'Pumpkinhead' Has Brains

The premise of an unstoppable monster stalking a frantic group of people is hardly unique, but in a little-noticed 1988 horror film, this stale story gets an infusion of imagination and thoughtfulness.

Despite a silly title that probably sent it to an early box office grave, "Pumpkinhead" is a well-executed film in a genre that is littered with dimwitted slasher flicks.

In the movie, backwoodsman Ed Harley's son, Billy, is accidentally killed by a dirt biker. Anguished and enraged over the loss of his only family, Harley seeks out a witch to exact his revenge, a decision he soon comes to regret. With Harley's help, the witch resurrects a merciless, long-taloned demon to avenge his son's death.

What makes this film a good one is that the characters are believable and, for the most part, likable. Harley is a kind and loving father who loses himself in grief and anger. Although he calls upon satanic forces to kill others, he is as much a victim as those he seeks to destroy. And although the dirt biker is a self-absorbed and irresponsible clod, his friends are sympathetic and totally undeserving of the vengeance aimed at them.

Lance Henriksen, who played the helpful android, Bishop, in "Aliens," is excellent as Harley. Henriksen's expressions often convey Harley's thoughts better than the dialogue does--whether it's genuine affection for Billy or a look that could kill.

Jeff East, who played the young Clark Kent in the original "Superman" movie, leads the out-of-towners in their desperate attempts to flee.

The cinematography is colorful and underscores the action. Hellish, red-orange tones saturate scenes in which Harley visits the witch, and cold, blue tones smother the hunted characters as they attempt to escape the unforgiving demon.

"Pumpkinhead" (1988), directed by Stan Winston, 90 minutes. Rated R. Color.

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