Pumpkinhead (1988) review

A man conjures up a gigantic vengeance demon called Pumpkinhead to destroy the teenagers who accidentally killed his son. -imdb.com

Pumpkinhead is the directorial debut of Stan Winston, special effects master, and it unfortunately shows. The movie has a strong premise: A demon brought against a group of city kids by a vengeful father whose son’s death they caused, however its execution is a disappointment even if some enjoyment can be derived.
The movie starts out with likeable characters in the father-son duo, making you think that they are the rare likeable protagonists in a horror movie. However, this is not the case with the son having the life span of a red-shirt, cut down in an unfortunate biking accident. The rest of the characters are stereotypes and 2D cutouts, with the acting having about as much inspiration, mostly due to the inexperience of the actors and director. However none of this really makes it a bad movie.

When watching it the stylized lighting and eerie soundtrack combine with the action on screen to create a tone that is rarely seen these days. It combines with the grit of the 90s technology and VHS quality to create a atmosphere that is indescribably horror. It’s that horror feel that we’ve all seen, be it on a random DVD rental, Netflix pick or late night TV viewing. It’s a tone that has been lost in the polished world of digital cinema that we live in now. It is actual shadow and grit, not artificially created shadow and grit.
Speaking of creating, the special effects are, as expected, amazing. Pumpkinhead looks alive, both in his movements and his appearance even if it’s fairly reminiscent of Alien. The practical effects put any CGI monster to shame, with the very presence of it giving the same effect as a Freddy or Jason has, and that’s something that’s hard to achieve with CG. CGI is best left for the fast moving monsters, because practical effects, by this example alone, have got everything else covered.

Alas, we must get back to why this film doesn’t work. As a director, Stan Winston has most of his technical bases covered, but he fails to create an essential aspect of horror films: Tension. It’s the bread and butter of Hitchcock, Craven, Carpenter, and any other director who has tried to instill fear. It’s what gets your blood flowing before the gory climaxes and what makes jump scares worth doing. It’s hard to explain exactly why it’s absent here, but in general it comes down to a combination of a few things. The stalking the creature does is not emphasized enough with the monster disappearing for large chunks of the movie. The killings aren’t powerful either, not that there needs to be more gore, but that they aren’t dramatized or made a big deal of. We should always feel the power of a death, even if we don’t care for the character being killed or doing the killing. Instead all we have are the character’s reactions, which aren’t strong due to the writing, acting or directing, but even if they were good it would most likely not be enough to convince us since we weren’t affected by the act itself. While not perfectly correlated, there is also a noticeable lack of dialogue. This is nice because we often hear characters whine and spit curses more then we should have to, but in this case it leads to having no idea what the characters are really thinking or feeling, since the acting just can’t support it.

Overall, Pumpkinhead is a nice atmospheric movie that while it delivers little scares can either provide some laughs for you and your chums, or some nostalgia, depending on what mindset you go into it with. It’s not a great movie, but if you’re a fan of horror or miss practical effects, you definitely should check this one out.