Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Underrated Horror Films--"Pumpkinhead"

     Because of its rather absurd, memorable name, I'm guessing many horror fans have heard of the movie "Pumpkinhead."  But, I'm guessing not as many have actually sat down and watched it.  It's kind of been the situation since its creation, in 1988.  "Pumpkinhead" was released in theaters in late 1988 (and also in early 1989), but it was extremely limited.  Most of its viewers saw it on television, or on video.  The movie clearly fits into the cult film category.
     To give a brief, spoiler-free recap, "Pumpkinhead" is set in an unnamed, back country place.  A single parent named Ed Harley runs a small grocery, while he raises his young son, Billy.  Three young couples--Joel and Kim, Tracey and Chris, and Maggie and Steve, have rented a local cabin for a vacation.  Steve and Joel are also motorcycle enthusiasts.  However, an accident happens, and a tragic event occurs.  Remembering an event from his childhood, Ed Harley visits one of his neighbors, the Wallaces, for help and information.  One of the Wallace kids, Bunt, agrees to lead Ed to a local witch, Haggis.  She helps summon an avenging monster, Pumpkinhead.  As the bodies start to pile up, Ed has second thoughts, and want to stop Pumpkinhead.  But is it even possible to stop the huge, murderous demon?
     (SPOILERS AHEAD UNTIL NOTED)  In some ways, "Pumpkinhead" is a typical "slasher" horror movie.  The killer is cruel, strong, and resistant to normal weapons.  The victims are mostly partying teens/young adults.  The victims are dispatched because of misdeeds--the killer is motivated by revenge.  The violence and gore are plentiful, and the body count is fairly high.  However, there are also some significant differences.  The avenging killer wasn't wronged itself--it's killing for the wrongs inflicted on someone else.  Also, the killer, while roughly humanoid, is also monstrous--7.5 feet tall, vaguely insectoid/reptilian, with a tail and clawed "hands."  Furthermore, the teens actually did something wrong themselves, and are not the descendants or stand ins for say, a 20 year old crime.  While the teen couples presumably have sexual relationships, none of this is seen.  There are no gratuitous shower nude scenes, and there are no cliche, the-teenagers-start-having-sex-and-the-killer-sneaks-up-and-murders-them-both scenes.  Finally, while it is a separate creature, the killer does have a clear link with the person who called it up, Ed Harley.
     One of the obvious themes in "Pumpkinhead" is rich vs. poor.  The area where it takes place is obviously destitute.  Ed Harley and his son appear to be doing pretty good for their community, but even so they're still struggling, and are lower class.  Their neighbors, the Wallaces, are a half step above homelessness.  The entire, multi-generational clan lives in a shanty town, in shacks cobbled together from whatever materials are available.  Every Wallace is dressed in ragged, old, dirty clothes, and their last bath appears to have happened weeks ago.  The witch, Haggis, lives even further back in the woods, in a home near a swamp.  Her hovel is literally being overgrown by the surrounding trees and vines.  Most of the folks we see don't have electricity nor (presumably) indoor plumbing.  Contrast this with the visiting young people.  They're well scrubbed, have clean, new clothes, undamaged vehicles, and can afford luxuries like recreational motorcycles and vacations.  Even without the tragic death of Billy Harley there's palpable tension between the locals and the visitors.
     Along the same lines, there's rural vs. city.  Witness the characters' reactions to the traumatic events in the film.  Ed doesn't bring Billy to a hospital (he probably would have died before they got there, but still), doesn't even notify the local police/sheriff, and buries his son in the local cemetery without informing any authorities.  He doesn't notify the police, a lawyer, the courts, anything like that.  Instead, he decides to track down a witch who's even more rural than him, to use a supernatural monster for justice!  The vacationing kids try to involve the authorities, to no avail.  Joel disables probably the only phone in the area.  The survivors are forced to flee on foot, in remote countryside at night.  The local people are (mostly) completely unhelpful.  The city folk (or suburbanites?) are completely out of their element.  A few survive, but by relying mostly on their own wits and inner strength.
