“Each of Man’s Evils:” Personifying Vengeance and the Immediacy of Grief in ‘Pumpkinhead’

Pumpkinhead was not overly successful when it was first released. It had a hell of a time even making it to the screen. The movie sat for a while after it was completed before being dumped into theaters with absolutely no fanfare. Because of that, what could easily have been a powerhouse horror franchise led to one direct-to-video sequel a few years later in 1994, and then a pair of Sci-Fi Channel sequels in 2006 and 2007. It gained a following on video, people came around to it slowly but surely, to the point that it was covered in Fangoria’s 101 Best Horror Movies You’ve Never Seen. In that respect, it’s amazing that a movie with so little theatrical success could spawn the action figures, comic books, models, and even PC game that Pumpkinhead has spawned. I’m grateful for what we’ve been given and it’s a miracle that most of it exists. But at the same time, the legacy of Pumpkinhead should be more prominent, more obvious, more inarguable because it is, simply put, one of the greatest monster movies ever made.

Pumpkinhead is mostly celebrated for its titular monster, which is unsurprising, because it is truly one of the most striking, inventive creatures ever put to film. Long and spindly, snarling, twisted and impossibly tall, it literally looks like a nightmare plucked directly out of a child’s mind. This is unsurprising, given that the movie was directed by legendary, multiple Oscar winning FX artist Stan Winston, but he actually didn’t have much involvement with the overall design, leaving that instead to proteges Tom Woodruff Jr. and Alec Gillis, who have gone on to be incredibly successful FX titans in their own right. The story is simple. It is, as the tagline says, “a grim fairy tale.” A vengeance parable so simple on paper that it feels right at home among the works of the Brothers Grimm, yet set in the heart of the rural American South. These things partnered with a stellar performance from Lance Henriksen make it a true standout of its era. 

But where the success of Pumpkinhead ultimately lies, for me, anyway, is not in its vengeance parable or unique monster, but its portrayal of that monster and its depiction of vengeance, and especially the way those things play off of each other and are ultimately intertwined. This is a deep south fairy tale about a rural man blaming city kids for the accidental death of his son and calling upon the forces of darkness to take vengeance in his name. It’s also fundamentally a film about grief. Not only that, it’s about the immediacy of grief, the numbness and white-hot rage that come before you can even think about how to live with what you’ve lost. And, in that respect, is about what a monster grief can be, in that freshest, most hate-filled, raw form. 

As the old witch Haggis states, “for each of man’s evils, a special demon exists.” Pumpkinhead is simply a nickname given to the demonic embodiment of vengeance. The way the monster functions is illuminating by itself. It must be brought to life both by the blood of the victim and the blood of the person seeking vengeance. The last person who summoned it, though we don’t learn that until the end, becomes the seed from which the next Pumpkinhead will grow. That’s why the demon has an almost mummified appearance, because it is literally a demonic being stretching out a human skin. At the end of the film, Henriksen’s vengeful protagonist Ed Harley becomes the shriveled host for the next Pumpkinhead, as the fallen demon burns away into nothingness. It’s perfectly cyclical. Like every good backwoods story told and retold over time, it has no real beginning or end. 

Given that nature, the marriage between the one who summons the demon and the demon itself, it’s interesting to look at how these themes of grief and vengeance are portrayed, particularly in the relationship between man and monster. In some ways, they’re very obvious, but in other ways, they really aren’t. First and foremost, there’s the most direct interpretation, which is that Harley is forced to feel everything that the demon does. Every act of vengeance he called upon, he must feel exactly what it’s like for the victim. He comes around to realizing the error of his ways pretty quick, and I think the fact that he sees and feels what Pumpkinhead is doing is only a part of that. It is, like I said, the immediacy of grief. Ed Harley is not a man who would have summoned a demon to kill the people who accidentally ran over his child if he had even a day to think it over. But this isn’t the story of the next day, or the next week, or the next year. This is about a man who’s son died today and he is hollowed out and mad as hell about it. 

That is the kind of grief and rage and pain that Pumpkinhead is a manifestation of. That’s raw grief in its most vulnerable form, distilled from any other element of humanity that might otherwise accompany it. When you look at Pumpkinhead’s actions throughout the movie, at the way the demon is portrayed, that’s incredibly interesting. It’s also a testament to the FX crew and to Tom Woodruff’s performance in the creature suit, as well, because this monster isn’t just a great design, it’s full of personality. This is evident right from when it first hits the cabin. The shot of the demon passing by the window is probably the scariest in the film, but it’s just a fleeting glimpse. What comes next is where it really gets interesting, because there you see Pumpkinhead genuinely tormenting the people inside that cabin. These kids are trapped, they’re all right there, and he could kill them in moments if he really wanted to, but that’s not what vengeance demands. Vengeance isn’t about a quick and merciful death. So Pumpkinhead lures them out, and there’s so much revealed in the little things that he does. Like leaving Steve’s bloody headband in the trees for his girlfriend and brother to find. Turning Maggie’s faith against her by carving a cross into her forehead. It presses her face up against the window, so that everyone inside is forced to watch her struggle, just to twist the knife and build the fear. This is not simply a rampaging monster, there is something calculated and, more than that, gleeful in what it is doing. 

