Pumpkinhead Blu-ray Review
Deliciously dark fun, and surprisingly emotional too
What is Pumpkinhead?
As an 80’s semi-classic creature-feature, Pumpkinhead enjoys a cosy cult appeal that remains undiminished today.When his son is killed by dirt-bikers, Lance Henriksen’s rustic redneck seeks the assistance of a rural witch in order to get some payback. But this fable of demonic revenge and retribution insists that hard justice demands a high price. Thus, when she summons up the titular, and nostalgically iconic beast to hunt down the guilty, nobody gets away unscathed. The directorial debut of FX wunderkind Stan Winston, this 1988 shocker is suitably stylish, eerily mythical and thoroughly entertaining. The monster, itself, is a joyous combination of then state-of-the-art animatronics and the traditional man-in-a-suit, and makes for a wonderfully rendered cinematic menace.The story is beautiful in its simplicity, drenched in redolent atmosphere, gleefully dark and mean-spirited and contains a handful of spellbinding moments. But, beyond a barnstorming performance from Henriksen, who absorbs the character of the bereaved father with customary intensity and magnetism, and a truly memorable pumpkin-patch hag-witch, the film suffers from pacing issues, hackneyed teen protagonists, highly repetitive and disappointing kills and a remarkably swift series of moral turnarounds bestowing it a somewhat choppy momentum that doesn’t quite deliver on such a spine-tingling premise.
Although I admire how Winston remained economical with the plot and set-pieces, without sacrificing any artistic flourish, I wish the film had more blood and spit to bolster its unearthly rampage. Over much too quickly, Pumpkinhead is still deliciously dark fun, and surprisingly emotional too.
Does the Pumpkinhead Blu-ray look good?Scream Factory's Blu-ray unearths Pumpkinhead from his dank patch of unhallowed swamp and, thankfully, refuses to scrub him down. His first filmic outing looks, therefore, appropriately gritty, grimy, grizzled and rough round the edges. In other words, it looks authentic. Grain is in abundance and, for the most part, it appears properly resolved – no clumping, no floating about and no reduction. There is a spike in this regard to certain shots, of course. Similar to when viewing an old Harryhausen stop-motion classic, certain FX shots become coarser and of noticeably grubbier quality. But these are few and far between and are, crucially, all part and parcel of the original process. Fuzzy edges are also down to the source… and, hey, at least they haven’t been artificially sharpened.
The AVC transfer boasts a 1.85:1 frame that benefits far more than ever before from the atmospheric lighting and photography of Bojan Bazelli. The film is bathed in hazy yellow sunshine for the opening act in which we get to know Ed and young Billy Harley, and the kids from the city. Then it turns rancid with sick orange candlelight and a grubby pumpkin veneer as the vengeful father seeks the aid of old Haggis, the witch. Once given life and sent on his mission, the demon’s presence then sees to it that the image is swathed in shadows, shot through with moody midnight blues and waspish lightning streaks heralding each new appearance and atrocity.
The transfer benefits far more than ever before from the atmospheric lighting and photography
The image throughout a good two thirds of the film is dark and murky, but blacks, the truest blacks are very satisfying and deep. They don’t swamp the picture and lose elements within, and they don’t appear washed-out and insipid. Detail within such low-lit environments as witchy cabins and decrepit church ruins isn’t exactly acute, but there is definitely more information revealed in the darker areas than home video has previously been able to cater for. Contrast has its work cut out, but it does the job well. Filters play their part (the prologue scene, for example), but there is clear enough separation between darker patches and lit areas to enable the film to present a consistent mood and ambience.
Lightning is very simply produced – merely silver-white injections that are painted with a very theatrical flair. Colour is in short supply. This is deliberate, though. The film’s aesthetic is muted and blurred for tonal distinction – night and day, darkness and desperation – and it looks earthy and dusty, with no room for vibrancy or comic-book saturation. Skin tones are pure weather-beaten leather. Foliage looks dank and squalid. The scarcity of blood made all the more apparent by its grubbiness. The dearth of vivid primaries is consistent throughout.