     The movie also touches on both personal and group responsibility.  Joel, clearly, is the bad apple in the vacationing group.  While his killing of Billy was accidental, his reaction is deplorable.  He flees, along with his protesting girlfriend Kim.  We learn that he previously hurt another person in another drunken vehicular accident, so he has a history.  Which didn't stop him from drinking and driving on the way to the grocery/cabin, and then operating a motorcycle under the influence.  Of the remaining four kids, Maggie (girlfriend of Steve) suffers some kind of mental breakdown upon viewing Billy's severe wounding.  So Chris and Tracey drive her to the cabin, to separate her from the accident and to contact help for her and Billy via the cabin's phone.  Steve does the right thing, too, and stays behind to tell Ed what happened, and to offer assistance (Ed doesn't listen to him, and is actively hostile, so this doesn't work out, but Steve did at least try).  At the cabin, Joel continues his villainous ways by disabling the phone, and then locking Tracey and Chris up in a closet (after a brief fight) to prevent them driving off and getting help.  So, to sum up, Joel is clearly responsible, and you could easily make the case that he deserves to die.  He admits his guilt, and seems to try to own up and fix the situation later, but by then it's far too late.  But the other five people are innocent, and therefore we sympathize with them as they're picked off one by one.  Ed doesn't know the whole story (and refused to listen, in fact, in his interaction with Steve), and, in his grief-stricken state probably wouldn't have cared even if he did.  It's only later that he realizes that what his choice to invoke Pumpkinhead was wrong.
     The character of Haggis is an interesting one, too.  At a glance she seems like a person willing to do a nasty, but arguably necessary chore.  Ed seeks her out, pays her, goes out and retrieves Pumpkinhead's "fetal," inactive body, and then asks for vengeance.  She doesn't activate Pumpkinhead on her own, or find Ed and offer her services--he had a choice.  But it's not that simple.  She knows he's incredibly traumatized, and not thinking straight, but calls up Pumpkinhead anyway.  She also doesn't tell Ed that invoking Pumpkinhead results in that person being damned until after the ceremony is done.  Finally, she seems positively gleeful, laughing uproariously when Ed comes back and tries to call off Pumpkinhead after the first couple of murders.  True, he did pay her (and from the looks of her home, she probably can use the money), but her main motivation seems evil.  I get the feeling that she enjoys tempting normal people into damning themselves, and also the horrific violence she knows Pumpkinhead will wreak.  Also, for a woman of her age, going out and carrying around corpses and reburying them seems like a lot of work.  Maybe she gets some sort of kickback from Satan or the demons for every person that Pumpkinhead kills, or something.
     The duality of Pumpkinhead and Ed Harley is another major theme in the film.  Ed's blood (and his son's) literally helps Pumpkinhead "awaken" from his dormant state.  And clearly there's a link--there's no scene where Ed says the names of the kids he wants killed (he probably doesn't even know their names), or writes down where he thinks they're staying, or anything like that.  Pumpkinhead just knows, because Ed knows (what they look like, at least).  Then, whenever Pumpkinhead kills somebody, Ed has a weird type of seizure, in which he feels the victim's pain, and hears their screams.  Later we see that the two are physically linked, too, as injuries to Ed cause Pumpkinhead to exhibit an identical wound.  Ed starts to transform into Pumpkinhead as the story progresses.  First it's just his eyes temporarily, but at the end it's more evident.  He, and Tracey, realize that this is the only way to stop Pumpkinhead, as shooting Ed fatally deactivates the monster.  But, in the epilogue, we see Haggis reburying the Pumpkinhead "fetal" form in the pumpkin patch elevated grave, but now it's Ed's mutated body, evidenced by a necklace that Billy made for him previously.  Pumpkinhead can even be interpreted as a physical manifestation of Ed's id, similar to the monster in the 1956 classic, "Forbidden Planet."  Pumpkinhead's nature does lead to some questions.  If Ed hadn't had regrets, what would have happened?  Pumpkinhead would have almost certainly killed all the kids (and Bunt, for helping), but then would Ed have died anyway?  Is that the bitter joke about invoking Pumpkinhead, that the invoker dies right after their last victim is dispatched by their monster?  Or taking it to a ridiculous extreme, what if Ed had crashed his car and died right after invoking Pumpkinhead?  Presumably our large friend would have collapsed in Haggis's yard, and no revenge would have happened.
