It was inevitable that when make­up FX mae­stro Stan Winston direct­ed a film, spe­cial effects would have to play a big role in said film.  Thus, it was no sur­prise when his debut direct­ing gig turned out to be Pumpkinhead, a mon­ster flick that high­lights the make­up and mon­ster design work of sev­er­al Winston pro­tégés. However, the film does offer some sur­pris­es in how it uses its mon­ster and effects: they are deployed in the ser­vice of a moral­i­ty tale that has a sur­pris­ing­ly old-fash­ioned feel in its mes­sage and sen­si­bil­i­ty.

Pumpkh-posSimply put, Pumpkinhead is a tale about the high cost of vengeance.  The pro­tag­o­nist is Ed Harley (Lance Henriksen), a rural store own­er whose life turns toward the trag­ic when a group of teens vis­its his store.  Joel (John D’Aquino), the hot­head of the group, acci­den­tal­ly runs down Ed’s young son while goof­ing around on a motor­bike.  As Joel forces the kids to hide out in a local cab­in, Ed turns to back­woods mys­tic Haggis (Florence Schauffler) for mag­i­cal help.  She grants him vengeance in the form of a blood-spawned demon of the title but Ed soon dis­cov­ers that his revenge is more beast­ly than sat­is­fy­ing — and he real­izes he must stop it, no mat­ter what that costs.

Pumpkinhead could have been anoth­er “dead teenagers” movie in the wrong hands with a mon­ster in place of the usu­al Jason/Freddy-type slash­er but thank­ful­ly every­one involved in the film worked to make it some­thing more com­plex and inter­est­ing.  Screenwriters Mark Patrick Carducci and Gary Gerani, a pair of Pumpkh-01mon­ster kids made good, use their knowl­edge to cre­ate an old-fash­ioned film with the kind of symbolic/moralistic heft of a clas­sic fairy­tale.  Though the sto­ry has an arche­typ­al approach by design, the writ­ers find lit­tle ways to weave sur­pris­es into the char­ac­ter­i­za­tions and struc­ture as it works its way towards its inevitably trag­ic con­clu­sion.

Winston’s direc­tion of the film is attuned to the human­i­ty inher­ent in Carducci and Gerani’s script.  He nev­er leans on his effects — in fact, he waits a long while to reveal the mon­ster in its full glo­ry — and instead focus­es on build­ing the prop­er atmos­phere to sup­port the script.  His work ben­e­fits from gor­geous cin­e­matog­ra­phy by Bojan Bazelli that aids the film’s fairy­tale angle by giv­ing it a lus­trous, styl­ized look: in par­tic­u­lar, the Pumpkh-02col­ored light­ing and mist used for the noc­tur­nal forest exte­ri­ors have a Bava-esque look.  Also impres­sive is the musi­cal score by Richard Stone that mix­es root­sy music ele­ments with elec­tron­ics.

Better yet, Pumpkinhead also allows per­for­mances to dri­ve the nar­ra­tive and help sell the moral­i­ty play at its core.  Henriksen does well in the lead, cre­at­ing a car­ing, like­able father and then explor­ing dark ter­ri­to­ry with his trade­mark inten­si­ty as tragedy dri­ves him down the wrong road.  The teen char­ac­ters are more com­plex than usu­al for an 80’s hor­ror film, with D’Aquino show­ing an inter­est­ing pat­tern of change as his char­ac­ter goes from self­ish bul­ly to gen­uine­ly regret­ful vic­tim.  Elsewhere, look for a charis­mat­ic turn from b-movie vet George “Buck” Flower as a local farmer who tries to warn Ed about tPumpkh-04he dan­ger of revenge and Schauffler’s deli­cious­ly creepy per­for­mance as the old witch.

Finally, Pumpkinhead deliv­ers on the mon­ster movie side of things with an unfor­get­table design and exe­cu­tion for its title crea­ture.  It was cre­at­ed by a team that includ­ed Alec Gillis and Tom Woodruff Jr. (the lat­ter also wore the suit) and is the kind of painstak­ing­ly ren­dered, beau­ti­ful­ly artic­u­lat­ed large scale mon­ster that one rarely sees in today’s hor­ror fare.  Winston and Bazelli use shad­ows and art­ful light­ing to enhance its con­vinc­ing nature but it’s the work of the FX artists, par­tic­u­lar­ly Woodruff’s strong mon­ster-suit act­ing, that real­ly sells the creature’s believ­abil­i­ty.

In short, Pumpkinhead offers the best of both worlds for fans of ‘80s hor­ror: you get a great crea­ture and plen­ti­ful mon­ster may­hem — but you also get a thought­ful, intel­li­gent­ly direct­ed and act­ed tale that has sub­stance beyond the fun effects.  As a result, Pumpkinhead is one of the best mon­ster movies of the ‘80s and worth see­ing for stu­dents of the gen­re.