This isn’t the most intricately detailed of transfers, but then the source was hardly that intimate, either. Objectivity is rendered with broad brush strokes, the finite never closely resolved. But, even so, this does not thwart a hearty upgrade in clarity and texture. Faces, eyes and hair – especially the wispy strands that float like spider-web from Haggis’ gnarled noggin and the twisted whiskers that protrude from her face – all appear better defined. The pattern on a pair of tiger-stripe camo pants is also much more cleanly reproduced. This isn’t a film for carnage-buffs, so don’t anticipate anatomically gratuitous studies of gory wounds, but you can certainly appreciate the finer details on Pumpkinhead’s elongated and membranous physique. This becomes clearer when the monster’s face begins to take on a more “personified” appearance.
Depth is not all that rewarding, I’m afraid. The film has always looked quite flat, and the step up to high-definition can do little to alter that. Yet, there is greater spatiality afforded interiors of cabins and ruins. The terrific reveal of Ed Harley atop the pumpkin burial-mound now looks much, much better too, the various elements – mist, overhanging branches, etc – combining to give the place a much spookier visual aura.
With print damage kept to a minimum – merely a small speckle here and a microscopic pop there – and no pesky DNR, Pumpkinhead has a fine and accurate presentation on this US released Blu-ray. It can never look stellar… and any attempts to make it look that way would be ruinous and wrong. Despite Scream Factory’s recent release of The Legend of Hell House being region-free, their disc for Pumpkinhead is very strictly region A.
How does Pumpkinhead on Blu-ray sound?Those who don’t really expect too much from the audio of a low-budget, radar-dodging 80’s chiller-thriller may be pleasantly surprised by either of the DTS-HD MA tracks discovered here. With both 2.0 and 5.1 options, you can have your pick of either a fine presentation of the original stereo mix, or a nicely opened-up and more deeply embellished approach to the thundery vengeance of the beast. Both work just fine with crisp, clear dialogue – which is especially praiseworthy when it comes to the thick, honey ‘n’ moonshine smothered tonsils of Florence Schauffler, who plays the witch-crone, Haggis, John Carpenter regular George Buck Flower, who plays Ed Harley’s patriarchal neighbour, and the tooth-chipped drawl of Henriksen’s desperately doomed avenger.
Bass elements don’t exactly slam into your rib-cage, but the lower-end makes an appreciable impact, just the same – all of which adds to the various gunshots and the impacts of bodies getting slammed through windows, hurled against tree trunks or dropped on to unyielding boulders from a great height. Smaller details like snapping twigs, buzzing flies, weird bird-calls and the snarly, spittle-filled breathing of the creature also come forth with unimpeded clarity and distinction.
In either track, there is good separation - a pleasing level of movement between channels
In either track, there is good separation - nothing too spectacular, but a pleasing level of movement between channels. The stereo spread is wide and provides ample dynamics. The rear activity is not exactly showboating, but there are some nicely extended effects and the occasional rustling to add to the shuddery feel of a ten-foot nightmare lurking about in the gloom.
Another surprise is the emphasis placed on the music, which plays an integral part in setting us down in the rustic scrublands of Harley, Haggis and their hellspawn helper.
Keeping the vogue for ramshackle Southern Gothic, the score from Richard Stone blends the more typically moody electronics and shivery violins of 80’s horror fare with scratchy fiddles, warbling jaw-irons and scorching guitar to great colloquial effect. There is a heart-breaking theme for the tragic Harleys that definitely brings a lump to the throat, even if it does sound pilfered from Robert O’ Ragland’s score for William Girdler’s Grizzly (1976), but the darker elements of demonic onslaught are fraught with percussive effects and stingers that treat the monster with ghastly respect.
