Pumpkinhead is a revenge movie centered around the life of Ed Harley (Lance Henricksen) who owns a small general store in some rural area where they have small general stores. He's a good dad and a nice guy, but when some kids from the city come through on their motorcycles and accidentally kill his son, he aches for payback. He can't bring himself to do it on his own though, so that afternoon when he makes a delivery to one of his customers, he pulls the man aside and asks about the stories he's heard; tales of a woman out in the woods who can help an man who's been wronged. "I don't know what you're talking about", the man says. Ed is leaving when the man's eldest son offers to trade information for cash.
The kid directs Ed to a swamp in the mountains, and there Ed meets the old woman. She is bent and wrinkled, and she tells Ed that what he wants carries a powerful price. He's willing to accept the burden, so she instructs him to dig up the burying ground to the north, and return with what he finds there. These instructions might sound vague, but it doesn't matter; it's pretty obvious where Ed needs to dig when he gets there. The digging is hard work, spiritually speaking, and he returns to the old woman with a small mummy. "There's a demon for every sin," she explains. "You're looking at vengeance." She works her magic over it, mixing Ed's blood with that of his slain son. The demon awakens, and it goes to work, dispatching the teenagers one by one. Ed Harley immediately regrets his actions, and it only becomes worse when he and the demon begin to share the same consciousness.
Pumpkinhead is the damnedest movie. It's constructed from the most unpromising components, but they add up to something great. Roger Ebert never reviewed this one, but would have classified it as a "dead teenager movie", his term for horror (usually slasher) films concerned with killing a cast of unlikable teen characters. Pumpkinhead's teens are unlikable, sure, but they don't get a lot of screentime. What's much more interesting are Ed Harley's journey from rage to remorse, and the witch who seems a bit more human and pragmatic than the usual stock horror movie Powerful Woman of Mystery.
I should also mention that this is a seriously good looking film, especially considering that it's a cheap horror movie from the late '80s. We can credit Stan Winston for the visual qualities. This was Mr. Winston's first outing as director, but he'd already made a name for himself as an effects designer. If you've seen Jurassic Park and Aliens, then you've seen what he can do on a large budget. If Pumpkinhead is less visually impressive, it's only because it's a bit more firmly rooted in the real world that you've already seen. Pumpkinhead is a nice piece of work.
And hey, let's hear it for Lance Henricksen, huh? I honestly can't figure out how I feel about the guy's work. He's a good actor who (for some reason) looks to me like he should be in Respectable Art House Fare, but he keeps slumming it in low-budget sci-fi and horror movies--not always (not even often) good ones. What's that quote from Milton? "Better to reign at the drive-in than serve at the multiplex."
Click here for the trailer.