Horror Movies

PUMPKINHEAD. An atmospheric horror in the old style

Pumpkinhead didn’t deserve the fate initially dealt to it by critics and audiences.

Maciej Kaczmarski

2 June 2024


Lance Henriksen as a grieving father seeking to avenge his son’s death in “Pumpkinhead”, the surprisingly successful directorial debut of a renowned special effects expert.

Ed Harley is a widower raising his ten-year-old son Billy alone, earning his living as the owner of a grocery store in rural America. One day, a group of teenage motorcyclists arrives at the store, and in Ed’s absence, they accidentally run over Billy. The boy dies, and the culprit flees to a nearby forest cabin. His friends want to call the police, but he terrorizes them to avoid the consequences. Meanwhile, the distraught Ed seeks help from a local witch, begging her to bring Billy back to life. The woman cannot resurrect the dead, but she offers Ed a chance for revenge on the teenagers, warning him that it will come at a high price. Blinded by his desire for vengeance, Ed agrees, and the witch summons Pumpkinhead, an ancient monster that hunts those responsible for Billy’s death.

Stan Winston made a name for himself with special effects for films such as John Carpenter’s “The Thing” (1982), James Cameron’s “The Terminator” (1984), “Aliens” (1986), “Terminator 2” (1991), Tim Burton’s “Edward Scissorhands” (1990) and “Batman Returns” (1992), and Steven Spielberg’s “Jurassic Park” (1993). In the 1980s, Winston received an offer from Dino De Laurentiis’s production company to work on the effects for a film with the working title “Vengeance: The Demon.” After reading the script, inspired by a poem by Ed Justin, Winston felt it was perfect for his directorial debut. “It was a small film, something I could handle as a director. I felt I could bring a lot to this story. So I told the producers, ‘Yes, I’ll create this creature, but only if I can direct the film,’” Winston recalled. De Laurentiis agreed to this condition and provided $3.5 million.

Pumpkinhead was first released in American theaters in October 1988 (not coincidentally, the same month as Halloween) in a limited run, followed by a wider release in January the next year. The film was a commercial failure and received mostly negative reviews. “As a technician, Winston knows how to create a monster, but as a director, he still has to learn how to bring it to life,” wrote Dave Kehr in the “Chicago Tribune.” Despite its poor initial reception and disappointing box office results, Pumpkinhead gained a cult following over time through video distribution and television broadcasts. Three sequels were produced—”Pumpkinhead II: Blood Wings” (1994) by Jeff Burr, “Pumpkinhead: Ashes to Ashes” (2006) by Jake West, and “Pumpkinhead 4: Blood Feud” (2007) by Michael Hurst—as well as a video game, “Bloodwings: Pumpkinhead’s Revenge,” and a comic book series. A reboot of the series has been in the works for several years.

Pumpkinhead didn’t deserve the fate initially dealt to it by critics and audiences. Beneath the guise of a fairly standard horror film lies a surprisingly poignant story about parental love and loss, with a nearly biblical moral about the futility of revenge and how hatred harms the hater most (Nietzsche’s famous words about the abyss also come to mind). One of the film’s posters featured the tagline “A Grim Fairy Tale,” which is the best description of Pumpkinhead. Furthermore, despite its modest budget, the film is well-executed. Particularly impressive are the contrast-based cinematography by Bojan Bazelli, who juxtaposed the sun-drenched idyllic countryside with the night forest shrouded in blue mist and the witch’s cabin bathed in reds. The unsettling atmosphere is one of the strongest aspects of this moody old-fashioned horror film.