Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Pumpkinhead (twentyfive years later)

Back in 1988 a genre geek teenager was likely to rent every available VHS tape available. In most rental outlets the selection amounted to a hundred or so titles, featuring mainstays like Star Wars and Halloween, and then a constantly revolving B movie roster featuring the likes of Battle Beyond The Stars and Sleepaway Camp. It is within this din of the mid-80's home video explosion that a new breed of direct to video films would emerge, and at the forefront of this new concept in home entertainment was a gnarly low budget scary movie called Pumpkinhead.


Basically a morality play, Pumpkinhead rises above it's "teens partying in the woods" foundations to be able to make several astute cultural observations aiding to the betterment of the story. When a fatal accident pushes a family man to despair, he uses his hillbilly connections to contract the local folklore to exact revenge. Thus, the story unfolds.


I wasn't impressed after viewing Pumpkinhead upon initial home video release.  It was a combination of the, then, prevalent rock video production mentality (which pretty much stains every movie from 1987 to the mid-90's),) and the fact that the film breaks one of the cardinal rules of horror movies in that it shows too much of the monster too soon. Apart from that, this was also a time in which there was a stigma attached to the film in being a direct to video release. Sure, there's probably some thirty something in California rolling his/her eyes as he/she reads this, but to the rest of the world this movie came out of nowhere and kind of didn't make sense in terms of it's importance. Sure, it was previewed in Fangoria like a real movie, but it never appeared at any local Carmike that I ever heard about. Sure, you have big names like Stan Winston and Lance Henrickson attached, but somehow watching Direct to Video in the mid-west back then felt like what watching a made for TV movie. Mostly, the movie's folksy charm bored me. We had seen a thousand teenagers get picked off in the darkened woods by that time, and the creature was already seen and done better in Aliens, and whatever fresh and original that this movie was bringing was lost on me.

The thing is, there is nothing fresh or original about Pumpkinhead. Pumpkinhead is a classic back-to-basics monster movie that relies on building a certain atmosphere rather than coasting along on modern horror movie cliches, and that is the reason it is so much fun to watch. It is done up in all the style that could be offered at the time, however goofy it might seem now. Being the product of the era, a really good story about the high cost of supernatural revenge is cluttered with all the trappings of excessive late 80's film making technique, however, the cheesy MTV lighting and Background Rock soundtrack begin to present a certain charm all these years later. Henrickson's stand alone leading man performance paves the way for Millenium, and Winston's FX house is firing on all cylinders bringing the nifty creation to life. The characterizations, while still archetypal, are slightly more complex than your typical late 80's scream feature, as is the overall concept and story. There is something real about the environment in which Pumpkinhead takes place, and the Razorback Hollow back story could not be more intriguing. It is all much more satisfying than most of what the big studios were churning out at the time. It's basically a modern masterpiece of macabre, and it's just in time for Halloween. For the twenty fifth time.

Fast Forward a quarter century and Pumpkinhead warrants further review. In fact, it's a wonder this film hasn't evolved into a lightly-edited (for language) basic cable holiday workhorse. There's no reason multiple generations of ten year old boys haven't made a ritual of watching this movie in the safe company of family and friends around this time of year, for the past several decades. Pumpkinhead is a film that has aged exceptionally well, and feels more like a Universal Monsters movie then it's slasher flick rip-off  brethren could ever hope to aspire. Dr. Giggles has his place as long as he knows to stand up when Pumpkinhead enters the room.