With horror industry heavy hitters already in place from the 1970s, the 1980s built upon that with the rise of brilliant minds in makeup and effects artists, as well as advances in technology. Artists like Rick Baker, Rob Bottin, Alec Gillis, Tom Woodruff Jr., Tom Savini, Stan Winston, and countless other artists that delivered groundbreaking, mind-blowing practical effects that ushered in the pre-CGI Golden Age of Cinema. Which meant a glorious glut of creatures in horror. More than just a technical marvel, the creatures on display in ‘80s horror meant tangible texture that still holds up decades later. Grotesque slimy skin to brutal transformation sequences, there wasn’t anything the artists couldn’t create. It Came From the ‘80s is a series that will pay homage to the monstrous, deadly, and often slimy creatures that made the ‘80s such a fantastic decade in horror.
Though not a story rooted in Halloween, it’s hard not to connect the eponymous vengeance demon with the holiday. Summoned by a grizzled swamp witch, Pumpkinhead is created from a shriveled human corpse, a pumpkin, and a powerful thirst for vengeance. For Ed Harley (Lance Henriksen), his desire for revenge stems from the accidental death of his young son, and he has the demon Pumpkinhead conjured up to slay the unwitting city teens responsible. Though not a hit at the time of its theatrical release 30 years ago, Pumpkinhead has gone on to become a horror mainstay and its creature among the most memorable of all time.
The film’s production company originally sent Stan Winston the script, written by Mark Patrick Carducci and Gary Gerani based on Ed Justin’s poem. They were hoping they could entice Winston’s studio to create the demon. He agreed on one condition; he would be the one to direct. Pumpkinhead thus became the legendary special effects artist’s directorial debut. His plate full with directorial duties, Winston turned the creature design and effects over to his studio, the team was led by Alec Gillis, Richard Landon, Shane Mahan, John Rosengrant, and Tom Woodruff Jr.
Winston let his team have full creative control over their creature creation. They’d design and present, and Winston offered suggestions. Though it was his studio, he was the client in this situation. Gillis sculpted the vengeance demon’s head, while Woodruff Jr. and Rosengrant sculpted the body. From there, the foam rubber suit and head were created. As is usually the case in a creature film where Woodruff Jr. is involved, it was Woodruff Jr. that played Pumpkinhead. Because of the low budget, and to reduce wear and tear on the suit, Woodruff Jr. was actually glued into the suit at the beginning of each shooting day. He would often be trapped in the suit for eight hours a day. He also had to contend with the unique leg extensions that gave the demon that animalistic quality.
It was experience in creature and special effects that made Winston perfect for the director’s seat. He knew how to best shoot and utilize the creature with a low budget. He also knew when to hide the demon and when to show it off. The opening kill only gives the bare glimpses and silhouette of Pumpkinhead, enough of an appetizer for the full course to come.
More than just a showcase of spectacular creature effects, Pumpkinhead brought a refreshing detour from the typical horror formula of its time. Of the six teens on the demon’s hit list, only one truly deserved what was coming to him; tough guy Joel (John D’Aquino). Joel not only drinks and drives, but he flees the scene of the crime after running over young Billy Harley due to previous dalliances with the law. Save for his comforting girlfriend, the rest of his friends actively try to do the right thing by seeking help or staying with Billy until his father arrives. In other words, none of them deserved to have a demon unleashed upon them save for Joel. It’s something that even Ed realizes fairly quickly once Pumpkinhead begins claiming victims.
Pumpkinhead first saw limited theatrical release on October 14, 1988, before another release in January 1989. It wasn’t until its home video release that it started to amass a following, earning multiple sequels and even a current comic book series. The unique narrative formula and amazing creature designs make it easy to see why it’s endured. There’s never really a bad time to revisit Pumpkinhead, but between creepy witch Haggis (Florence Schauffer), a pumpkin based demon, and a catchy nursery rhyme to scare the kids, there’s no better time than the Halloween season to watch. Remember:
“Bolted doors and windows barred,
Guard dogs prowling in the yard,
Won’t protect you in your bed,
Nothing will, from Pumpkinhead”