We dust off the ‘Pumpkinhead’ franchise, looking at what makes these films special and why their premise still works
“God damn you!”
“He already has, son. He already has.”
Freddy Krueger. Jason Voorhes. Even Leatherface. These are the murderous icons from horror franchises that people throw their arms up in outrage over and furrow their brows at beyond recognition when various trades announce they’re being remade/rebooted/re-animated. However, when it was recently announced that executive producer, Peter Block of the Saw franchise (as well as The Devil’s Rejects, Crank, and more) was going to be rebooting the Pumpkinhead franchise, most readers cleared their throats in disinterest and wondered, ‘Pumpkinhead,’ is that the kid from ‘Halloween III’? And yet, Pumpkinhead is a horror series that actually has some (deformed) legs to stand on. The franchise goes through a bumpy ride over the course of its four films, but each one manages to reinforce some of the precise themes that the original picture slams into your face so effectively (Although Mortal Kombat XL really wouldn’t be remiss if they threw Pumpkinhead into the next DLC pack along with other totems like Candyman and the Babadook…). With the Pumpkinhead series coming back around, it seemed worthy to explore the power behind these films and what the upcoming reboot should do in order to succeed.
The original Pumpkinhead film that came out in 1988 is by far the strongest of the four films in the series, with a lot of this having to do with Stan Winston being in the director’s chair and his strong vision for this horrific tale. The name Stan Winston is probably ringing a bell for you because he’s the makeup master and effects extraordinaire for iconic horror creatures such as the Xenomorph, Predator, the T-1000, and the sleeker dinosaurs from Jurassic Park. Winston was at the top of his field in the effects department, which is why it was so exciting when he finally wanted to try his hand at directing, with Pumpkinhead being his passion project. Winston’s career as a director could have been huge if Pumpkinhead’s reception went differently, but this is far from a bad first film and should have earned Winston a better filmography as a director than what he ultimately ended up with (don’t expect a feature on A Gnome Named Gnorm coming out of me). It’s worth noting that Winston turned down the opportunity to direct Nightmare on Elm Street 3 in order to direct this, which was a huge gamble, but continues to reinforce his belief and conviction in this idea.
With Winston being such a pro at creating terrifying monsters, obviously the expectations for the beast in Pumpkinhead were appropriately high. I think Winston did a fairly good job here, even if he does bear a little too strong of a resemblance to the Xenomorph at times. Winston has said that Pumpkinhead’s look is meant to resemble a diseased organ, which definitely comes across as well as it reinforcing the idea that revenge corrupts and dries you out. Tom Woodruff Jr. is also doing the duty of the man in the Pumpkinhead suit (who is also the guy scaring your ass off as the Xenomorph in Alien a number of times, too) who lumbers around in a dreadful way. It also doesn’t hurt that the film’s cinematographer is Bojan Bazelli, who would later go on to do the same chilling work on Verbinski’s The Ring nearly fifteen years later.
Pumpkinhead is a revenge story, but what’s so beautiful about the original is how it operates so atypically to a generic slasher film (it’s almost an hour into the movie until Pumpkinhead is conjured and the murders start to happen), when it so easily could. Instead it opts to shade in various details of its cast. There’s a real muted charm to this film that just makes it feel different. It takes its time with its father-son relationship dynamic, making their bond the story before finally getting around to the monster fodder. The focus on Ed and Billy Harley as characters makes the film’s final act work all the better accordingly. The “City Kids” that are in danger are being pursued by Pumpkinhead, who has been called by Ed, but he’s also simultaneously trying to call him off. There are many layers to the relationships in play here, which again adds to some of the great depth of this weird film. It’s also a fair piece of commentary on how the act of vengeance is complicated in itself, pulling you in all sorts of directions..
The most effective, powerful thing about Winston’s film is that it makes you want vengeance as much as Ed Harley (Lance Henriksen) does. His young boy, Billy’s (Matthew Hurley), death is brutal, especially after all the time the film spends building their bond, but his death itself is intentionally meant to hit you like a punch in the gut. He’s mercilessly run down by some asshole teenagers on motorbikes and the film paints them all (at first) as monsters because it wants you to detest them as much as Ed does. Billy’s death is a manipulative, exploitative one, but carefully crafted to elicit a response from you. This is a film that revolves around revenge and vengeance and what better way to embody that by putting you in the same blind rage that its protagonist is feeling?