     Pumpkinhead is a little different from the typical slasher killer, too.  He (the monster doesn't show any sex organs, but it is apparently made from the bodies of men, so I'll use the masculine form) doesn't usually kill people right away.  Instead, victims are dragged off, then usually brought back to die more spectacular deaths, in front of future victims.  Pumpkinhead seems to enjoy his work, and loves an audience.  Victim Kim is even hauled up a tree, probably 40-50 feet in the air, so that Pumpkinhead can dramatically drop her on a boulder.  Bunt, and especially Chris, could easily have been dispatched right away.  But Pumpkinhead, ever the showman, carts them around until there's more people to watch.  (And he pays for his arrogance, as both guys survive.)  Also, Pumpkinhead appears to be a demon, or evil spirit of some sort, but his resistance to Good and holy objects seems stronger than most.  Bunt takes Chris and Tracey to the ruins of a burned down church, but Pumpkinhead has no problem walking through it.  He even grabs and breaks a cross while he's doing so.  He makes fun of Maggie's religious belief--before he kills her he carves a cross shape in her face.  He apparently is at least somewhat intelligent, as well.  At one point he lays a trap, by leaving a motorcycle out for the kids to find (and hope to use to get away), but surprise!  he's removed the drive chain so it doesn't run.  Which makes me wonder--did he disable the kid's two cars, too?  They don't really try, the survivors panic and flee on foot.  Was Pumpkinhead secretly disappointed that this ruined another mean joke?
     (END SPOILERS--SAFE FOR EVERYONE)  Oddly, this movie was based on a poem (also titled, "Pumpkinhead," by Ed Justin, which won the Steinbeck award for best poem in 1988).  Aside from maybe some Edgar Allen Poe adaptations, I can't think of too many other examples of this.  "Pumpkinhead" was the directing debut of Stan Winston, the special effects wizard responsible for the effects in "The Thing" (1982), "The Terminator" (1984), "Aliens" (1986), "Predator" (1987), "Jurassic Park" (1993), and "Avatar" (2009), among others.  Sadly, he's deceased.  Star Lance Henriksen (Ed Harley) has had a long career, especially in the sci-fi/horror genres.  Highlights include "Dog Day Afternoon" (1975). "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" (1977), "The Terminator" (1984), "Aliens" (1986), "Near Dark" (1987), and the "Millenium" TV series (1996-99).  Jeff East (Chris) is probably best known for playing the young Clark Kent in 1978's "Superman."  The head of the Wallace family, (Mr. Wallace) was played by Buck Flower, who had a long career.  Among his movies were roles in "Ilsa: She-Wolf of the S.S." (1975), "Escape From New York" (1981), "Back to the Future" (1985), and "They Live" (1988).  Lee de Broux portrayed Ed Harley's father in the prologue.  He's probably best known for "Chinatown" (1974), the TV series "Roots" (1977), "Norma Rae" (1979), and "Robocop" (1987).  Of the remaining actors, especially the young actors, most either had short careers, or had longer ones mostly in low budget horror movies or on television.  Billy's dog, (Gypsy) was played by Mushroom, who also was the lead character's pet in 1984's "Gremlins."  Aside from Henriksen, probably the most famous actor was the girl who played one of Wallace's daughters (and was credited as such, with no character name), Mayim Bialik.  She went on to play the titular role in the TV sitcom "Blossom," and is currently a co-star on "The Big Bang Theory."
     "Pumpkinhead" went on to have 3 sequels.  Although, the second one was direct-to-video, and the third and fourth ones were direct-to-cable-television,  Specifically, the SyFy Channel, home of many terrible sci-fi and horror movies, with the "best" being "so bad they're good" fare like "Sharknado."  I haven't seen any of the sequels, and their reviews aren't promising.  Although apparently YouTube has at least the second one, so I'll try to give it a look and report back.

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