Although it suffers a bit for its slight embrace of cliches and consequent predictableness, in the end, Pumpkinhead overcomes this small flaw with style.
Pumpkinhead is nothing if not atmospheric, and the focus on atmosphere rather than a complex, unprecedented plot underscores its phantasmagoric and allegorical nature. At heart, Pumpkinhead is a morality play about karma told as a dark, surreal fantasy, even though on the surface, it is a gussied-up slasher flick, with a demonic monster in place of a psycho and a more complicated backstory than most slasher flicks have (with the obvious exception of the wacky Michael Myers backstory that developed from Halloween II on -- excluding Halloween III, of course.)
Ed Harley (Lance Henriksen) runs a podunk grocery in a burg with a Sleepy Hollow-style myth about an avenging figure named Pumpkinhead. As a kid, Harley witnessed Pumpkinhead in action, and it has made him ostensibly overprotective of his son. "Big City Kids" come into town, terrorize some dirt mounds with their motorbikes, and cause an accident that marks the start of the action. The kids head to a cabin in the woods (which, with their social interactions and disposition, invites deserved Friday the 13th comparisons), and Harley heads to the town witch--an archetypal scene that is executed as well here as anywhere else we've seen it and is scarier in one minute than anything in The Blair Witch Project, which didn't even have a witch.
But despite the slasher flick, and especially Friday the 13th elements, Pumpkinhead follows a number of tracks that break it out of the derivative line.
One of the more unusual techniques is director Stan Winston's use of lighting. In most films, you don't notice lighting. It is used to make scenes appear natural--scenes that would otherwise be too dark, or too monochrome, or in some other way look odd. That's "normal" lighting theory. In Pumpkinhead, on the other hand, the lighting is far from natural, and instead draws attention to itself, creating an effective, eerie series of backdrops that more often suggest artful stagecraft than filmmaking.
One of the advantages of this technique is that it helps remove you from everyday reality and into a world of supernatural relations where witches can exist, the dead can come back to life, and causality doesn't follow our physical laws. This set-up makes Pumpkinhead a serious, eerie film rather than a cliched, stupid mess, which it could have become in the wrong hands (for instance, imagine if Leprechaun's Mark Davis had the reins).
Henriksen's performance is superb, as is the rest of the cast who play rednecks. The Big City Teens are more shallow and rudimentary, but on the other hand, there's a lot of them and not a lot of time to develop them. Still, the redneck characters who get little screen time all seem deep, with real histories and relationships.
Other commendable performances include the witch, who could have easily been hammy, but who comes across as demented and scary, and the "performance"--actually a combination of Stan Winston's excellent creature effects and acting by Tom Woodruff, Jr. -- of Pumpkinhead himself.
I might be making too many comparisons to justify my high rating of this film, and this might seem sacrilegious to some horror fans, but another series that Pumpkinhead resembles in atmosphere, if not humor (and thankfully so, because the humor wouldn't work so well here) is Evil Dead.
Pumpkinhead is a must see for fans of post-Halloween horror. It may not end up in their top 25 or even 50, but they are sure to enjoy it.