Given that the demon is a manifestation of Harley’s own vengeance, that is fascinating. Because that means that grief, ripped down to its essence, even in the midst of that pain and rage, is enjoying itself. That when you have lost something you loved so much, so recently that you can’t even think straight, and when you lash out on those you feel are responsible, that in addition to the perceived justification, to the eye-for-an-eye mentality that led you to that point, for the need to just make someone pay for what has happened, that there is also an element of joy in that destruction. And that, to me, is an absolutely terrifying thought.

Pumpkinhead’s almost playfully evil personality persists throughout the movie as well. In one scene, the teens discover their cars destroyed with one dirt bike still standing in perfect condition. This is an obvious trap, but in addition to that, Pumpkinhead stands behind poor Chris as he tries to start the bike, dangling the removed chain from his hand to taunt the boy even further. Later, during the film’s climax, Bunt Wallace is hiding from Pumpkinhead in the closet, and the monster kind of looks around, turning toward the sound of the dog hiding elsewhere in the room, before lunging forward to reveal that he knew exactly where Bunt was hiding the whole time. There’s no practical reason for that, not if the demon wants to be direct in its approach. But moments like these cement that Pumpkinhead is a very different entity from something like the Terminator. It might have its mission and it might have its targets, but it is going to absolutely revel in the fear that it creates. 

Then there are scenes that could be read a couple of different ways, particularly when Pumpkinhead has a meltdown at the abandoned church. This is the only time we really see the demon throw a tantrum, and it looks to be one completely removed from his mission. In fact, Pumpkinhead’s rage overtakes him so much that it works against him, allowing Tracy, Chris and Bunt to escape when he had them cornered. This appears to be the one scene where the demon in Pumpkinhead, that hellish spark of its existence, comes to the surface for just a moment and completely overrides the personification of Harley’s vengeance that had been driving it up to that point. Like a dog barking at a cat, it’s just instinctual. That hatred for Christian imagery overtakes it to the extreme that for just that little bit of time, it cannot function, cannot resume its mission until it destroys the cross. That’s probably the most common reading of that scene. On the other hand, one could say that it isn’t at all removed from the personification of Harley’s rage and grief. As someone who had just lost his son that afternoon in an utterly gruesome, unfair accident, it does not seem like much of a stretch at all to suggest that that is Harley’s own resentment toward God taking over in that moment.

The ending of Pumpkinhead might be very on the nose, but in a story this direct with themes this explicit, that doesn’t make it any less perfect. Ed Harley literally needs to face his demon, after it becomes clear that the only thing that can hurt Pumpkinhead is hurting Harley himself. The monster cannot live without the man, and vice versa. As they close in on each other at the end, Harley’s features become more demonic while Pumpkinhead’s grow more human, and each begins to resemble the other more and more. These FX should have been nearly impossible to pull off, putting Lance Henriksen’s face on an eight-foot demon should have been laughable, but it really works. And even the ending is already a sour note as the only way to free himself from the monster is Harley’s own death—and after that, he’s still not free, as he instead begins the cycle anew. Pumpkinhead is all of that rage and pain personified, completely indulging those feelings devoid of any notion of empathy, so when Harley seeks to put a stop to what he has set in motion, he puts aside those feelings that Pumpkinhead embodies. He turns away from that rage, even when it’s a clear struggle, as evidenced when Tracy tries to apologize to him toward the end, but he does. He shuts the door on those raw feelings that drove him to the witch’s cabin in the first place, instead focusing solely on empathy, on seeking to right a wrong that is his doing and his responsibility. And just like Pumpkinhead, he does not survive. 

The ending doesn’t just suggest (if not overtly state) that man cannot exist without monster, but that these clearly defined sets of emotions cannot exist without the other. Which is a stark, unsettling, but absolutely endearing notion to end on. More than that, it is absurdly deep for a late ‘80s movie about a bloodthirsty backwoods demon. For that, I am eternally grateful. It is astonishing that these themes are presented and these questions are raised in Pumpkinhead, of all movies, but at the same time, I’m so happy about that. These themes aren’t just a part of this late night creature feature, they’re its backbone. And that, to me, is why it stills stands (and hopefully will only continue to do so) as one of the all-time greats.

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