Ah, the 80s: Pumpkinhead (1988)

There’s a huge difference between justice and revenge. Justice is fair, while revenge is dark and self-serving. No matter how right you think you are in your quest for vengeance, the truth of the matter is that revenge leads one down a dark path. It’s ugly business, and it changes you for the worse.

Everyone feels that darkness every now and then. Earlier this year, I, myself, felt the temptation to take revenge. It was short-lived, but it was nevertheless a frightening experience.

I was fired from my job after three people made slanderous rumors about me (rumors that didn’t spread until it was learned that I suffered from depression), and instead of allowing me a chance to defend myself, my boss called me a liar and threatened me with jail time should I ever return (as though anybody would want to go back to the place where they were unjustly fired).

When I couldn’t find a lawyer to take my case, I felt enraged. My thoughts turned dark, and I had to pray hard in order to make them stop. To this day, the memory of what happened pops up whether I want it to or not, and I still get those feelings of rage when they come, although I’m much more able to drown out those feelings now than when the wounds were still fresh.

I mention this to explain why I felt it was so important for me to see Pumpkinhead at this particular moment of my life. It tells the story of a man who asks the backwoods witch (a frighteningly good Florence Schauffer) who controls the title creature to summon it and kill the teens who killed his son in a motorcycle accident. We understand the man’s rage, and may even feel that he’s in the right, given that over half of the kids fled the scene after it happened. That doesn’t change the fact that every life the creature takes has a negative effect on the man, and turns him into something that’s just as frightening.

The man is the widowed owner of a rundown grocery store named Ed Harley (Lance Henriksen). The teens are the sort of characters you’d expect to see in a horror movie such as this, but the screenplay by Mark Patrick Carducci and Gary Gerarni (inspired by a poem by Ed Justin) deserves points for making them more human and conflicted than your standard horror movie characters. A few of the kids do what they can to help (some try to call for an ambulance back at their cabin), and the brother of the guy who was riding the motorcycle says he’ll turn himself in and take the blame for what happened. Even the man responsible, a beer-guzzling bad boy named Joel (John D’Aquino), gets a change of heart as the movie continues, and that’s before the creature shows up.

The movie marks the directorial debut of celebrated make-up artist Stan Winston, Pumpkinhead is a visually sumptuous horror film that often times has the look and feel of a dark fairy tale. The film’s opening scene, set inside a small cabin and lit with the blood-orange glow of a lantern, has an almost bewitching quality, as does the gloomy pumpkin patch where the creature is buried. The creature itself is a marvelous and creepy creation, a sinister being brought to life by seamless and state of the art practical effects.

The heart of the movie is Lance Henriksen, who creates a tragic and heartbreaking figure out of such a thinly written character. There’s a real tenderness in the earlier scenes with his son, so much so that we feel the sting of his loss all the more when the accident happens. Without him, Pumpkinhead would be just your standard issue Dead Teenager Movie, albeit one with better visuals than most. With him, it becomes a parable about a man who tries to find solace with the devil and loses his soul in the process.

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