For a while the film’s working title was even Vengeance: The Demon, indicating how integral this emotion is to this film and character. At a certain point Ed realizes he’s gone too far by summoning Pumpkinhead, trying unsuccessfully to cancel it. That’s not to say that the film’s anger subsides at this point. Rather, Ed’s anger shifts towards himself for what he’s done, which is kind of beautiful. This all boils down to a basic morality play with a lesson trying to be pushed here, even if it’s still evil beating good in the end.
Pet Semetary, for instance, is another film from the same era that also features the death of a young child (in a very similar way), while chronicling the disastrous efforts to right this wrong. Pet Semetary, however, “moves on” rather than wallowing in its anger like Pumpkinhead. We’re given the impression that Ed Harley has very little else besides his son. The scene where Ed carries his son’s dying body away is gutting, but what really is incredible is the look of true hatred that he glares into one of the remaining motorbikers who asks to help (it’s a look that even rivals Donald Sutherland’s final expression in Invasion of the Body Snatchers). This is a film with a horrifying ten-foot demon in it, and yet Henriksen’s rage stare is somehow the scariest thing in the film. Henriksen hasn’t always been given the best opportunities to shine but he absolutely kills it as Ed Harley. You can tell that Henriksen cares a tremendous amount about this character. It’s easy to see how Billy’s death warrants him selling his soul to the devil, so to speak.
The film also plays with the idea of how these teens might not be the worst after all. It looks like they might have even gone to the police or turned on the one “problematic” friend if Pumpkinhead weren’t being brought into the picture. This introduces an interesting idea on vengeance sometimes playing its course naturally without such an intervention. Guilt is certainly eating through most of these teens in the second half of the picture with the horrors of a conscience doing just as much internal damage as Pumpkinhead is doing physically.
Pumpkinhead’s sequel, Pumpkinhead II: Blood Wings isn’t nearly as bad as the reputation it’s earned for itself (if anything, it kind of reminds me of the shift between Predator and its sequel—another Part Two that I think is better than people give it credit for). It generally ups the carnage, has Pumpkinhead show up way earlier, and just generally ups the stakes in the way that a sequel should. It interestingly kind of plays connect the dots with the original film’s lore, almost acting as a reimagining of the core concept rather than being beholden to the rules of its predecessor. Almost like how there seems to be different weaknesses and ways to kill the Leprechaun in each of the Leprechaun movies, but the general idea remains the same. There is sort of the implication though that Tommy, the deformed boy from the film’s prologue is the lovechild of the witch and Pumpkinhead, which is a bonkers idea that’s so nuts I can actually get behind it.
Winston might have been out of the director’s chair, but in his place was Jeff Burr who came from Texas Chainsaw Massacre III and The Offspring horror fame. Burr gives it his all, and isn’t in poor form, but Winston’s voice and love for his mission statement is largely absent this time around. Before Burr, Tony Randell of Hellbound: Hellraiser II was supposed to direct the picture before dropping out at the last second. This might have led to a much gorier film, but that being said, there are still brutal deaths in this thing, like setpieces where people get ripped apart, almost as if to prove how hardcore the film is. Then again, Greg Nicotero was also doing the effects work in the film, which might have something to do with it, too. Pumpkinhead II also features Ami Dolenz as Jenny, the Sheriff’s daughter, hot off her stint in Witchboard 2 (mandatory viewing, as far as I’m concerned). Not to mention, Linnea Quigley is also in tow for a scene, making use of the prominent scream queen of the era, who’s seen carnage in horror titles like Return of the Living Dead, Night of the Demons, Silent Night, Deadly Night, and nearly hundreds of others.
Pumpkinhead II might not be a great film, but it is a great example of a surreal revenge yarn. Blood Wings continues to nail the concept and themes that its predecessor introduces, and when it embraces those elements the film is at its strongest. This time Pumpkinhead operates with kill list style efficiency, just knocking off the bullies who wronged Tommy in the past in an almost soothing fashion. Just think of him as a super, super ugly Uma Thurman. Burr also builds an effective habit of setting scenes to violence over ‘50s and ‘80s pop music creating a didactic effect. A lot of these scenes are done in slow motion too, making instances like Tommy’s tormenting all the more surreal and difficult to watch. Burr also pushes a bizarre sense of humor in the film where bizarre allusions are being made to other iconic pieces of horror. The Necronomicon from Evil Dead appears in the cabin in the woods, Pet Semetary’s cinematography intentionally gets sent up and the film is even name-dropped, and the teens hit-and-run with the witch plays eerily similar to the not-yet-released I Know What You Did Last Summer. It’s like the film is trying to prove to you how hip it is.