Haggis has a tremendously ominous bass echo for a motif that throbs with skin-crawling power. The audio track brings the score forward with clarity and a fair degree of intensity. The weightier, more aggressive elements are nicely balanced with those of a more melodious and melancholy nature. Overall, this is a fine pair of audio tracks. Nothing outrageous has been done, with even the surround remix sounding agreeably unforced.
Decent extras on the Pumpkinhead disc?Scream deliver yet another goodies-packed disc for fans to relish. And you certainly can’t deny their slavish desire to please even the most die-hard of Pumpkin-Heads out there.
We have an Audio Commentary with Co-Screenwriter Gary Gerani and Creature and FX Creators Tom Woodruff, Jr. and Alec Gillis, and moderated by Scott Spiegel. This is great all-round stuff from the group, who all manage to get their points across vividly and entertainingly.
Then we have the fantastic 6-part Pumpkinhead Unearthed which presents a detailed, incisive and often very amusing and touching account of how the film was born, designed, crafted, shot, acted and received. Numerous participants, cast, crew and creators, appear, leaving no pumpkin un-dug in a full-bore appreciation of what it took to give the story and the monster life during a high-watermark period of genre saturation. These frank and fun interviews (including the great Lance Henriksen, himself) are combined with production photos, clips, and test footage. Brilliant.
Behind the Scenes (7 mins) offers a fair amount of archival footage of the creature being created and tested; whilst the cunningly titled Night of the Demon (16 mins) is an enjoyable interview with Richard Weinman, one of the film's story co-writers.
We get to understand The Redemption of Joel with John D'Aquino (14 mins), which has the actor discussing his character and the rather truncated arc that he undergoes with the unforgiving monster in hot pursuit. Interesting tale about how he and co-star Jeff East (who played the teenage Clark Kent in Donner’s Superman The Movie) got their parts.
The Boy with the Glasses with Matthew Hurley (14.30 mins). The actor reminisces about portraying the angelic, but doomed little Billy and working with Lance Henriksen.
The merchandising angle of such an iconic creature is looked at in Demonic Toys.
Remembering the Monster Kid: A Tribute to Stan Winston runs for almost 50 minutes and is, as you would expect, packed with admiration, praise and anecdotes about the imaginative genius from a smorgasbord of contributors from the industry.
Finally, we have a Stills Gallery and the film’s Theatrical Trailer.
Is the Blu-ray of Pumpkinhead worth buying?Stan Winston’s fan-cherished creature-feature sees one of the most memorable monsters of the 80’s take a bow, and the film is a true showcase for old school FX-wizardry. A simple fable of unwitting Faustian deals done down in the swamp, Pumpkinhead offers up shivers and squeals aplenty, but the best thing about its demented hokum is the poignancy and resonance of Lance Henriksen’s marvellous performance.
Most genre-buffs revere him, of course, but it is remarkable how, even in a whimsical horror folly such as this cinematically neglected cauldron-nugget, he goes above and beyond the call of duty. With just one look of colossal grief and non-negotiable rage combined into a single expression as he cradles his dying son in his arms, he breaks the heart and fills you with utter dread.
The real genius of this film, therefore, is not the creature, as magnificently malevolent as he is, but the memorable melancholy with which Henriksen imbues his tortured character. If this was all it had to offer, I would still recommend Pumpkinhead to anyone with even a passing interest in the genre. But then, even with its rather swift running time and desultory descent into standard stalk ‘n’ slash, Winston’s film has much more to offer in terms of atmosphere, visual style and a dark, demented sense of humour.
Stan Winston’s creature-feature sees one of the most memorable monsters of the 80’s take a bow
Scream Factory go the extra mile and dig up some fascinating features from the haunted swamp grove that deliver a terrifically entertaining and reverential testament to the creation of one of Horror’s Great Beasties. And their transfer is sure to please. Grubby, low-lit and soft it may be, but Pumpkinhead has surely never looked or sounded better.
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