Mark A. Gunnells is the author of Asylum through The Zombie Feed, as well as Ghosts in the Attic through Crossroad Press and Bad Moon Books. He's been writing since the tender age of 10. His first published book was titled A Laymon Kind of Night, which should give you a clue as to the kind of horror he likes. Here is Mark's guest post with a testimonial to Sam Winston and a hidden gem of horror. After reading it, pay a visit to his blog: Along this path so darkly.
by Mark A. Gunnells
Most remember Stan Winston as a celebrated special effects wizard that worked on such classics as The Terminator, Aliens, Predator 2, Jurassic Park, and most recently Avatar. He won four Oscars in his career for his effects and makeup work. However, in the late 80s Winston also turned his talent toward directing, helming atmospheric, southern-flavored creature feature Pumpkinhead.
The film was a tale of grief and vengeance and ultimately regret and sacrifice. Upon its initial release, Pumpkinhead was not a financial success and was largely ignored by the critics. Due in part to the movie’s poor performance, a full-fledged directing career wasn’t in the cards for Winston.
Which is a real shame, in my opinion, because Pumpkinhead showed that Winston had a sure hand when in the directing chair and knew how to craft a creepy and effective horror film.
Pumpkinhead introduces us to Ed Harley and his small boy Billy, and in just a few short scenes of them getting ready for the day and opening Ed’s roadside store, the characters are firmly established and the love between the two of them made clear. Then along comes a band of rowdy teenagers and a tragic accident. The teen characters I also found to be unusually well drawn. They weren’t wholly good or wholly bad, but like real people they had shades of both. They made poor decisions, they felt regret and fear. However, none of that could change the consequences of what they had done.
When Ed Harley decides to seek retribution against the teens, the movie could easily have devolved into a straightforward revenge tale. Obnoxious teens offed one by one while the wronged party takes satisfaction in their demises. However, the script here was smarter and more complex than that. Instead, Harley soon comes to realize the error of his actions and feels genuine remorse for what he has done and ends up trying to save the very people he himself condemned in his grief.
It is this turn that I think truly elevates the film from others of its type. It adds a layer of depth that sometimes is missing from horror films. It is a movie that makes the audience think about how far we might be willing to go to avenge a wrong, and at what point vengeance just becomes cruelty. It also isn’t a movie about sides, about good versus evil, right verses wrong. The questions raised here are more complicated than that.
Pumpkinhead is full of solid performances but it is genre-favorite Lance Henriksen as Ed Harley that really steals the show. His performance is quiet, not showy, full of subtle nuance and all the more powerful because of it. We feel his love for his son, we feel his heartbreak after the tragedy and share his need to lash out, but we also feel his horror and guilt when we realize what his pain has let loose. It’s a stellar performance, perhaps one of Henriksen’s best.
The practical creature effects are solid and effective, and the lightning of much of the film really enhances the story. For a movie shot on such a small budget, it looks just great. It is both scary and thought-provoking, a rare mix.
For all these reasons, despite its initial box office disappointment, Pumpkinhead has become something of a cult classic over the years, spawning three inferior sequels. The film has developed a real appreciation among genre fans. It is my hope that future generations of horror fans will discover this movie, respect for it growing so that its memory remains alive in the genre.
If you have never seen Pumpkinhead, or even if you have, this Halloween would be the perfect time to find a copy and give it a watch.