Growing up in the nineties, when Pumpkinhead was deemed iconic enough to stand alongside Michael Myers and Norman Bates, the film garnered something of a status as one of those great 1980s horror films. Since then, attempts to launch the movie into a franchise have fizzled out and the movie is now more regarded as a minor cult classic of the era, not that well-known outside of the horror fandom. This is something of a shame because "Pumpkinhead" really is that good.
The tagline referred to the movie as a "grim fairy tale." The intentionally fable-tastic tone is used a bit to excuse the script's shortcomings. The story of a group of city kids coming to the country, accidentally killing a poor store owner's son, and the demonic wrath that follows is simple as simple can be. The teens are all, at best, sketchy character types. You've got the Jerk, who's insistence on not taking responsibility for the manslaughter spurns on the carnage. He's got a Little Brother (Moral Alliance: Mostly Good.), a Girlfriend (Spunky, just shy of annoying), Christian Girl, Nice Girl, and Nice Guy. Of those last three, Christian Girl is easily the best performed, while the two heroic teens aren't developed much beyond disagreeing with the other characters. It's not completely unreasonable to say that these kids exist just to start the plot off and to get slaughtered.
Normally, that would hold the movie back, but there are three major factors that make "Pumpkinhead" a genuinely good creature feature. First off, Lance Henriksen is given a real starring role. Ed Harley is the heart of the movie. Lance is such a subtle actor in this. He manages to show so much with just his face, a cock of the eye, an upward angle. Though the early scenes between him and the son are brief, they feel genuine. Henriksen prevents hokey lines about being the luckiest dad in the world from sounding contrived. Next to Bishop, it's probably his best performance. The warm, sweet musical score moves this along.
As good as Henriksen is, the real star of "Pumpkinhead" is the monster himself. The film was directed by the late, great Stan Winston, a creature effect artist who I've always loved. His make-up team, the same team that made iconic characters in "Aliens," "Predator," and "The Monster Squad" are the ones responsible for Pumpkinhead. It's a great design, a creature reptilian and demonic, humanoid but alien. It doesn't quite fall anywhere on the recognizable animal scale. It looks so amazing. This is why CGI can never top practical creature effects: Pumpkinhead looks and moves like a living thing. More then that, it has a personality. The suit actor brings even subtle cues to the monster's personality. He can snarl or have a sinister little smile. He does things like play with a victim's corpse, taunt them, carve a cross in their forehead. This is the same reason why Freddy Krueger and Frankenstein's Monster endure. They are clear, obvious, fully formed personalities. Anyway, I'm rambling but it's fair to say Pumpkinhead is one of my all time favorite movie monsters.
Finally, the film simply looks fantastic, a combination of atmospheric shooting and detail oriented set designs. The color is great. The nights are clear and blue. The days are orange and brown, lived in and rural. Every set is lived in. The witch's hut is super atmospheric. The burnt out church is so friggin' cool. A demon appears in the doorway of a ruined church, fog swirling all around the blue night. Classic. The graveyard where Ed Harley digs up the demon feels like walking into another world, especially the giant burial mound. This is Southern Gothic, Hillbilly Noir. A lot of movies and shows have attempted this but few are as successful.
The fable tone successfully comes through several times. The opening sequence, of a child seeing something horrible he can't really understand, sets the tone fantastically. The ending brings an ironic, mythic quality to the film. "Pumpkinhead" is one of those movies I like more every time I see it. It's easy to pick apart the movie's flaws but it's successful qualities are hugely endearing.