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Feature


When a group of teenagers inadvertently kill his only son, Ed Harley (Lance Henriksen) seeks the powers of a backwoods witch to bring the child back to life. But instead, she invokes ‘the Pumpkinhead’ – a monstrously clawed demon that, once reborn, answers only to Ed’s bloodlust. But, as the creature wreaks its slow, unspeakable tortures on the teens, Ed confronts a horrifying secret about his connection to the beast – and realizes that he must find a way to stop its deadly mission before he becomes one with the creature forever. (From Scream Factory’s official synopsis)

 Pumpkinhead
Stan Winston’s Pumpkinhead isn’t a traditionally ‘good’ movie, but it is an enduring curiosity. It’s one-half major motion picture – with Hollywood production values, an A-level crew, and a powerful central performance from a still-popular character actor – and one-half a DIY, completely independent ‘weekend project,’ put together by an effects studio that just wanted to make a movie (it almost wasn’t even released when De Laurentiis Entertainment Group went bankrupt). Its lasting cult popularity lies in the simple, concept-driven screenplay (written by Richard C. Weinman, Gary Gerani, Mark Patrick Carducci, and Winston himself, all reportedly inspired by a poem by Ed Justin) that feeds into an innate need for spooky folktales. This faux-folktale concept had been the basis for a number of horror franchises in the ‘80s, namely Nightmare on Elm Street and the Friday the 13th sequels, and, though it wasn’t originally written with Winston’s strengths in mind, is the perfect basis for a movie built at least in part around a creature prop. And, boy, what a prop – the Pumpkinhead never garnered the pop culture adoration of H.R. Giger’s Xenomorphs, but its alarming stature and expressive face have sustained in a post-digital blockbuster world.

But folklore tends to work best in bite-sized pieces. Nobody spends two hours telling a campfire story and therein lies Pumpkinhead’s biggest problem – it never justifies the feature-length treatment. This isn’t to say it couldn’t sustain 86 minutes, it just doesn’t (it would make a great part of a three or four part horror anthology or a single episode of Tales From the Crypt). The pace grinds to a crawl anytime the story moves away from the rural characters to investigate the hardships of the city folk that earn the ire of the title monster. The story requires that the Pumpkinhead’s victims are a somewhat ambiguous group – we need to hate them enough to understand why Ed Harley is willing to sell his soul for vengeance, but we also need to pity them enough to hope that Ed is successful in stopping the demon when he changes his mind. The problem is that these characters only really achieve the obnoxiousness required for the ‘hate’ part of the equation. They are too boring to arouse compassion, especially when put up against the more intriguing redneck characters and Lance Henriksen’s blistering performance. In fact, Henriksen is so powerful and compelling that he unbalances the entire movie. Even the Pumpkinhead monster pales in comparison to the abject fury on the actor’s face when he glares off well-meaning assistance from the kids that accidentally killed his boy.

 Pumpkinhead
For his part, Winston has fun as a first-time director, especially when it comes to the heavily stylized supernatural sequences. Once the Pumpkinhead is released, Winston and cinematographer Bojan Bazelli (who worked himself up from B-horror to mainstream blockbusters, like Mr. and Mrs. Smith and The Lone Ranger) tear open the MTV music video toolbox and empty its contents onto the screen. The southern gothic imagery is infused with swirling smoke, blaring wind machines, monochromatic gels, warring contrast levels, and strobe lights. Once the mayhem is unleashed, Pumpkinhead becomes the charming bastard child of Mario Bava and Russell Mulcahy. None of these sequences are particularly scary and many of them appear censored for the sake of an R-rating (there are a number of cut-aways from violence to goofy reaction shots), but the ballsy gothy insanity of it all is still infectious. Winston doesn’t have a handle on drama or how to shoot dialogue-driven exposition without boring his audience, but the supernatural sequences alone are stunning enough to wish he had spent more time honing his craft. Sadly, he gave up on feature direction following the critical and box office failure of his sophomore effort, A Gnome Named Gnorm (1990), leaving Pumpkinhead as his default masterpiece. It seems a small sacrifice, though, given the breadth of his groundbreaking special effects output during the ‘90s.

