It All Happens In The Dark

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If you go into the woods today, you’re sure of a big surprise.

Pumpkinhead (1988)

This movie scared the fuck out of me when I was a kid and I have not watched it since. Now, all these years later, finally tackling it again, I can tell you that the opening scenes are effective enough to give me that same old tightening of the chest, that same old feeling of dread.

This is one effective little flick. It is the directorial debut of special effects guru Stan Winston – who did stellar work on The Thing, The Terminator films, Aliens, Edward Scissorhands and Jurassic Park. The film opens with a young boy in his home in the woods with his mother and father at night – a man comes to the door, pounding and begging for help but Ed’s father says he cannot let the man in. Ed watches from his bedroom window as some sort of creature drags the man away, killing him.

Present day, the young boy had grown into Lance Henriksen. (Yay, I love him.) The man’s name is Ed Harley and he has a young son named Billy (Matthew Hurley). Ed runs a ramshackle little general store along the highway – and on this morning a group of teenagers on their way to a friend’s cabin stop by. While the rest of the group buys supplies, Joel (John D’Aquino) and his brother Steve (Joel Hoffman) get on their dirt bikes and start tearing up the scenery. Billy’s dog provoked by all the noise, runs after the dirt bikes and Billy follows him. Steve just avoids hitting Billy, but Joel isn’t so lucky and runs him over. Joel has been drinking, and isn’t about to stick around and face the consequences. Ed has run home to fetch some feed he forgot to bring to the store, while this all went down and Steve tells his friends to go to the cabin and call for help, while he stays behind to wait for Ed. When Chris (Jeff East) and Tracey (Cynthia Bain) arrive at the cabin, Joel prevents them from using the phone by ripping the cord out of the wall. Joel was in an accident a few months ago and a girl was hurt and now he is on probation and has no interest in informing the police of his latest collison. He locks Chris and Tracey in a closet.

When Billy dies, Ed seeks out Haggis, an ancient mountain witch, but she tells him it is outside of her powers to raise the dead. Ed tells her about the thing he saw as a child, he says he heard she was responsible for it, that she could call this thing forth in a man’s name that had been wronged and the man would be avenged. She warns him that what he is asking for has a powerful price. She tells him to go to an old graveyard deep in the woods -the thing he is looking for is in there. He needs to dig it up and bring it back to her. He finds the graveyard which seems to resemble an old pumpkin patch more than a cemetery, and unearths the creature.

Haggis tells Ed that for each of man’s evils a special demon exists – the one he has brought her is vengeance. She uses blood from Ed and Billy to resurrect it, and boy is it ugly. Pumpkinhead is born.

And he doesn’t waste any time tracking down the kids at the cabin, and before long only Joel and Tracey and Chris are left alive. Fleeing from the creature, they try to find someone who will help them, but no one will let them into their homes, and one man defending his property tells them that they are “marked.” Ed seems to have some kind of psychic link with the creature, and when it kills he sees the deaths through Pumpkinhead’s eyes. He just can’t stomach it and returns to Haggis, asking her to call it off. She tells him it will pass, to let it finish – there is nothing she can do, it is has to run its course.

I liked this a lot. A viewing now isn’t as traumatic as it was when I was younger, but it still packs a punch. The creature effects are topnotch (and I loved the sounds they used when Pumpkinhead appears – like a cross between a rattlesnack and a symphony of screaming insects). The script is tight, and the characters aren’t written as total stereotypes – you actually care about them, and when Joel makes his eleventh hour return to humanity, it rings true. I especially enjoyed Pumpkinhead’s strange relationship with religion – one of the girls at the cabin he claims – Maggie (Kerry Remsen) wears a cross and before Pumpkinhead kills her, he uses his talons to cut the symbol into her forehead. Later when he comes across a crucifix in an old church, he hold it up and studies it before smashing the hell out of it. Ed Harley’s journey here is truly harrowing – the death of his son, his quest for revenge, the beginnings of his transformation into something resembling the creature itself, his discovery that he cannot end it without ending his own life – there is a lot going on here besides just a monster in the woods going after some kids.

This still holds up very well today. It was a lot better than I was expecting it to be, and definitely something I’d watch again. B

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