Effects wiz Stan Winston's memorable directorial debut PUMPKINHEAD hits Blu-ray in a special edition package courtesy of Shout! Factory's Scream Factory line.
Country general store owner Ed Harley (Lance Henriksen, ALIENS) has never forgotten the nightmarish glimpse he got of Pumpkinhead, a demon that can be conjured when one man wrongs another. When his young son Billy (Matthew Hurley, CHECKING OUT) is killed in an accident by dirt-bike racing city kids, Ed seeks out backwoods witch Haggis (Florence Schauffler, PROBLEM CHILD) to conjure up the demon to wreak vengeance upon the kids: alpha male Joel (John DiAquino, SLIPPING INTO DARKNESS) and his long-suffering girlfriend Kim (Kimberly Ross, THE LAST STARFIGHTER), Joel's younger brother Steve (Joel Hoffman, SLUMBER PARTY MASSACRE II) and his fragile girlfriend Maggie (Kerry Remsen, GHOULIES II), and all-around nice guy Chris (Jeff East, DEADLY BLESSING) and his resilient main squeeze Tracey (Cynthia Bain, SPONTANEOUS COMBUSTION). Ed's vengeance comes at a high price and he psychically experiences the murders of the kids. Haggis tells him the demon cannot rest until the revenge has run its course, so Ed realizes he must send the demon back to hell himself.
The directorial debut of special effects artist Stan Winston, PUMPKINHEAD was mounted in the wake of his acclaimed work on THE TERMINATOR, PREDATOR, and ALIENS, but on a significantly smaller budget. Winston's film – based on a folksy poem by film/TV merchandising licensing executive Ed Justin – took the angle of a dark fairytale built around a creature designed by Winston's crew (including Alec Gillis and Tom Woodruff Jr., who would soon branch off to their own studio Amalgamated Dynamics) while he focused solely on directing. Picked up by Dino de Laurentis, its original Halloween theatrical release was scuttled by the company's bankruptcy and United Artists would end up dumping the film onto screens while focusing all of their advertising energy on CHILD'S PLAY. While Pumpkinhead himself is an impressive creation (with a far more expressive face than in the sequels), the film is more successful in its realizing of the otherworldly backwoods setting – due to the production design of Cynthia Kay Charette (A WHISPER TO A SCREAM) and the gorgeous color gel photography of Bojan Bazelli (THE RING) – than in its storytelling.
The story's focus is on Henriksen's Harley, but we are shortchanged a compelling account of his regret. The young city kids are shallowly rendered, and Joel owning up to his actions seems to have absolutely no bearing on the plot except to redeem him in the eyes of his friends and the audience; as such, the choice of kids in the final showdown with Pumpkinhead seems arbitrary other than they are nicer than the others (the script does however attempt to convey that all of the characters have a conscience even if they do not act nobly). In addition to Schauffler's desiccated witch, other standouts include the ubiquitous George "Buck" Flower (THEY LIVE) as Wallace, the wise patriarch of a brood of hill people, and Brian Bremer (SOCIETY) as the boy who is as eager to help the kids as he is to see Pumpkinhead in the flesh. THE BIG BANG THEORY's Mayim Bialik appears briefly as one of the Wallace brood, and THE LOST BOYS' Chance Michael Corbitt plays Harley as a child in the opening flashback (which also features HALLOWEEN II's Michael Myers performer Dick Warlock, who also served as the film's stunt coordinator).
Released theatrically by United Artists, PUMPKINHEAD's home video history has always been a part of MGM from its original VHS release to the first DVD edition in 2000 in a barebones fullscreen transfer (followed by one with a different cover the following year). A special edition DVD followed in 2008 with an anamorphic widescreen transfer, audio commentary, and some new featurettes. Scream Factory's 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 1.85:1 widescreen Blu-ray replicates that earlier package with the addition of some new extras. Opening with both the new MGM logo and the original black and red MGM/UA Communications logo and is a fairly pleasing presentation (I haven't seen the 2008 special edition, but I would reckon that the Blu-ray is derived from the same master). The early daylight exteriors shots have a warm glow to them that fades as we follow Henriksen from home to the shantytown and farther into the backwoods to the witch's swampland cabin. When I saw it on tape, I actually thought the smeariness of the blue gels in the night shots lent itself to the otherworldly feel, but here they are rendered without distortion and the shafts of light during burnt-out church scene are more clearly delineated against the background blues. Audio options include the original Ultra-Stereo track in DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 as well as a lossless 5.1 upmix that spreads out the environmental sounds a bit (including those that precede Pumpkinhead's onscreen appearances). Optional English SDH subtitles are also available.
