Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Pumpkinhead (1988)

Ed Harley (Lance Henriksen) owns the local store somewhere in the Appalachians. As he’s widowed, he’s taking care of his little son Billy (Matthew Hurley in that rare thing – a child performance that is neither annoying nor showy) too. And, seeing as Billy and Ed seem to be about the only people in the area who are washing regularly, he’s doing a bang-up job.

Unfortunately, this being a horror film and not a quiet little drama about the struggles of a single parent in a difficult environment, tragedy soon strikes when a group of teenagers – friends and siblings whose characters and actors never impressed me enough to be worth mentioning their names here – arrives at the store for some sort of weekend outing and some dirt bike riding. While Ed’s out getting some feed from home, first Billy’s dog runs dangerously into the path of the dirt bikes, then Billy runs after him. Despite at least some of the kids going after the boy one of the bikes hits him, leaving him hurt, perhaps dead. Then ensues a mixture of panic, desperation, cowardice and stupidity: the party actually responsible for the dead races off, most of the others take off in search of a phone to call an ambulance (which I’m sure would arrive in some hours), leaving one pitiable guy behind with the boy without anyone even having made much of an attempt at first aid.

When Ed returns, finding his son badly hurt – it’s really questionable if anything could have been done for him even if our protagonists hadn’t acted quite this dumb – and the only kid left there stammering something about an accident, he is as enraged as he is crushed. After carrying his son off and realizing he’s dead, Ed comes to the decision that the people responsible for the death of his son need to pay. There’s a legend about something that could avenge Ed’s son, though at the price of Ed’s soul. That something is more than just a legend to Ed. He knows it really exists because he saw it when he was a child (I hope the ghost in my grandma’s bedroom wasn’t real too).

He’ll just have to find the local witch, the awkwardly – and not terribly appetizingly – named Haggis (Florence Schauffler in a bad case of age make-up), go through a horrifying folkloric ritual that somehow connects Ed to a corpse he first has to dig out of a pumpkin-adorned grave and turns the corpse into something particularly terrible, the local bogeyman known as Pumpkinhead.

While Ed is out, driven to make a bad business even worse, the kids are having some troubles with each other – most of them want to act as grown-ups, call the authorities and/or an ambulance but our main culprit is too afraid of the consequences. So he bullies, cajoles, threatens and finally even locks in some of the others. All of which won’t help even the tiniest bit once Pumpkinhead comes a-knockin’; even worse, the thing really isn’t interested in individual culpability and will kill guilty and comparatively innocent alike. The film hammers that fact home very early on in the process by making the least culpable of them all the creature’s second victim.

Ironically, the only thing that might save any of the kids is Ed Harley, for Ed’s mental connection to Pumpkinhead shows him everything the creature does in cruel detail. And Ed, a good and kind man at heart, quickly realizes that what he has unleashed, and what is a part of him isn’t justice, and not even vengeance, but actual evil.

Pumpkinhead is the only feature film directed by effects guru Stan Winston, probably because the film wasn’t too well-loved at the time and not terribly successful commercially. It is certainly not a perfect film, but there’s a lot of ambition here to turn out more than just a by the numbers kill revue, and quite a bit of that ambition works out fine for the film. There is one particularly obvious problems here, of course: the scenes where the movie-teenaged characters go at each others’ throats aren’t terribly well written, in part certainly because we really don’t know all that much about them – the film needs and does take its time to acquaint us with Ed and Billy and can’t put the same effort into these guys too or it would be a two and a half hour epic that would never get going at all – but in part because writers Mark Patrick Carducci and Gary Gerani don’t to pull off the difficult feat of using broad strokes characterisation to make the kids much more than functions of the plot. Once Pumpkinhead cuts loose, this becomes less of a problem, because most audiences will root for the people running from an indestructible force and not the force.

The film’s attempts at evoking the Appalachians as a place are a mixed bag (at least as seen from Germany). It’s a curious mixture of backwoods horror clichés and moments of greater authenticity (that is, moments that feel genuinely human). At the very least, it provides an actual sense of place beyond the generic “Backwoods, USA”, even if it is of a place that doesn’t exist outside of the movie in quite this way. From time to time, Pumpkinhead even does something really cool with a character, like letting members of the more yokel-like family clan we encounter act like actual human beings, which is not a thing that happens in a lot of horror films.

What works unquestioningly is the part of the film that uses made-up folkloric aspects. Pumpkinhead uses bits and pieces of actual folk magic in combination with stuff it has made up in an elegant and clever fashion, turning a central creature that could be desperately silly into something that feels like an actual legend, complete with its own nursery rhyme (well, poem that inspired the film, really) and details that have just the right feel. All of which, come to think of it, should surely nominate Pumpkinhead as folk horror.

Speaking of Pumpkinhead the creature, Winston isn’t the kind of special effects man turned director who makes a film that’s just special effects and lets this part of his efforts get in the way of the movie as a whole. In fact, for a lot of the creature’s attacks, we mostly see blue light, a raging autumn storm, and its hands or other single body parts, in a way sharing the experience of the characters it generally kills from above and from behind. This again emphasises the creatures identity as a thing of tale and song and not your usual mindless thing slaughtering teenagers (even if it does exactly that).

Winston’s direction is generally a fine achievement, basking the early scenes in sunlight that increasingly makes way for some very 80s blue hues, deeper woods, and places dominated by decay, as a whole emphasising mood over the killings. That doesn’t mean these aren’t there too – the film is just as bloody as it needs to be, no more, no less, avoiding the gratuitous throughout.

And of course, there’s also a particularly good performance by Henriksen, who first gives us a really likeable guy who loves his son and does his best for him, and then portrays various phases of sadness, anger, and desperate understanding, climaxing in desperate attempts to take back his curse. Thematically, his arc is mirrored by other characters here, too, who all do stupid things with terrible consequences they couldn’t or wouldn’t acknowledge but in the end try to do better: the kid who actually killed Billy eventually tries to turn things around not out of fear for his life but because he’s actually trying to take the responsibility for his actions, and the local teen – generally portrayed as stand-offish - who showed Ed the way to Haggis tries to help the last survivors of the teens because he understands that his enabling of Ed also makes him partially guilty for what is happening to them.

I find Pumpkinhead’s concept of external evil interesting too, or rather, I find it very interesting that it is one of the few (non-religious, for the movie goes out of its way to show that religious symbols have no power about Pumpkinhead at all) horror films that have a clear concept of what their external evil is actually about: perverting the most human feelings of love and sorrow so that they become tainted, tainting the people feeling them too.

Which is rather heady stuff for a film that’s supposedly mostly about pumpkinheaded thing murdering teens, and really makes this one more special than one might assume going in.

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