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With its timeless themes, multilayered main character, and original lore, “Pumpkinhead” has earned its place in Horror History.

Pumpkinhead

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The underrated revenge horror film Pumpkinhead has a magnificently macabre premise — a witch raises a demonic to exact revenge on a man’s enemies at the cost of his soul.

It’s a timeless tale with a potential icon in the titular character. However, with its lackluster box office performance and disappointing sequels, Pumpkinhead fails to get the love it deserves despite it having spawned three sequels, a comic book, and a video game.

Ed Harley (Lance Henricksen)  owns a general store in a small, rustic town that is removed from the modern world. The residents look like they live in the late 19th or early 20th century. Ed is widowed and has a young son, Billy (Matthew Hurley), and a dog, Gypsy (Mushroom).

The only indication that the story takes place in the 1980s is when a group of young city people show up. Absorbed in riding dirt bikes and taking pictures, one of the teens, Joel (John D’Aquino), accidentally hits Billy with his bike. Unfortunately, Billy dies as a result of his injuries.

Grief-stricken and enraged, Ed seeks help from a witch, Haggis (Florence Schauffer), to raise a figure from local folklore, Pumpkinhead (Tom Woodruff, Jr., who also helped design the suit), to exact revenge.

Once raised, Pumpkinhead will hunt down the summoner’s enemies until they die.

Part of Pumpkinhead lore is that he and the summoner are connected. Many sources point out a detail in the film that shows Ed’s connection to Pumpkinhead as the creature begins to resemble Ed facially during the movie. Through this connection, Ed sees how Pumpkinhead exacts revenge. He feels guilt for summoning the creature and asks Haggis to help him stop Pumpkinhead.

She tells him nothing can be done; Pumpkinhead only stops once the summoner is dead.

United Artists gave Pumpkinhead a limited theatrical release in the United States in October 1988 and again in January 1989.

The movie grossed $4 million at the box office against a $3.5 million budget. According to Minty Comedic Arts’ mini-doc “10 Things You Didn’t Know About Pumpkinhead,” Pumpkinhead’s failure may be due to the financial troubles of DeLorentis Entertainment Group. As a result, the company had limited funds to market Pumpkinhead, which was also the reason for its limited release.

Directed by special effects and makeup artist Stan Winston, the film was written by Michael Partick Carducci, Winston, and Richard C. Weinman. Originally titled Vengeance: The Demon, Pumpkinhead’s origins are traced to a poem written by Ed Justin, which concludes with the line, “Bolted doors and windows barred, guard dogs prowling in the yard, won’t protect you in your bed, nothing will, from Pumpkinhead!”

Horror Geek Life points out that Justin’s poem also served as an inspiration for the Misfit’s song, “Pumpkinhead.”

According to the YouTube documentary Pumpkinhead: Anatomy of a Franchise by In Praise of Shadows, Justin, who worked in the film industry, wrote the poem as a creepy bedtime story for his children. He was friends with producer Bill Blake, who liked the name Pumpkinhead and bought the rights from Justin.

Justin’s poem is quoted in the film during a scene where local children taunt another child. (Fun fact: The Big Bang Theory’s Mayim Bialik plays one of the children.)

In Praise of Shadows reports during the 1970s, co-screenwriter Gary Girani had an idea for a project called The Seven Gargoyles of Satan. The story’s theme revolved around the seven deadly sins and that each sin had a corresponding demon that could be summoned regarding each sin. Blake reworked the concept to focus on just one sin: vengeance.

Winston read the script intending to serve as a makeup and special effects artist but decided that he wanted to direct.

Pumpkinhead marks Winston’s directorial debut.

Pumpkinhead

He served as a makeup and effects artist on many projects during the 1970s and 80s, including The Bat People, The Wiz, The Terminator, Dead and Buried, Alien and Predator.

In Praise of Shadows points out that Winston was too busy to work directly on the creature’s design. He supervised a team he worked with on previous projects at his effects studio. He told them that he didn’t want the creature to have an actual pumpkin for a head but wanted a more organic look.

