of Wax(1953), Mr. X don’t irritate me the same way, and I can’t stand arbitrarily omnipotent monsters like The Wishmaster(definitely not human) because films like that tend to be nonsensical, set-piece squickfests.

    Gore doesn’t bother me if it fits the situation, but I have very little patience with sadism, and it seems for most of the human monsters, that’s mostly what’s on offer. I wouldn’t mind seeing what happens if giant radioactive ants turn up, but I’m pretty clear on the notion that having power tools vigorously applied to one’s person is going to be disagreeable – no real need to sit through whole movie for that. Although maybe it’s just a question of the film’s focus: The Dark Knight’s Joker is a human monster, but the film seemed to be very good at picking what to show and what to suggest to make it clear that this guy could do anything, at anytime, to anyone. Contrariwise many slasher flicks seem to be just basic gorno. Different strokes for different folks, I suppose.

  12. Anonymous says:

    I always felt Pumpkinhead was awkward in execution. If the monster did a bit more and the city folk weren’t total jackasses it might’ve been a classic.

    Anyways, good work. Love reading these.

    I think another monster movie you should check out is Peter Jacksons Dead, Alive also known as Braindead in certain regions.