Creature effects creators Tom Woodruff Jr. and Alec Gillis had previously appeared in a featurette for LEVIATHAN sharing their experiences on the project under Winston, and appear here on a commentary track with co-screenwriter Gary Gerani. They start off discussing the film's origins in the Ed Justin poem and the distributor wanting to change the title to VENGEANCE: THE DEMON (presumably PUMPKINHEAD would have translated awkwardly in foreign territories). Gerani mentions his "dark fairytale" approach and his love for Mario Bava movies, the Faustian elements of the story, and a wisely cut introductory scene for the young characters. Gillis and Woodruff discuss the details of the shoot, including building two false teeth at Henriksen's request to suggest his rural background, how the production design augmented real locations (including the same Topanga Canyon cabin used in FRIDAY THE 13TH IV), how some of the creature effects were based on unused concepts for PREDATOR, and Winston's direction (including the shot of the monster that impressed James Cameron at an early screening). At one point, Woodruff – who wore the creature suit – mentions that the viewer can see that he can be seen wearing sneakers in the open matte versions (and also points out one hilarious shot in the widescreen version here where they can be seen). Spiegel conveys his affection for the movie – pointing out that it could have been a backwoods revenge film even without a monster – but also prompts the commentators for additional anecdotes.
"PUMPKINHEAD Unearthed" (63:59) is a six-part documentary featurette originally included on the DVD special edition. In the first section, Gerani discusses the origin of the project in the 1970s as a planned film called ARMAGEDDON using a Don Post CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON mask for the monster. His late screenwriting partner Mark Carducci would later pitch the project to producer Billy Blake (RHINESTONE) who tied it into the poem Ed Justin wrote for his grandchildren. Co-producer Howard Smith (RELENTLESS) got Stan Winston involved initially in doing a rendering of the creature. Gerani admits that Carducci was more involved with Winston on the shoot, and that he had been brought on to co-write the feature script because of his involvement in the original project. In the second segment, actors Cynthia Bain, Kerry Remsen, Brian Bremer, and Schauffler discuss their experiences on the shoot (with mention of actress Kimberly Ross' early death from cancer). Henriksen gets a section of the documentary to himself, discussing how he gathered his own clothing, accessories, and props as part of developing his character, working with child actor Hurley, and his habit of getting stuck in character during a shoot. Gillis, Woodruff, Shannon Shea (LEVIATHAN), and mechanical effects supervisor Richard Landon (INVADERS FROM MARS) discuss the construction of the creature as well as their memories of Winston. Production designer Cynthia Charette recalls PUMPKINHEAD as her first opportunity to actually design a film rather than art direct it, and recalls her research in shantytowns and the inspirations offered by the locations. The final segment is a short tribute to the late Winston with talking head snippets by all of the documentary participants.
The behind the scenes (7:11) video segment – portions of which were excerpted in the above featurette – show some of the steps in constructing the Pumpkinhead suit and the animatronic head for the close-ups. For all of the talk on the commentary about using editing and strobe lighting to make the creature more convincing, the creature looks pretty damn impressive on flatly lit VHS video in the lab. "Demonic Toys" (4:50) is an interview with sculptor Jean St. Jean who was commissioned to do a twenty-inch scale model of the creature as for a collector's run. "Remembering the Monster Kid: A Tribute to Stan Winston" (49:11) is a lengthy series of recollections from Woodruff, Gillis, Shea, Bremer, and Henriksen. His crew members recall how they came to work for him, his philosophies about work and family, and his decisiveness as an effects creator and a director. Bremer recalls Winston gathering the cast around at his home to talk about the script before the shoot and getting to know his kids while Henriksen recalls first working with Winston on the Michael Pataki-directed MANSION OF THE DOOMED. It's a bit long but overall an affectionate tribute.
The disc also includes a trio of new interviews. In "Night of the Demon" (16:29), producer Richard Weinman (PAINTED HERO) discusses the unsuccessful attempts to develop a story from the Ed Justin poem (which is the reason he receives story credit), how the long effects pre-production period allowed him to address issues in the script, Stan Winston's screaming match with Dino de Laurentis over an early cut scene, the film's eventual United Artists release, and how his son has warned him off watching the sequels. In "The Redemption of Joel" (14:02), actor John D'Aquino recalls auditioning with Jeff East, playing the villain, his friendships with the cast, as well as his feelings about the film and its afterlife as a cult film. In "The Boy with the Glasses" (14:30), actor Matthew Hurley recalls his parents having reservations about him appearing in a horror movie until they learned that the script had a moral. He recalls his close friendships on set with Henriksen and Bain, and falling asleep at the film's premiere (he did not see the film all the way through until he was a teenager). In addition to a stills gallery and the film's theatrical trailer (1:32), the disc also includes trailers for MOTEL HELL, SQUIRM and WITHOUT WARNING. The disc comes with a slipcase featuring new artwork and a reversible sleeve, although the original artwork is the "Grimm Fairy Tale" image of Remsen being marked by the creature rather than the cooler MGM VHS artwork showcasing the grinning monster itself. Scream Factory's special edition was originally supposed to have also included PUMPKINHEAD 2, which was released on DVD by LionsGate but recently came under the ownership of MGM who created a new high definition master (which has been available on streaming sites like Netflix). The sequel will be released separately on Blu-ray by Scream Factory in October. (Eric Cotenas)
BACK TO REVIEWS