Stan Winston should be a household name. He should have a star on Hollywood Boulevard. If you ask me (and most genre fans) his birthday should be a holiday, and people should be required by law to name all male twins “Stan” and “Winston.” Why is this person, whose name might be vaguely familiar in the same way that you sort of know Chester A. Arthur, but can’t for the life of you remember exactly what he did? Well, Stan Winston created vast swaths of the coolest shit on the planet.
Do you like any science fiction or horror from the ‘80s? Okay, if you answered “no” what the fuck are you doing here? You’re clearly lost. Go find the nearest adult and tell them you finally escaped the cave that weird guy with all the good candy put you in. If you answered “I don’t know,” well, I have some movie recommendations for you. For everyone else, Stan Winston was one of the defining creators behind some of the greatest movies ever made.
If you liked a creature or special effect in the 1980s, chances are Stan Winston had a hand in it. The Alien Queen? Yeah, that was Winston. What about the Terminator? Also Winston. Predator? Yep, still Winston. He even did uncredited work on the greatest creature feature of all time, the 1982 John Carpenter masterpiece The Thing (Winston designed and built the dog-thing). This is a man who made nightmares a reality. Without Winston, a litany of the best genre films the most genre-defining decade in history had to offer, would not work.
But could the guy direct? The 1988 creature feature/slasher flick Pumpkinhead answered that with a definitive yes.
Pumpkinhead feels like a legend to the point that I assumed it was one. My warm feelings for the movie should be obvious to anyone who read my novel City of Devils, as I included pumpkinheads as a species of monster, with one of their number being an unexpected breakout character. I had seen this movie when young, and later on had read urban legends which I can only assume have their origins with this film. The filmmakers themselves were cagey, claiming to have based the movie on an evocative poem by “Ed Justin,” but he might very well not exist.
The monster has the ineffable qualities of good folklore. A demon or possible spirit of nature (these two things were conflated by early Christians, and any meaningful distinction exists now only in urban fantasy novels), Pumpkinhead is more a curse than a creature with agency. When a man is wronged and he has no other recourse, he can travel out to a pumpkin patch that’s also a haunted cemetery (because these locals go all the fuck out for Halloween) and invoke Pumpkinhead to take revenge.
The film opens in the midst of one of Pumpkinhead’s hunts, when a terrified man bangs on the door of a neighboring shack, begging to be sheltered. This is when young Ed Harley, our protagonist (played as an adult by the great Lance Henriksen), sets eyes on the monster and sees that it’s more than just a local ghost story. When, years later, careless tourists kill Ed’s young son, desperation sends Ed out to invoke the spirit. First he has to find the semi-legendary local witch, who in turn sends him to the cemetery, where he must exhume and return with a tiny mummified corpse. Some black magic and bloodletting later, and Pumpkinhead has been invoked, his life force linked to Ed’s
As one would expect from a Winston film, Pumpkinhead is a triumph of ‘80s area puppeteering and costuming. The design is distinctive enough to separate it from other beasts of its ilk, but also simple enough so that when it is shown in flashes of lightning, it is instantly recognizable. It has a pleasing weight and presence that CGI has never been able to master, and has aged far better than many more modern films could ever hope to. While the name is a touch goofy, it was part of one of the odder ‘80s traditions of slapping would-be horror icons with silly monikers, like Chucky or Pinhead. Rest assured, despite the name, Pumpkinhead does not have a literal pumpkin for a head.
The film operates in an interesting place in ‘80s fiction as well. At the time, violence was considered the answer to pretty much any problem, from crime to teen dating. Pumpkinhead creates a world in which careless teenagers kill a little boy, shattering the life of his father. When Ed invokes the creature, we are on his side, but as Ed begins to see the actual cost, he rapidly comes to the correct conclusion that vengeance is a bad thing. By linking Ed’s life force with that of the creature, the film draws an explicit line between the two: vengeance, even ostensibly righteous vengeance, turns a man into a monster. The victims are shown though Ed’s eyes as well, introduced as little more than slasher movie archetypes, which is exactly how a grief-stricken father would see them. But as the film progresses, they gain depth and layers, making them, in Ed’s eyes, human.
The film highlights the differences between the locals and the interlopers as well. Ed’s community is never named, beyond nicknames for a few local “hollers.” This place is so depressed that a meth infusion would qualify as an economic boom. Ed lives on a tiny farm with his son, and the much larger Wallace clan, clad in filthy rags, lives on the next one over. From the looks of the barren ground, no one is growing anything other than misery. Meanwhile, the tourists are rich, beautiful, and young, at first treating the locals with either contempt of condescension. It’s an outlier to the larger hicksploitation subgenre, as it ends up siding with Ed and his son. We’re meant to feel sympathy for the victims, but only after Ed himself does.
Winston shoots the film like Halloween itself. Many of the interiors are flickering orange, calling to mind the inside of a jack-o’-lantern. The outside hews closer to late ‘80s night, with deep blues standing in for the stygian blacks of the ‘70s, and the occasional massive light behind a small rise, making it look like a land of crashed UFOs.
No one would ever say Pumpkinhead should have swept the Oscars. It remains a cult movie, and a worthy one, on the edges of so many horror subgenres, taking what it can from each. Most tantalizingly, it manages to create a sense of folklore: Pumpkinhead is much bigger than his movie, because, if he doesn’t really exist, he feels like he should.