We Fellow Fans are perfectly aware that the kind of horror steeped in a dark, occult history, typically referred to as Gothic horror, is limited to neither a certain time period nor European locales. Although tales such as Frankenstein, Carmilla, and Dracula have put an indelible stamp on the term, the deliciously creepy combination of dark local secrets and ancient evil can be implemented in virtually any time or place. Even a country as comparatively young as the good ol’ U. S. of A could hold deep, horrible mysteries in its more remote locations; pacts between this world and other, more malevolent realms reaching across generations, holding sway over the attitudes, behaviors and ways of life of the people for decades on end.
An underrated gem from the late ’80s that was a perfect example of this kind of “American Gothic” was the late great Stan Winston’s directorial debut, Pumpkinhead.
When he was just a boy, Ed Harley saw something outside the window of the little shanty he and his parents called home. On a night when all the grown-ups seemed afraid, bolting their doors and loading their shotguns, he dared to look outside to catch a glimpse of something from a nightmare; a thing that shook a presumably guilty man of the tiny rural community to his death like a rag doll…
…flash forward to the present day. Ed is a grown man now; he and his young son, Billy, run a local fruit stand/grocery store together. Since his wife’s passing, the bond between father and son has grown even stronger than usual, her absence increasing their reliance upon one another. One fateful morning as they open their little shop on the main road, a group of six young people head for a cabin in the area, planning a weekend of dirt-biking and partying. They stop by the Harley’s little store to stock up on snacks and drinks (disappointed to find no beer), and one of their number, Joel (whom from the first time we see him seems to be in the running for “Douchebag of the Decade”) decides he can’t wait to get to the cabin; he’s gonna take a little spin on his bike now. As Joel roars off up a nearby hillside on his motorcycle, Ed has to leave to run a quick errand; he’s forgotten the feed one of his customer’s ordered back at his home and has to retrieve it. He leaves Billy to “mind the store” while he makes this quick trip. Fate being a cruel bitch, it’s almost immediately after Ed’s departure that Billy’s dog decides to bolt after the motorcyclists (as Joel’s brother Steve has succumbed to sibling pressure and joined in); chasing after his pet, Billy is helpless as Joel’s bike, coming over a rise, strikes him to the ground.
Although clearly an accident, Joel, having had some criminal history (and having had more than a couple beers) bolts from the scene, despite the derision and protests of the rest. Steve stays with the gravely injured boy, urging the others to follow Joel to the cabin to summon help, as the isolated country store has no phone. They do this, only to find (now uber-douchebag) Joel defiantly opposed to summoning help, going as far as to disable the phone, take the car keys, and lock the two most vocal opponents to remaining silent in one of the cabin’s closets. Meanwhile, Ed returns to find his son near death, sending only a glare toward Steve as he rushes home with his son. Despite Ed’s sad and loving attention, Billy inevitably (and heartbreakingly) dies in his father’s arms. Blinded by grief and craving revenge, Ed recollects that ominous night as a boy, a terrible memory of something that can be conjured to make right a wrong done to a man. This in mind, he sets out to find an old woman deep in the hills that holds the key to this vengeance, too outraged to consider the terrible price he will pay for such justice…
Like most any film of the time period, this one follows the tried and true formula of taking a group of young people, placing them in an unfamiliar setting, and have something systematically kill them off. Include at least one virtuous girl, one guy who’s a complete asshole, one guy that’s not, and one guy that’s a sap; the rest of the characters can be throwaways; they’re just gonna die, anyway. What set this movie apart, in my opinion, is the atmospheric back-story, the situation that put this cookie-cutter group in harm’s way, and the riveting, emotional performance of genre favorite Lance Henriksen as a man torn between his conscience and his lust for retribution.
As I said at the top of this review, a film with a Gothic flavor, one that uses an ancient evil or a pact with the beyond set someplace other than a remote Bavarian or French village in the mid-to-late 1800s, is always a treat; even more so when it’s done well, which I feel (to a large extent) this film was. Apart from Henriksen (which I believe this to be one of his finest, most nuanced performances), the rest of the acting was pretty much par for any other low-budgeter from the late ’80s, nothing more, nothing less. Still, this fantastic performance, coupled with the unbelievable creature effects (all practical, of course; and mind-numbingly awesome) made this flick rise above the limitations that it’s low budget, mediocre acting, and somewhat simple script should have been able to deliver. Having a special effects legend take a turn in the director’s chair still didn’t reduce any dramatic or non-visual elements; indeed, there was very little actual gore (sorry hounds), but that notwithstanding, the fear factor of the film is stylistic and commanding. Many of the shots were ethereally horrifying (the scene where Pumpkinhead is backlit near the old church is a thing of Lovecraftian nightmare), and the cruelty of the creature as it does its dirty work is both disturbing yet satisfying. Also lending credibility to the tale was the set design; from the houses to the vehicles to the clothing, the overall setting was very convincing as an authentic backwoods community; very well-done.
The most appealing thing to me thematically was how, if you’re really into it, the film will make you question yourself.
You can’t help but relate to the pain that Ed Harley suffers, but aspects of the film change both the situations and characters; I for one found myself wondering if, in the same circumstances, I myself would’ve changed along with them. I know, I know; pretty heavy for what many consider to be just another late ’80s hack horror flick…but many fables and legends are just as simple and straightforward, but still have lessons to be learned, no?
I recommend it, folks; as always, some of ya will dig it, others won’t. I’d be willing to bet, though, that if you enjoy a film for its subtext as much as it’s exposition, you will.
Two cents poorer, but worth it. 🙂
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