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Toward the end of the '80s, special effects artists had literally become gods. They had instigated and then escorted in the genre revisionism of the era, while taking their physical art form as far as the pre-computer days would allow. Such names as Tom Savini, Rob Bottin, Chris Walas, and Kevin Yeager were all championed by a burgeoning collection of horror geeks giddy over their latex and Kayro skill set. By 1988, the late Stan Winston was also a member of this visionary Valhalla. His work on Terminator, Aliens, and Predator made him a creature-creating king. And as with many in his order, it was thought he could translate his talent into the field of directing. Pumpkinhead proved them right.
Ed Harley (Lance Henriksen) is a single father running a small grocery store along the outskirts of town. He loves his little boy Billy (Matthew Hurley) and dotes over him incessantly. When a group of teenagers wander into town, motorcycles in tow, Harley senses trouble. Sure enough, an accident involving his son turns fatal. Devastated, our parent turns to a hillbilly family for help. Seems they know the whereabouts of a legendary witch who can unleash a vengeful spirit known as Pumpkinhead. Knowing he will never rest until something is done, Harley makes the necessary blood sacrifice, and unleashes the deadly demon. Little does he know that while his boy will be avenged, his own soul is in mortal danger.
Relying heavily on both rural folklore and yet another stellar performance from B-movie maverick Henriksen, Pumpkinhead is a near classic monster movie, filled with mood and atmosphere. Clearly, the F/X whiz Winston understands the basics of the genre. We get voodoo black magic, late night visits to a fog-covered burial ground, the standard array of belligerent adolescents, and one helluva of a beastie. With its solid storytelling and attention to art design and detail, what we wind up with is an above average attempt at transcending the Greed Decade's fast, cheap, and cheesy fright ideals.
It's impossible to say enough good things about Henriksen. He owns every aspect of this film, his emotional depth providing the sorrow, the rage, and the regret that comes with his actions. Though many consider him a sultan of schlock, the actor actually got his start in high profile fare such as Dog Day Afternoon, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and The Right Stuff. Yet thanks to his work with James Cameron (where, oddly enough, he met Winston), he has become synonymous with movie macabre -- and that really doesn't do him justice. As Ed Harley, Henriksen comes off as poor, proud, and protective of what he has. When his only child is taken from him, his reaction is so nuanced and natural that we'd buy any response -- including a 10-foot-tall terror sprung straight from his id.