‘Pumpkinhead’ and How Design Can Elevate a Horror Film from Good to Great

Pumkpkinhead is one of my absolute favorite Halloween-season movies. There’s just something about the bleak, spooky atmosphere and the classic, almost fairy-tale story that makes it a perfect movie for a chilly October night.

But if you broke it down into its composite parts, there’s really not much on the surface that seems all that special about it. From a narrative perspective, it’s a fairly standard revenge plot: A grieving father, whose young son is killed by some negligent teenagers, turns to murder in order to get vengeance. When boiled down to its bare essentials like this, it’s basically just Friday the 13th. There are a couple of interesting twists to the formula, though. The father, played by the incomparable Lance Henricksen, doesn’t simply grab a machete and start hacking through some high-schoolers. No, he chooses a decidedly more fantastical route for his bloody vendetta.

He visits a local witch, as one does, and first begs her to bring his son back. When she explains that this is outside of her power, he asks instead for help getting revenge against the teens that killed his only child. This, the witch (who, by the way, is named Haggis, which is great) is completely game for. She instructs him to travel deep into the woods, and dig up an ancient grave, the contents of which he is to bring back to her. He complies, fetching a hideous, deformed creature from the muddy tomb and returning to the witch’s swampy shack. As per usual, the father is warned that this ritual comes at a great cost, which he, of course, ignores completely. The witch then does some decidedly witchy things, muttering incantations and offering blood and whatnot. The small, fetus-like corpse then transforms into a terrifying, bloodthirsty creature called Pumpkinhead, who stomps off to slaughter the teens.

In typical wish-granting fantasy fashion, the father starts to have second-thoughts about the fact that he just sent a hellbeast after a bunch of high school sophomores, but the witch tells him not to interfere. The creature can’t stop until it’s killed everyone it was tasked to punish, and if the father gets in the way, then he would die too. After a few teens are dispatched, which the father sees through its eyes as part of the curse of the ritual, he decides enough is enough, and heads out to stop the creature. I won’t go any further out of fear of spoiling it, because it really is worth a watch for reasons I’ll get to later, but suffice it to say, it plays out in about as textbook a fairytale fashion as it possibly could.

This story, while interesting, doesn’t do anything particularly new or unique. It relies on a lot of classic fable and monster-movie tropes, and serves as mostly just a modern (read: late 80s) morality tale. A parable on the folly of revenge. Wishes come with warnings, warnings are ignored, mayhem ensues. You all know the drill by now. It’s The Monkey’s Paw with an eight-foot snarling demon.

And the execution isn’t anything special either, from an acting or directing standpoint. Helmed by famed special effects artist Stan Winston in his first feature film in the director’s chair, Pumpkinhead features some pretty subpar, slasher-lite teen performances and a cheesy, cliché witch. The writing is drab and often tonally flat, and the dialogue is about as barebones as it gets. Henriksen is great, but that’s mostly because the man is an absolute legend, not due to any merit of the script itself.

So why do I love it so much?

Well, as I said before, Stan Winston is a special effects artist first and foremost. And not just any SFX artist, either. Winston is basically the king of practical effects. Name an iconic monster from before, say, 2005, and odds are, it was Winston that brought it to life. The Terminator? Check. The xenomorph queen from Aliens? Check. Dinosaurs from Jurassic Park? You bet. Predator, Monster Squad, Congo, Starman, Edward Scissorhands. The list goes on. The man knows his monsters.

And he brings that A-game to Pumpkinhead with just as much enthusiasm for this little $3 million horror flick as he does for a billion-dollar Spielberg blockbuster. The creature design for the titular demon of vengeance in this film is one of the coolest, creepiest, most dangerous-looking monsters in cinema history. It’s bony and pale and malnourished, like it’s been starved for centuries. It has the body of an albino xenomorph from Alien, only with a lumpy, misshapen head which houses two angry, milky eyes. It’s got enormous claws emerging from long, slender fingers, and the arrow-tipped tail of a Dante-esque biblical demon.

It’s terrifying, and it’s awesome, and it’s pure horror movie eye candy.

And it’s not just its appearance, either. The puppeteering, the physical performance, every aspect of Pumpkinhead himself is a sight to behold, a slick, modern update on the classic Universal monsters of the 1930s like The Wolfman and The Gillman from The Creature from the Black Lagoon. It feels both new and familiar, like a monster from a bedtime story brought to life with modern effects. Which, in essence, it is. It’s completely alive, a real-life creature from the depths of hell or some other black, dark place, and you never question its presence on screen for a single second, despite logically knowing, in the back of your mind, that it’s nothing more than foam rubber and silicon.

Winston brings his keen understanding of design aesthetics to every aspect of this film, not just the headlining beast. The Haggis the witch looks like she crawled out of a children’s storybook to terrorize toddlers in real life, in the best way possible. The settings are eerie and moody, looking hundreds of years old despite being constructed sets on a soundstage. There’s fog and mist everywhere. The acting may not sell you on the horror, but the atmosphere absolutely will.

This is definitely a film where style shines through way more than substance, and that’s okay. The story isn’t so terrible that it feels like an afterthought, and the visual wonders do more than enough to elevate the plot from something that would otherwise be fairly boring to something truly wonderful. I have a soft spot for this film, having seen it at a young age originally, but I rewatch it nearly every year, and it hasn’t grown old on me yet. If you haven’t seen it, give Pumpkinhead a chance this October. I guarantee you won’t regret it.

And if you have seen Pumpkinhead already, what do you like? Do you love it? Hate it? Couldn’t care less? Let me know in the comments!

And Happy Halloween!

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