Sunday, August 7, 2011

Pumpkinhead Review

In each of man’s evils, a special demon exists. 
I used to live in the closet of Kenneth “Broomstick Killer” McDuff.  Before the insanity kicked in full swing, he used to barter stories with me to keep me from slitting his throat at night.  My favorite story was about his trips to the farmers market as a child.  Every Sunday, his grandma took him for long walks along the woods to the local farmer’s market.  On the way home, strolling along the path, his grandmother told him a story about those woods that went a little something like this.

“You know you had a brother once; before you were born, and he was a bad boy.  You know what happened to your brother?  Your mommy and daddy took him in those woods and left him there.  To this day he still lives there.  And if you are bad, that’s what’s gonna happen to you too.”

When I asked him why he thought she told him this, his answer was, “that’s what southern people do”. 

As a horrible closet monster, I have the honorable distinction of using fear as the greatest tool in my armament.  Because of this, I find it amazing southern parents also use this tool to keep their children in line.  By far, my favorite example of this idea is Stuart Gordon’s Directorial film debut, Pumpkinhead.  This is one of my favorites.  It’s imaginative; successfully fusing the ancient fairy tale story structure with the culture of low class southern Americana.  The film stars Lance Henricksen as Ed Harley, a southern country gentleman who seeks vengeance for the death of his son Billy at the hands of irresponsible drunk driving city slickin’ teenagers.  With the help of Haggis, the old witch from the woods, he summons the demon of vengeance to brutally murder the teenagers.  There are many elements to this movie that I like.  Brutal murder is my favorite, but we can talk about that later.  The setup is suspenseful, the monster looks fucking amazing and the art and lighting departments did a superb job working together as a team.  But my favorite element of this film is the writing; it is intelligent and offers just enough exposition to not talk down to an audience while at the same time giving them enough information to understand what is going on.

 Before we jump in, it is worth mentioning that the script of this film was inspired by a poem written by Ed Justin.  I wish we could dig some more information up on the poet, but according to my resources, he killed himself many years ago.  (Please send me some contradicting information about this if you have it and I will post an update.) 

Pumpkinhead is a demon from a story told to the local kids in a backwater southern town to keep them from doing “bad” things (like slicing the lips from off of your sisters and turning them into a necklace…I remember those days…).  As the story goes, if you do something horrible to another person, that person can solicit the old witch from the woods and she will drag pumpkinhead up from hell to avenge you for your loss.  The children believe the story is fake, but it turns out the parents tell the story because they all know too well how real it is.  This whole concept of “the fucked up things your parents are telling you are actually true” is a very scary one.  Imagine if it were true that you grow hair from your palms when you masturbate.  Or that Bloody Mary actually killed you when you said her name in the mirror.  Or if you kill anyone, an 8 foot tall demon will hunt you down and rape you.  This is a story telling element that has been used in most of my favorite horror movies, such as Clive Barker’s Candyman and Neil Jordan’s The Company of Wolves.  The movie begins with Ed as a little boy witnessing Pumpkinhead killing a suspected child murderer.  Years after this frightening encounter, Ed is a middle aged single father, who owns a convenience store in the middle of nowhere.  A group of teens drive across the country with all terrain motorcycles and an endless supply of beer.  When the asshole of the group accidentally kills Ed’s son while driving his dirt bike drunk through the desert, Ed craves for penance to be paid with of a pound of flesh.  That’s when the demon comes in to slice some throats.  My favorite death is when Pumpkinhead grabs a female victim by the hair and presses her face against a glass window of the hut where her friends and her are camping out.  He taunts the kids inside as well as the girl, giving his victim one last glimpse of her friends before smashing her head through the glass, killing her. 
Looks like Macaulay Culkin after his mother threw him off a cliff...Oh wait...That's from "The Good Son"
I know I can be a little snarky (to say the least) but if you were to ask me who my favorite monster was, the answer wouldn’t be myself; it would be Pumpkinhead.  The thing is awesome.  It’s such a huge creature, easily overpowering anyone gutsy enough to stand before it.  It has big powerful limbs and long, sleek, reptilian fingers with sharp nails protruding from each digit.  Its head is rather swollen, but is not actually a pumpkin.  The legend of the beast doesn’t even incorporate the shape of its head as the reason behind its name.  They call it Pumpkinhead because it comes from the old “pumpkin Patch Graveyard”.  The only other backstory we get about this graveyard is from a bit of exposition from Haggis.  She tells us that the graveyard is actually called “Razorback Hollow” and it’s the place where Mountain folk used to bury his kin in there.  “Kin they’s ashamed of,” she says.  The demon requires a vessel to enter this plane of existence, so his body is actually a possessed corpse dug up from the graveyard, transformed into the creature’s demonic manifestation.  This is the one thing I can say that I have over this creature; he requires help to cross through other worlds and astral bodies and I can travel through closets.

This movie’s art and lighting departments are really stellar.  I can actually get sucked into this world because the environment looks and feels real.  This is because the lighting and art department worked as a team to create the film’s customized feel and suspense.  The scenery, props and (as stated before) the monster are all wonderfully stylized works of art, but what makes it all feel as authentic as it does is how little we see of it.  This was achieved with a plethora of shadow play and an overall high contrast for most of the suspenseful sequences.  But shadows aren’t the only tool the DP is uses to create suspense; he also uses an interesting color pallet to make the setting distinctive.  This includes a great deal of oranges and reds for interior shots and blues and blacks for night exterior shots.  This use of color and forced perspective allows the audience’s imagination to run wild.  What is the back-story to this creepy ass graveyard?  Do all demons look like Pumpkinhead?  How did this evil witch get so evil?  And despite these questions, I am still thoroughly entertained.  That is the sign of a good movie to me; it takes me somewhere, brings me back, gives me at least a chill and leaves me satisfied, but still wanting more.

Pumpkinhead is one of the most under rated horror films I have ever seen.  Do yourself a favor and get a copy.  But heed my words, avoid the sequels.  They have nothing to do with this gem and only serve to muddy the franchise.  If you'd like to get yourself a good Pumpkinhead fix, read the Dark Horse comic book Pumpkinhead, the Rites of Exorcism.  It was a direct spinoff of the movie.  Only two comic books were released, even though it was written as a four parter.  Because of this, it ends on a cliffhanger, but I gotta say it's well worth the incredibly short read for any die hard fan.  But for you real hardcore die hard fans, here is the original poem, which sparked the creation of this wonderful movie.

Keep away from Pumpkinhead,
Unless you're tired of living,
His enemies are mostly dead,
He's mean and unforgiving,
Laugh at him and you're undone,
But in some dreadful fashion,
Vengeance he considers fun,
and plans it with a passion,
Time will not erase or blot,
A plot that he has brewing,
It's when you think that he's forgot,
He'' conjure your undoing,
Bolted doors and windows barred,
Guard dogs prowling in the yard,
Won't protect you in your bed,
Nothing will, from Pumpkinhead.

~Ed Justin

Eloquent words, if I do say so myself.

1 comment:

  1. Eloquent words indeed. I had not idea that Southern people would say this to keep their children in line! Pretty cool. I hope they don't remake this classic!

    Great review Jeff. :P