 Pumpkinhead

Video


North American Pumpkinhead fans had a lot to complain about for many, many years. Seemingly unaware of what a cult hit the film had become, MGM dumped it out on a barebones, 1.33:1 DVD. They finally released a special edition, anamorphic disc in 2008, but, by that time, viwer focus was already shifting to HD and the release received little fanfare (I have to admit that I forgot it had been released). The film did air in HD on television from time to time and I assume Scream Factory’s new Blu-ray version was sourced from that transfer by the people at MGM, not in-house. The lack of compression makes a bit difference, especially in those really dark scenes where Winston and Bazelli use such strong coloured lighting gels. SD versions were particularly noisy in the monochrome orange scenes and hard to discern whenever heavy blue shades are involved. However, the HD upgrade is not as sharp as some viewers may have been anticipating. The use of smoke and diffused light, along with the general darkness of even the daylight sequences (the sun is setting throughout most of these), creates problems for finer details and the overall grain levels consistently fluttering over the image, dulling some of the dynamic ranges. There are some other print damage artefacts, but these rarely go beyond small white flecks. Generally speaking, I believe this slightly muddy look was an intended part of the film, especially the daylight scenes, which feature flattened gamma levels and are burned by yellow highlights. The more high-contrast nighttime images fare better. These are similarly grainy, but with finer textures, sharper edges, and a punchy depth of field. The vivid, stylized colours are bright without overwhelming the transfer with blooming edges or low-level noise. Some of the black levels are a bit underwhelming, but I’m not sure if they could be deepened without undermining the smoky motifs.

 Pumpkinhead

Audio


As far as I can tell, Pumpkinhead has always been presented with its original stereo audio (like many late-80s releases, it was mixed for an analogue Ultra Stereo release). Scream Factory has broken with tradition by presenting an uncompressed, DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 remix, one that I assume was mixed for HD television at MGM. The differences between the 5.1 and 2.0 mix (which is also presented here in DTS-HD MA) are negligible. The remix is tidier, thanks mostly to the discretely centered dialogue track (this includes the easy-to-miss words that Pumpkinhead hisses at its victims), but doesn’t do a lot to change the basic channel-to-channel movement of the sound. The only notable directional upgrades I noticed include the motion of the roaring dirt bikes that appear at the beginning of the film and a few of the Pumpkinhead’s off-camera noises. The environmental ambience that makes up the rural landscape and the rattling noises that accompany the title creature wherever he goes (I’m not sure if these count as music or effects) sound very similar between the two tracks. Composer Richard Stone (who was best known for his work on John Hughes movies and a number of mid-‘90s animated television shows) mixes period-friendly keyboard horror cues with southern-fried influences to underscore the rural gothic tones (during happier moments, the guitars, fiddles, and harmonica pick up quite nicely). The 5.1 mix doesn’t make a huge difference, but the LFE upgrade gives the disturbing, driving bass tones some oomph.

 Pumpkinhead

Extras


  • Audio commentary with co-screenwriter Gary Gerani and creature FX creators Tom Woodruff Jr. and Alec Gillis, moderated by Intruder and Hostel: Part III director Scott Spiegel. This is the same commentary that appeared on MGM’s special edition DVD.
  • Pumpkinhead Unearthed (64:00, HD) – This is an HD version of the behind-the-scenes documentary that showed up in parts on the DVD special edition. It features a number of cast and crew interviews and traces the production from its earliest inception in the ‘70s, through casting, filming, effects, production design, Stan Winston’s direction, and cult popularity.
  • Raw, video-shot behind-the-scenes footage (7:10, SD)
  • Night of the Demon (16:30, HD) – A new interview with writer Richard Weinman.
  • Redemption of Joel (14:00, HD) – A new interview with actor John D’Aquino.
  • The Boy with the Glasses (14:30, HD) – A new interview with actor Matthew Hurley.
  • Demonic Toys (4:50, SD) – A look at the fabrication of a Pumpkinhead collectible toy/statuette.
  • Remembering the Monster Kid: A Tribute to Stan Winston (49:10, HD) – A new documentary that gives the cast and crew a chance to rain praise on the late director and creature effects progenitor.
  • Still gallery
  • Trailer and trailers for other Scream Factory releases


 Pumpkinhead

Overall


Pumpkinhead is an uneven horror favourite with some genuinely great moments and an enduringly cool creature. It’s a good one to revisit every couple of years and Scream Factory’s new Blu-ray release is the new ideal way to do that. There is room for improvement in terms of the sharpness and dynamic range of this 1080p transfer, but I believe that the majority of the issues (grain, diffused light, soft focus) are built into the film. The new 5.1 soundtrack ensures that the dialogue track is a smidge tighter and the special features are extensive enough to considered the final word on the subject.

 Pumpkinhead

 Pumpkinhead

 Pumpkinhead

 Pumpkinhead

* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.


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