Saturday, January 9, 2010
#76: Pumpkinhead (Stan Winston, 1988)
After a 1950s-set prologue, Pumpkinhead opens with kick-ass character actor Lance Henriksen (Dead Man, Aliens, Near Dark, The Terminator, The Right Stuff, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Dog Day Afternoon) burning some trash with a flamethrower. Soon, we see his towheaded little boy, complete with Coke-bottle glasses, and his cute little dog. Two thoughts immediately occurred to me: 1) Henriksen is going to do some ass-kicking with that flamethrower later in the film, and 2) that dog is probably going to die. Happily, I was right about number one, but the dog survived! The little boy got his ass kicked, though. Don't worry, these aren't big spoilers.
Pumpkinhead, special effects wizard Stan Winston's directorial debut, is a fable exploring the classic themes of revenge and country people vs. city slickers. Henriksen plays Ed Harley, the owner/operator of a tiny grocery store deep in a never-named rural mountain idyll. Harley is good country people, but don't worry; the region also contains some backwoods, overall-wearing, dirt-covered rubes and bearded, shotgun-wielding folks prone to yelling "get off my land." Some of these characterizations are pretty silly, but Henriksen and his son are well-written, three-dimensional characters. (Bonus fun fact: One of the dirt-covered rubes is Blossom star Mayim Bialik, in her first film role. Second bonus fun fact: One of the rubes is played by an actor named Dick Warlock. That's his real name! Dick Warlock!)
Henriksen is minding his store when a group of twentysomething city slickers arrive on their way to a camping/dirtbiking vacation. One of the party is a hotheaded jerk who gets out his dirtbike and decides to do some off-roading while his friends get some supplies. When Henriksen has to run back to his house to get some feed for a dirty rube, he leaves his little boy in charge. The dog runs toward the dirtbikes, the little boy chases his dog, the little boy gets crunched by a dirtbike. The hotheaded jerk flees the scene. When Henriksen comes back to find his boy, he blows his top. He needs revenge. He goes to the isolated shack of an old crone known for her mastery of the dark arts. Winston has a lot of fun with these scenes. The wizened old bag is surrounded by beads, candles, an owl, a rat, and several tarantulas. She instructs Henriksen to dig up something from a nearby cemetery/pumpkin patch (multi-tasking!) and bring it to her. She summons up Pumpkinhead, a large ass-kicking demon, to get revenge on the city kids. Will Henriksen allow the bloodshed, or will he recant and try to save the very same city jerks responsible for his son's smushing? Watch and find out.
There's not much to Pumpkinhead's story, and Winston was clearly dealing with a tiny budget, but he makes it work nicely. The Pumpkinhead creature is one of the great movie monsters, and the special effects crew did a fantastic job on the thing. The creature has so much facial expression and fluidity in movement that I'm once again saddened by the change to CGI-based effects. CGI will probably look great one day, but until they get it right, why not use something that doesn't look like a complete bag of shit? Right now, CGI sucks. I could rant about this all day, and I have before, so I'll leave it at that. Besides the effects, Winston got a mostly solid cast, particularly the always excellent Henriksen, and some sweet location shooting in Topanga Canyon and convincing studio-shot stuff in Hollywood. The final scene is also awesome. The movie doesn't look cheap, even though it is. Pumpkinhead is a solid, entertaining modern monster movie.
The movie flopped upon initial release but gained a cult following on video. The studio that financed the film went bankrupt shortly before release, and United Artists bought the rights, releasing the film under the crappy generic title, Vengeance: The Demon. When it bombed under that name, they re-released it under the original title. It bombed again. It finally made some money on video, McFarlane Toys made a popular Pumpkinhead figurine, and three straight-to-video sequels followed, though Winston wasn't involved.
Stan Winston died of cancer at the relatively untimely age of 62 in 2008, but he enjoyed a long, successful career as a special effects wizard. He could do it all -- makeup, prosthetics, computer design, and animatronics. He created some of the most memorable effects in the last 40 years of filmmaking. Here are some highlights:
Friday the 13th Part III
Terminator 2: Judgment Day
A.I. Artificial Intelligence
Invaders from Mars
The Monster Squad
A.I. Artificial Intelligence
Jurassic Park III
The Monster Squad
The Lost World: Jurassic Park
He was also involved in the effects for a straight-to-video movie called Robocop vs. Terminator. Does anybody know anything about that? It sounds ridiculous.
Winston's directorial career was a lot stranger than his effects career. Besides Pumpkinhead, he directed A Gnome Named Gnorm, starring Anthony Michael Hall and a little person in a gnome costume (in the Philippines, the movie is called Upworld: The Magic Little Alien), and the video for a Michael Jackson song I've never heard of, "Ghosts," which holds the Guinness World Record for longest music video, at 38 minutes. If you search for images of Winston on the Internet, you will find that roughly 98% of the photos show him with a huge grin on his face.