Friday, October 25, 2013

Cult-Movie Review: Pumpkinhead (1988)

Bolted doors and windows barred,

Guard dogs prowling in the yard,

Won't protect you in your bed,
Nothing will, from Pumpkinhead.

- Pumpkinhead (a poem by Ed Justin)

A contemporary Grimm Fairy Tale, the 1988 horror film Pumpkinhead (directed by the late Stan Winston) is also something more than that general description implies. The film actually serves as an example of modern, cinematic folklore. In the Jungian sense of that term, it contends explicitly with the human unconscious and human archetypes.

Pumpkinhead is the story of kindly Ed Harley (Lance Henriksen), a man and father who sees his young son, Billy (Matthew Hurley) recklessly killed by a group of irresponsible tourists: dirt bikers led by the brutish Joel (John Di Aquino).

After his boy's death, Harley visits an old witch, Haggis, seeking help. 

Alas, even this sorceress cannot raise the dead. 

Instead, the old crone suggests a wicked alternative: Ed can make his vengeance manifest in the form of an invincible demon called Pumpkinhead. Ed once saw that very monster in childhood, in 1957, and so he follows the witch's instructions for conjuring this monstrous Personification of Vengeance.

Before long, Pumpkinhead goes on a vicious murder spree -- a surrogate for Ed -- attacking Joel and all his friends and eventually murdering them in horrible, merciless ways.

However, Ed soon begins to see the nature of the terror he has willfully unleashed on Earth, sharing Pumpkinhead's "sight" at critical moments. 

Ed then comes to the realization that he must pay the ultimate price to curtail the evil he has loosed on the world...

When discussing folklore, Swiss philosopher Carl Jung pinpointed specific universal character archetypes, many of which are given a new life in this Winston horror film. 

Henriksen's Ed Harley, the film's protagonist, is a manifestation of the Ego

He is a man of gentleness and reason, who has repressed his "emotional" past (the vision of Pumpkinhead) and now lives in relative seclusion with his son, far from the dangers of noisy city life. 

We have every reason to believe that Ed is a "good" salt-of-the-earth type character, at least until his quest for justice turns punitive; becoming a quest for vengeance.

Pumpkinhead himself is another Jungian archetype: "The Shadow." He is the opposite of the Ego (Ed) but with qualities nonetheless present in the Ego, only ones not identified or openly acknowledged. 

In other words, Pumpkinhead is representative of Ed's buried, undetected blood lust; his vengeance personified. These blood-thirsty, merciless qualities have always been present in Ed, we must believe, but without a catalyst (the death of his beloved boy), they would never have boiled to the surface and found expression.

Ego and Shadow are connected in another way too: inside the very shape of Pumpkinhead. The beast soon begins to take on the facial features of the man who raised him: Ed. So part of Ed -- the ugly part -- is literally inside the demon. They Ego and the Shadow share "sight," they share a face, and they share a destiny: damnation.

Finally, we come to Billy, a blond-haired little boy. 

He represents an archetype that Jung believed was present in every one of us: The Child

The child symbolizes innocence, naivete, the future, tomorrow, even treasure. To Ed, Bill is indeed the greatest treasure in the material world; the innocent thing to be protected from an increasingly cruel, loud, and fast modern world. 

Billy is Ed's hope for a better future, and Pumpkinhead features many beautiful, sweet scenes (including one at a kitchen table...) that involve Ed and little Billy -- father and son -- living their life of togetherness and fellowship. 

Though Henriksen is often called upon to play sinister roles, it is his tender, fatherly side that resonates most powerfully with me, as both a viewer and a film critic. It's a side you often see on display in two of his best productions: Pumpkinhead and Millennium

And it's also a side that brings forward, with great power (and emotion...), the scope of Ed Harley's loss; the scope of his pain and suffering. 

With Billy gone, Ed has lost his hope for the future; his purpose for living. He has lost all his tomorrows. So when Ed seeks vengeance, the audience is definitely on his side. We know he's a good man; we understand what he's lost and we -- with him -- demand justice.

But folklore -- again in the Jungian definition of that word -- always serves a specific moral purpose.

It excavates the unconscious, the very instincts and failings of mankind as a species. It intentionally deals in stereotypes and absolutes so as to make a cogent point, and in Pumpkinhead that is indeed the case.

 Billy is not just sweet...he is angelic. 

And Pumpkinhead is not just Vengeance made manifest, but the epitome of Vengeance Made Manifest: an ugly, snarling, horrible, murderous, unstoppable, sacrilegious demon. 

Ed is not just tortured, but he is tortured in a Biblical sense, like Job himself. 

The point of Pumpkinhead, of course, is that "two wrongs don't make a right," and that vengeance is not the same thing as justice. 

Vengeance is something else entirely: the unquenchable need to inflect some greater pain on a person who has wronged you. The Bible writes of "an eye for an eye" because violence tenfold against your enemy was too draconian, too horrible. That's explicitly Ed's sin in Pumpkinhead, seeking an out-of-proportion punishment for the crime of murder. 

But our emotions are engaged in this remarkable horror film -- and our imaginations are stirred -- by the universal, almost stereotypical nature of the beautiful child, the bereaved Dad, and the monster from Hell.

