Monday, June 22, 2015

Pumpkinheads!


Spent several hours yesterday immersed in the lore of the 1988 monster flick Pumpkinhead. This is a movie I've known about forever, and I thought I'd seen it before, but now I realize I had not. I'd only seen a sequel, or part of one, and so I had a somewhat skewed impression. I'm not saying the movie is suddenly startling better than I'd always imagined, but it is somewhat elevated in my view.


The tale begins in 1957 when young Tom Harley has to witness the killing of a neighbor at the hands of an fog-shrouded demon. He grows up, has his own son, but must raise him alone when his wife dies. Trying his best he is forced to leave the boy alone when a group of motorcycle-riding teens accidentally kill the boy. Though not all of them are culpable, Harley nonetheless seeks vengeance on them all and seeks out an old witch who instructs him out to raise a demon called "Pumpkinhead". He does and the demon begins to seek out the teens and kill them one by one. But Harley soon realizes the error of what he has done and takes steps to stop the monsters he has himself unleashed.


The movie is unevenly acted and the story does suffer a bit from necessity with some limited regard to motivation. Characters do things which make limited sense in the moment, but which are needed to keep the story chugging along. But the theme of revenge is neatly kindled in a story which does evoke a real atmosphere. It's by no means scary, but it is diverting.



Lance Henrikson is pretty good as Tom Harley and his slow destruction is really the essence of the story. The teens are mostly props, but offer up enough of a distraction to keep the story standing. What this movie has in abundance is some (for the time and budget) pretty effective special effects which present a monster who is limited but in moments quite convincing. The director is Stan Winston, a guy who made his bones in special effects, so it's no surprise that base is covered. Older movies, pre-digital, offer up creatures who still require some imagination and this one is a decent example. 



I also got to see Pumpkinhead II: Blood Wings, a straight-to-video sequel from 1994 and this is the one I'd seen part of before thinking it was the original. This is movie is inept, a cheapo repeat of the standard teenagers getting slashed efforts which dominated the horror scene for so long. But as the original focused our attention on the man who became a monster, this movie shifts its base around all the time and seems actually to have had two storylines which editing blended into one.

Back in 1958 a gang of teen thugs called "The Red Wings" attack and kill a deformed boy. Decades later a man returns to the town to become sheriff and brings along his wife and troublesome teen daughter. She quickly hooks up with the local troubled teens and they almost immediately (for reasons which make no sense ever besides an often re-gurgitated goal for "thrills") end up mixed up with the local witch who curses them as they dig up the body of the deformed boy who of course becomes the monster demon Pumpkinhead. Then confusingly the creature starts to kill off local men in the town, ignoring the teens, and eventually we learn he's taking vengeance on the gang who tormented and killed him long ago and who have since grown up and become in some instances pillars of the community. Later he starts to stalk the teens as the Sheriff suddenly remembers his own personal connection with the boy.


It's screamingly funny in places as the rattletrap storyline tumbles along doing what it needs to evoke a reaction. Characters become good and bad depending on the scene and the ultimate fate of most seem not to be related to their own sins, but those of the script writers. The movie also depends a lot on stunt casting using the daughter of Monkees drummer Mickey Dolenz and the brother of then-President Bill Clinton. The former is the lead and does a workmanlike job, but the latter is truly terrible and thankfully only in a few oddball scenes. Blaxploitation diva Gloria Hendry is along for the ride as the coroner and she does a weirdly bad job in a role which seemed to hint at a romance with the sheriff played Andy Robinson (Scorpio from Dirty Harry), but which never actually goes there. Like I said, the script seems either to have been rewritten greatly, or they were writing on the fly because a lot of stuff doesn't hang together too well.

I can recommend the original Pumpkinhead for its atmosphere and the bravura performance of Henrikson who rarely was given a chance to expand on his dour expression in most movies he's in. The second one is a nigh total loss save for someone looking to get a laugh at some remarkably jacked up movie-making.

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