When he was a little boy, Ed Harley saw a man being horribly slaughtered by a monster. Ed grew up to be a simple man, content to run his roadside grocery store and raise his young son. One day, some city folk showed up at Ed's grocery store and decided to drink beer and go dirt biking in the hills nearby. One of the city folk accidentally ran over Ed's son, who died not much later. Heartbroken and furious, Ed remembered the monster and the stories about it - how a wronged man could summon it to get vengeance. He went to the old witch who lived deep in the darkest part of the woods because she was said to be the one who could summon the monster. Summon it she did, and vengeance Ed Harley got, but the price was high, indeed.
Pumpkinhead is, for my money, one of the best monster movies around and also one of the best dark fables you're likely to see. It works in great measure because it's so focused. This is a movie about a demon meting out brutal revenge against people who have done its summoner wrong. Period. That's it. There's just enough time spent to introduce the characters and set up the plot, then it's monster time, baby! As soon as Pumpkinhead is summoned forth from Hell, the movie sticks by his side until the end, rarely cutting away.
This is one of those monster movies that's ballsy enough to make the monster the main character, and I can't think of another one that succeeds at it so well. Pumpkinhead completely dominates the movie from the moment he first stands up inside the old witch's cabin. From a technical perspective, the monster costume is absolutely top-notch, one of the best ever. It has a combination of brilliant design, mobility, and expressiveness that only the Predator (another Stan Winston creation!) can match. Tom Woodruff, the man inside the costume, makes Pumpkinhead move with the perfect combination of predatory grace and inhuman power. Stan Winston, in his directorial debut, knows how to film Pumpkinhead to maximum effect. He ought to, as he also created and built the costume. The script also gives Pumpkinhead by far more attention than any of the human cast, even nominal protagonist Ed Harley. Whereas most low-budget films of this type would be content to have their monster do nothing but drool and rip apart teenagers, Pumpkinhead goes out of its way to do a hell of a lot of character building. Pumpkinhead is not mindless. He's got quite a mind on him, a twisted, demented, horrible mind. He enjoys his job, too ... and how! He draws out each kill, making sure as many of the remaining targets as possible are on hand to witness it. He wants to make sure they know this is going to happen to them, too, and there's not a damn thing they can do about it. He personalizes his attacks, such as when he carves a crucifix into one girl's head to mock her belief that God would save her. He's likes to lay traps whereby he grants his victims a means of escape, just so he can pull the rug out from under them and crush their hopes. (Personally, I also get a kick out his facial expression when someone tries to burn him - a demon from Hell - to death.)
Of course, this makes Pumpkinhead a movie where the script and director heap lavish attention on their monster while virtually ignoring the human cast. It works here, though. In terms of the story, it's completely unimportant who the kids are, because the movie's not about them. Even Ed Harley is less a character than a plot device for unleashing a monster and for delivering the moral to the fable. No, this is a tale about revenge, so it's only fitting that the physical embodiment of revenge should hold center stage throughout.
The only other character worthy of the name is the old witch who summons Pumpkinhead. Similar to the way Stan Winston treats his monster, he makes sure to film the witch in as visually stunning a manner as possible, the script gives her the best dialogue of all the speaking parts, and her actress is as perfectly cast as Tom Woodruff is for Pumpkinhead. The scenes at her shack are where the dark fable aspect of the movie comes into play. We've obviously stepped out of normal reality whenever we're at her shack. One gets the idea that this isn't a place you could ever find unless you were trying your damndest to do so ... perhaps because it doesn't really exist in the first place. Her abode is a place where a man's hatred can literally become a monster that destroys him and everything he holds dear.
Pumpkinhead isn't a perfect movie but it comes pretty darn close. As far as pure monster movies go, only Predator and Tremors are significantly better. This is a great movie for the Halloween season, so make an effort to see it if you haven't already. And if you have seen it, watch it again!