Sunday Sesh: Catching up on Horror Classics with Pumpkinhead
A few weeks ago, we spent our hallowed Sunday Sesh discussing albums that have lingered on despite our changing metal diets. In that article, I briefly mentioned my late bloom into this music genre. As fate would have it, metal wasn’t the only interest for which my puberty came late. Yes, despite all the many articles I’ve written here about horror movies, I didn’t actually get into the genre until some time in high school. You could trace my reticence back to having nightmares for weeks after seeing It somewhere in the mid 90s, or you could blame my well-meaning parents since they hated horror. Whatever the case, by the time I did start getting into the genre, I had already missed many of the classics. This Fall, as a prelude to Halloween, I aim to amend that. First on the docket: 1988’s Pumpkinhead.
Note: This article contains spoilers for a 30-year-old horror movie and a brand new one. Browse at your own peril.
Pumpkinhead is the directorial debut of special effects guru Stan Winston, and despite performing poorly in the box office (netting a measly $4.4 million compared to Halloween IV’s $17.7 million), it’s developed a devoted following and retrospectively hailed as a genre classic. Watching the film 30 years later, it’s hard not to see why. Despite, trappings of 80s slasher flicks, Pumpkinhead is at its heart a brooding dark fantasy, a film more content to unnerve and rattle you than to bludgeon you outright with jump scares and buckets of blood; despite its handful of tropes, it’s a visually appealing and viscerally disturbing work of art more akin to films like The Witch or this year’s stunning Hereditary than, say, A Nightmare on Elm Street or Saw. The key to its efficacy is the familial trauma at its heart.
The film opens on a delightfully framed flashback. The scene: a young farm family completes their daily routine and prepares for bed when a beleaguered stranger suddenly pounds on the door. The setting: an isolated, twilit ranch draped in fog and bad vibes. As the man begs for his life to no avail, a young Ed Harley peers out the window, wondering why his father refuses to offer this man mercy. While seeking answers through the moonlit glass, Ed sees a grotesque creature stalk through the night and murder the stranger at the door. It’s heavily implied that the family never speaks of what Ed saw that night, but this scene beautifully crafts the merciless and, ultimately, damning revenge theme that persists through the film.
We then flash forward to an adult Ed Harley, now with a son and a ranch of his own, still clinging to rural living and his family’s heritage. Several shots of Ed and his son Billy establish the older Harley as a doting father whose son is his chief joy; tragically, that joy is swept away in a scene of surprising cruelty. Some ne’er-do-well teens fatally injure Billy in a dirt bike crash while they’re motoring about drunk. Although familial deaths are often stimuli for the action in horror movies, it is the tenderness and pain with which Winston shoots Ed cradling Billy’s corpse that establishes the emotional center for the film’s scares. Like Hereditary, Pumpkinhead uses this senseless act of violence and the desperate response of a damaged parent as the vehicle for its horror action and its central theme. The resulting violence and scares throughout the rest of the film, then, are not the result of some ancient, nameless evil or supernatural killer (although the titular beast is definitely supernatural), but rather the product of grief and the unwillingness to forgive passed down from generation to generation.
Harley, recalling the demonic form he witnessed as a teen and the leering folklore spat by bratty rural children outside his store, seeks out a witch named Haggis to perform a ritual. In a delightfully creepy cabin crawling will all manner of unsavory creatures, Harley realizes that his grief cannot return his son to life, but it can set in motion a cycle of violence and pain. At the witch’s behest, Harley wanders to a nearby cemetery and retrieves a malformed corpse from beneath the pumpkin patch. Awakened by his own willingness to do harm (symbolized by a blood pact), the corpse animates and stalks into the night to wreak havoc on those who did Harley wrong.
What follows is a sequence of teenage deaths at Pumpkinhead’s hands that would be a bit too redolent of 80s horror schlock if not for Winston’s special effects background. Pumpkinhead reveals himself slowly, a brief glimpse of a hand here, a shot of a silhouette in the dark there. Harley’s mental state deteriorates as the true gravity of his grief and the reality that the pain of the perpetrators will not bring his son back set in upon him. It’s too late, however. Try as he might, Harley cannot stop the cycle he has set in motion without even greater loss on his end.
Winston brilliantly illustrates this through the continued evolution of his Pumpkinhead costume. In its initial appearances, the monster looks like a rotting Xenomorph, all gangly limbs and leering, phallic skull. However, Winston re-sculpts the face throughout the climax to resemble Harley’s more and more. This revelation punctuates the climax of the film. Just as the beast, now wearing Harley’s vengeful snarl, bears down on the last remaining teens, Harley himself begins to look more and more like the creature. His thirst for revenge and his overwhelming grief have reshaped both of them, and it’s only by stopping the cycle within himself (with bullets, anyway) that Harley is able to stop the creature.
The film eerily closes on the witch burying a twisted corpse in Pumpkinhead’s old plot deep in the cemetery. About its neck is a necklace Billy gave his father at the beginning of the film. With this excellent scene, Winston reminds us that the cycle will continue anew.
Horror can often be at its best when rooted in the very real terrors that plague our daily lives, the griefs and injustices and hidden pains that we carry with us, that gnaw at us in our blackest dreams, that whisper cruelties unimagined from the deepest shadows. Pumpkinhead is a film that understood this, and its ability to play to very human emotions while still dabbling in wonderfully gross creature effects is surely part of its enduring appeal. True, it’s not a perfect film. I take umbrage with horror’s near uniform fascination with portraying rural Americans (or other rural communities, for that matter), as backward, inbred, and evil people. I also think that despite its headier theme, the film dabbles a bit too much in common horror tropes, including bumbling teenagers, nonsensical flights of panic through the woods, and a reliance on the Final Girl. The pace also dips a bit when Winston deigns to explain to viewers that Pumpkinhead is definitely an analogy for cycles of abuse and revenge in an oddly disconnected scene in a run-down rural church. These, however, are minor quibbles. I genuinely enjoyed Pumpkinhead, and it’s cool to see from where some of my more recent favorites drew inspiration.
Plus, it inspired this track.
What have y’all been watching, Toileteers? Share with me your favorite horror classics.