Pumpkinhead (1988)

Pumpkinhead doesn’t give a shit about your morals. He doesn’t really give a shit about anything, granted, and in true creature feature fashion the gory B-flick Pumpkinhead is more concerned with dreaming up gross ways for a pack of teenagers to bite it than with deriving any message out of the bloodshed. Oddly enough, though, there’s a distinct resistance to the crowdpleasing moments of heroism that usually typify late-’80s schlock-fests of this sort, which is evidence to the claim that somebody cared about something, which in this context is actually high praise.

Why, you ask, would the demonic Pumpkinhead be so prized within this ostensible Innocents vs. Monster tale? Why would we root for him instead of the terrified cabin-dwellers? Why would Pumpkinhead win? Simple: he’s Motherf*cking Pumpkinhead.

At the moment I’m helplessly caught in the middle of a year of horror movies. Maybe it was spawned by the pretty good Babadook going up on Netflix, or more likely an absolute blast of a time in a screening of It Follows. Maybe it’s the John Carpenter Director Series, or maybe I’m just saying that as an excuse to link to the John Carpenter Director Series so you’ll go read the John Carpenter Director Series. Either way, it’s a bit of a strange feeling to consider that Pumpkinhead, of all things, the super-schlocky true-B-flick of one of the best/worst eras in American horror, is the movie I was looking for the whole time.

Take a cross-section of the film’s main characters:

  1. Billy Harley, a young bespectacled lad that looks a lot like Minkus from Boy Meets World.
  2. Steve, the relatable brother of the hothead Joel and the only one of his group who stays behind to accept responsibility for a tragic accident.
  3. Maggie, a good Catholic girl stricken with grief after said tragic accident.
  4. Kim, the dim-witted girlfriend of the more despicable Joel.
  5. Joel, the despicable one.
  6. Ed Harley, Billy’s father and exacter of a sinister revenge that most would deem to be an overreaction of epic proportions, one that causes the deaths of many people.
  7. Motherf*cking Pumpkinhead, a gooey demon that hunts and kills people by scraping their faces off, stabbing them with gun barrels, and dropping them out of trees onto rocks.
  8. Chris and Tracey, your typical cabin-in-the-woods couple who spend the movie doing pretty much nothing.

This list is ordered conveniently in two ways, the first of which is by the level of respectability or innocence each character has. Billy’s just a kid, and he’s a cute kid, which means he’s extra innocent. Steve, again, is the only one out of the gang of teens that stays behind when tragedy strikes. On we go down the line until we get to Motherf*cking Pumpkinhead, which I wish was his actual name instead of simply “Pumpkinhead”. The list technically concludes with Chris and Tracey, partly because they’re hardly characterized at all outside of the major personality traits of “screaming” and “running” and partly because their placement at the end of the list is just visually satisfying.

It’s also satisfying to the second function of the list, that being one ordered by death. Yes, that’s right: the most honorable, innocent, noble, respectable people in the movie die first, and the ones with shitty morals/shitty personalities grace the screen until the end. Billy the Minkus Kid gets flattened by a motorbike, causing Daddy Ed Harley to summon Pumpkinhead. Said Being with Head of Pumpkin proceeds to start his killing spree with the one kid who fessed up to the crime in the first place before moving on to the crucifix-wielding Maggie. Joel, the guy who effectively murders Little Billy? He gets to live for the majority of the movie.

Pumpkinhead the monster and Pumpkinhead the movie both laugh in the face of anything resembling a moral center or a neat cinematic message. Lance Henrikson’s Ed Harley, in an apparent change of heart, eventually decides to battle the monster that he’s conjured: “I’m gonna send it back to whatever hell it come from.” Isn’t that so heroic? Too bad 2/3 of the marked victims are already dead by that point. Plus, the unique link between the One Who Conjured Pumpkinhead and Pumpkinhead Himself (unique in the context of late-’80s horror B-flicks, of course) means that Ed Harley is just a) in excruciating pain every time Pumpkinhead kills and b) becoming more and more like the monster as the film progresses, so it’s less and less likely that Ed’s actions are a result of c) actual heroism.

Meanwhile, the typical staples of this kind of movie fall like dominoes before the badassery that is Pumpkinhead. Is this done with a deft, subtle touch? Not in the least. The creature plods through a church and takes time out of his killing spree to lift a wooden cross and smash it into pieces. It’s hilarious. And the best part of this morality-void story is that there’s no moral at the end, either, just a promise of more ‘Head. From the original film through the apparently-less-than-watchable sequels to the inevitable reboot Pumpkinhead 5: Motherf*cking Pumpkinhead, your enjoyment of this kind of movie may very well depend on your willingness to agree with the monster and simply disregard anything resembling an underlying implication, aside from the implied message that you should not f*ck with Pumpkinhead. But that’s a given.

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