This review contains spoilers.
Keep away from Pumpkinhead,
Unless you’re tired of living
So begins a schoolyard rhyme recited about the titular character during an early scene in VXF artist Stan Winston’s directorial debut, Pumpkinhead. Over the next 70 minutes, the movie proves this adage true, in a way that we may not have foreseen. While Pumpkinhead is indeed capable of striking townsfolk dead with ease and sadistic ingenuity, he is also a port-of-call for those people who have little else left but the thirst for revenge – people who are, in effect, tired of living.
Winston was already well-known for his special effects work before taking on Pumpkinhead, and this may have focused audience attention on those elements of his 1988 creature feature. At its core, however, Pumpkinhead is a film whose themes of unprocessed grief, toxic masculinity and the futility of vengeance are much more impressive than the practical effects that bring the monster to life.
The film follows remote store owner, Ed Harley, played by Lance Henriksen, and his second-in-command, young son Billy. Billy is one of the sweetest children ever featured in a horror movie, a genre that often relegates young actors to the part of ‘creepily stoic all-knowing demon spawn.’ Upon gifting his father a handmade necklace, he stresses ‘you don’t have to wear it all the time.’ This kind of precocious selflessness immediately endears the boy to the audience, while simultaneously sealing his fate. His depiction is so rose-coloured that it feels as if it’s drawn from the memory of the bereaved. Sure enough, by the end of the first act Billy is dead, fallen victim to a group of stereotypically obnoxious city-dwellers. This heart wrenching event signals the beginning of Pumpkinhead’s reign of terror – and Ed’s journey from grief to redemption.
In a move that is reminiscent of Stephen King’s Pet Sematary, Ed immediately takes his son’s body to a local witch in the (delusional) hope that she can resurrect him. However, all she can offer is revenge on the group of friends responsible for Billy’s death, enacted by the sinewy monster Pumpkinhead. Completely consumed by grief and desperate to see real world manifestations of his unbearable distress, Ed summons the creature and it begins to search out the young villains. Importantly, only one of this group of friends was actually responsible for Billy’s death and the others did try in vain to help the boy or at least own up to what had happened but were aggressively silenced by ringleader Joel.
The absence of Billy’s mum, or indeed any other members of the Harley family, is never explained. Instead, the film focuses intently on the men of the story world. The narrative weaves around Ed’s naive attempt to deal with his deep sense of injustice and grief, through violence. This is shown to be a particularly male reaction to trauma, as both Ed and Joel, very different kinds of men, eschew tears or obvious sadness when innocent Billy is killed – a moment that would have been devastating for both men – in favour of self-righteous aggression and the inflicting of further harm on others. For both characters, this appears to be a stalling tactic. Neither of them have processed their grief or sense of culpability and instead keep busy by focusing on their missions – Ed’s to find revenge and Joel’s to evade punishment.
On one level, Pumpkinhead is a film about the ultimately unfulfilling nature of revenge. Neither Ed nor Joel have the emotional resources, as straight American men of the late eighties, to effectively confront the reality of their intensely traumatic experiences. Their parallel pursuit of violence and destruction in the face of overwhelming sorrow ends poorly for both men; Joel finds himself and his friends hunted down by a frightening demon, while Ed begins to meld with Pumpkinhead and eventually becomes the demon himself. The film vividly illustrates that fury and blame can consume you to the point that you lose yourself to thoughts of revenge.
Where Pumpkinhead truly excels thematically, however, is in allowing Tom’s initial desperate embrace of bloody vengeance to come full circle and provide him the opportunity to achieve redemption. When Tom realises that in his inability to find another more fruitful outlet for his pain he has only created more destruction, he sacrifices himself in one last fatherly act of heroism. When the film’s narrative shifts and Tom throws himself full tilt into stopping Pumpkinhead’s attack and saving the young people he had originally damned, we are presented with an alternative expression of masculinity. While it is still a paternalistic and emotionally avoidant expression, it nevertheless represents a touching portrayal of restraint in the face of great tragedy.
Pumpkinhead is the story of a father who discovers that his paternal caretaker instinct is ultimately stronger than his righteous bloodlust. In this way, the film makes a powerful statement about redemptive and fulfilling modes of processing trauma through the lens of Western patriarchal culture.