Like the best horror films ever made, Pumpkinhead remains determinedly anti-violence (and anti-vengeance) -- in much the same manner as Wes Craven's misunderstood Last House on the Left (1972) -- because it it points to a painful and often forgotten human verity: vengeance solves nothing

And the cost to the person pursuing vengeance is often, literally, his soul.

In Pumpkinhead, Ed is forced to reckon with the fact that he has called an unearthly presence to right an earthly wrong. His response to a tragedy was understandable, but ultimately out-of-proportion. The teens in the films are careless and rude, and they did kill Billy in that incident. But Joel -- who is reckless and negligent -- is actually guilty of simply being an arrogant, thoughtless asshole. He never set out with malice to hurt anyone. 

The wronged Ed, by contrast, does proceed with malice. He calls a demon that doesn't discriminate between victims, that doesn't weigh evidence, but merely judges ALL the involved teens as guilty, despite their varying levels of responsibility. Again, this is not justice, and Ed learns that fact the hard way.

In Pumpkinhead, the Ego unleashes the Shadow, a force of incredible evil, and in process poisons his own soul. 

I always wonder: what would Billy think of his father's conjuration of the beast? Isn't Ed's decision to revenge Billy's death, actually, the very thing that destroys Ed's goodness? That destroys the innocence inside him?

These are the questions that the original Pumpkinhead contemplates with great style and intelligence, and it is rewarding to view a horror film in the decade of Death Wish-sequels, Chuck Norris, Dirty Harry and Rambo that advocates a stance against vigilantes and eye-for-an-eye "justice." 

Pumpkinhead sees no benefit, no reward, no healing in blood lust. Even more commendably, the film offers a didactic lesson: Ed sought revenge but didn't understand how how messy and monstrous revenge could be until faced with it through Pumpkinhead's inhuman, eyes.

Pumpkinhead is a beautifully crafted horror film, one routinely aglow with a cold, blue-gray palette, and heavy on oppressive atmosphere and atmospherics (including fog and mist). The film seems to exist outside any specific modern decade, granting it a timeless, universal quality that matches the theme about unchanging human nature. And the pumpkin patch where Pumpkinhead is born is not soon forgotten: a Stygian landscape of though vengeance has made the earth itself lifeless and decrepit.

So many horror films trade in black-and-white homilies, but Pumpkinhead even opens the door to ambiguity, particularly in the depiction of the sorcerer witch, Haggis. 

Essentially a "neighborhood witch" that expresses the tensions between country-folk and city folk and between the natural and supernatural worlds, her role is never exactly clarified in the screenplay or by director Winston. Essentially, she sends Ed to Pumpkinhead, but is it because she divines his purpose (vengeance) and wishes to expedite that purpose? Or is it because she seeks to destroy Ed's soul? Is she just using necromancy and other tricks of her trade to facilitate a "customer's" order, or is she a more sinister agent who gets something personal from the corruption of the innocent?

By utilizing Jungian archetypes (the Ego, the Shadow, the Child), and by focusing intently on a shared trait of our contemporary culture (the desire for personal revenge after a crime), Pumpkinhead dramatizes a universal tale about the human condition. The film's characterizations are "well-developed for the genre," (The Houston Chronicle, October 14, 1988), and the film has "heart...and a touch of sweetness" (The Daily Morning News), but more than that, it serves as a statement against the times in which it was crafted. It sees revenge as a wrong doubled; not as a wrong corrected.

Shakespeare wrote that "The rarer action is /In virtue than in vengeance." (The Tempest, Act V: Scene I), a plea for people to forgive their enemies rather than punish them. It's human nature, perhaps to hate those who hurt us, but Pumpkinhead is a reminder that revenge actually solves nothing. In presenting this moral point with archetypal clarity, Pumpkinhead serves ably as modern American folklore, not to mention thought-provoking cautionary tale.


  1. Anonymous10:00 AM

    Very good insight into an absolute horror classic. I can't believe this isn't on blu-ray yet. The photography was beautifully eerie throughout, and the creature effects were top-of-the-line, as expected from Winston. I remember way back when this used to air on tv, and tv-guide always used to rate it 1-star! Then again, they seemed to rate the majority of horror films 1-star by default back then. This is perfect Halloween viewing. Great direction, wonderful cast, unforgettable creature, beautiful cinematography, and most importantly - it has a heart.

  2. It's interesting to me that this cautionary tale still bears re-telling, and it speaks to something powerful in human nature that it can be such a tall order to learn and follow its message. This is a movie I only came to relatively recently, and I was very pleasantly surprised—although not by the sensitivity of Lance's performance at this point! A timely review for both the season and me personally, John!

  3. Anonymous4:45 PM

    Pretty interesting analysis. I've had the movie poster since it came out. The tag-line always make chuckle ('A Grim Fairy Tale') because it's so perfect. It is so much like a Grimm Fairy-tale.I re-watched it for the first time in a decade or so last week, it holds up very well. Small bit of trivia- I did notice one of the Hillbilly kids is now one of the girls on Big Bang Theory.


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