Part of the charm of the Pumpkinhead series is that there are such loose rules in place with more or less a clean slate being present for each of these films. This series works best as bursts of anger and not some overly complicated connected piece of canon. Pumpkinhead’s curse works most effectively as a cautionary tale, not some plague that’s continually attacking the same person through a number of movies. So although there’s a gap of a dozen years before Pumpkinhead II and Pumpkinhead: Ashes to Ashes, this span of time doesn’t hinder the film any. It’s all just about having a strong revenge story and once again this fresh approach works in the film’s favor.
The third and fourth films in the series are surprisingly decent for a pair of made-for-TV SyFy movies that were released within a year of each other. The third film manages to turn out some effective and shocking murder setpieces, whether it’s one taking place in a church, or another smart one that makes the most of the cramped confines of a jail cell. These two films even feature a surprising amount of Lance Henriksen as they carefully attempt to make ties to the original picture. Henriksen’s reprisal of Ed Harley might be more of an unfortunate reflection on how far his star has fallen rather than genuine love for the franchise, but he’s a welcome addition here. Turning Ed into a plagued ghost that tries to warn people about the dangers of giving into vengeance isn’t the worst progression of that doomed character. He’s still paying for his one indiscretion.
Ashes to Ashes and Pumpkinhead 4: Blood Feud are basically just different revenge parables with the fourth film essentially acting as “Romeo and Juliet Meet Pumpkinhead.” This in itself isn’t a bad framework and in the right hands, you can do a lot with this premise in a creative way. This is hopefully the appeal that Saw producer, Peter Block, was getting excited about when picking up this franchise for re-visiting.
Ashes to Ashes curiously explores the idea of a crooked morgue worker, Doc Fraser, and his funeral staff simply dumping bodies into the swamp as a means of cutting down on costs. When bodies start coming to the surface, the community is understandably outraged and wants revenge for the desecration of their loved ones. It’s certainly not the most usual plot and revenge story to pursue, but that’s kind of why this works. The weirdness of this premise hints at the versatility of the Pumpkinhead franchise where virtually anything that fits under the bracket of “vengeance” effectively qualifies. A corrupt mortician might not be the most compelling story, but it’s better than getting another story about a young boy dying and retreading past events. Meanwhile Pumpkinhead 4 sees a feud going on between the Hatfield family and the McCoys (seriously), and when a McCoy ends up killing one of the Hatfield girls, the Hatfields unsurprisingly summon forth Pumpkinhead to seek vengeance on the whole bloodline and finally put an end to this rivalry.
There are a number of issues with the third and fourth films, but a lot of it comes down to budgetary issues, with the directors doing the most with what they have. Ashes to Ashes and Blood Feud were put into production back-to-back, with a shared budget. While the one-two punch of these releases is clearly a temptation SyFy couldn’t resist, simply making one really good Pumpkinhead movie with a lavish budget rather than two hindered ones might have been the better decision.
Pumpkinhead is also sort of known for its backwoods sort of look with heavy scenes of forestry and the woods. Ashes to Ashes and Blood Feud are both shot in Romania (surely a tax credit reason again relating to budget), which minimizes a lot of the first two films’ iconic backdrop. That being said, these films do reintroduce the twang-y yokel-infused score to the film, which is reminiscent of the first movie’s attitude. It’s these touches and connections to the original picture that show that Jake West (Ashes to Ashes’ director) at least has a strong love for Winston’s film and its monster.
There’s a peculiar tradition where you see a lot of ’80s horror franchises being turned into confusing episodic TV shows, but Pumpkinhead is actually one that would work quite well in the format—and maybe this is something that SyFy was even considering if their films had seen a tremendous response. Just keep telling different stories where Pumpkinhead is plopped in to solve problems. It’s basically a revenge anthology series; a vengeance-based Tales From the Crypt, and who wouldn’t love that? Use Henriksen’s Ed Harley as your host and Cryptkeeper surrogate, and how can you go wrong?
The concept of vengeance demons is still a relatively unexplored one. The idea comes up for a bit on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but it’s certainly remained an underdeveloped concept from the series when it ended. Pop culture’s avoidance of this sort of horror means that there’s still room for this deep monster to be expanded upon. It’s not something like werewolves, vampires, or zombies where the lore is already hammered into you and overdone at this point. This would be something new.
Moving forward though, hopefully the new Pumpkinhead film will make the right decisions and not overthink this. There’s a beautifully simple core to these movies underneath all of the witches, magical necklaces, and monsters, and it’s something endlessly human at that. Develop the right revenge yarn, go the practical route for Pumpkinhead rather than CG-ing him up, and you can make this thing work. Let’s just hope this character returning conjures up excitement and nostalgia for the brand rather than people apathetically shrugging and remembering why this character was forgotten about in the first place.