As for casting, Lance Henriksen wasn’t enthusiastic about taking the role of Ed Harley. One part sold him on the idea, in which Ed sees his deceased son sit up in the car and asks, “What did you do, Daddy?” He also wanted to be able to play Ed Harley in his own way.

In Praise of Shadows quotes Henriksen:

“You know, we all have those critical moments in our lives. I decided that if I didn’t see the performance that I was reaching for in that movie, I would never act again. I was going to walk away from it. And the reason for that was I felt like only to serve a movie makes you like […] Well, you see, I was playing lawyers, and all these boring roles. And this dialogue was all litigious bullshit. And I thought I don’t want to act if that’s what I’m doing. If I have to just be a talking head kind of puppet spitting out lines to serve the movie, then I don’t want to act anymore. I don’t want to do it. So, I decided I was going to go for this thing and work at it, and if I don’t see it in the film, then I have no reason to keep doing this. Everybody has stakes, those life stakes.”

Henriksen was allowed to develop his character as he wanted.

Pumpkinhead

He even decorated the set of his house and store with items he purchased from antique stores. Henriksen also had false teeth made and provided his wardrobe. He had the wardrobe tailored to look loose on him as he thought Ed Harley’s clothes would look in real life.

Henriksen also brought what he called moments of “emotional truth” in the scene where he washes Billy’s hands and tells him that his grandmother used to do the same for him, as well as some light-hearted moments at the kitchen table.

Henriksen shines in this film, delivering a nuanced performance as a grief-stricken father whose rage causes him to do the unthinkable. Ed Harley is sympathetic as his conscience comes back to haunt him. Ed sees Pumpkinhead as he exacts his vengeance and ultimately sacrifices his own life to stop the creature.

The cast includes the late George “Buck” Flower, who plays local farmer Mr. Wallace. Flower was a veteran actor who had roles in numerous movies, including several John Carpenter movies: The Fog, Escape from New York, Starman, and They Live.

Jeff East, who plays one of the teens, also plays teenage Clark Kent in Superman: The Movie.

Mushroom, who plays Gypsy, also played Barney in Gremlins.

The story introduces a folk tale that sprung from a poet’s imagination and weaves a story around it that is original, compelling, and tragic.

The film’s atmosphere immerses the viewer in dark, misty forests, a rustic town stuck in a different time, and a witch’s cottage that looks straight out of a medieval folktale.

Of course, Winston’s special effects team delivered as far as Pumpkinhead’s design is concerned. The creature is believable and has an intimidating presence.

Pumpkinhead spawned a franchise with a direct-to-video sequel, Pumpkinhead II: Blood Wings (1994), which completely ignored the first film. Two additional made-for-TV films appeared in 2006: Pumpkinhead: Ashes to Ashes, which stars horror icon Doug Bradley, and Pumpkinhead: Blood Feud. In the final two sequels, Lance Henriksen reprises his role as Ed Harley’s ghost.

Pumpkinhead also spawned a short-lived comic book series, Pumpkinhead: The Rites of Exorcism, which was supposed to be a four-issue series, but only two were published. Electronic Arts published a computer game called Bloodwings: Pumpkinhead’s Revenge in 1995 that was not well received.

A remake is reportedly in the works.

According to multiple reports from November 2021, there is a completed script for a Pumpkinhead remake. Tom Woodruff, Jr., Studio ADI co-founder who both built the Pumpkinhead suit and played the creature in the original film, wrote a treatment for a story called Pumpkinhead Origin. The story takes place in 1930s Pennsylvania, focusing on themes of racism and voodoo, and includes multiple demonic creatures.

When Ed Harley first exhumed Pumpkinhead in 1988, a potential icon was born.

A multi-dimensional original story, creepy atmosphere, outstanding creature effects, and a stellar performance by Henriksen all make Pumpkinhead a horror classic. 

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