The first reel shows Winston in full command of story, as he moves from an effective opening sequence in which a young Ed Harley watches a massive creature - the personification of vengeance - kill a man who was accused of murdering a young woman, to a now grownup Ed Harley (Lance Henriksen) who has a young son of his own. Unfortunately, a group of young people come by Harley's grocery store, and while Harley runs an errand, one of the hot-dog kids by the name of Joel (John D'Aquino) loses control of his dirt bike and accidentally runs over the bespectacled child, killing him.
And here is where Winston creates believable characters. Joel's instinct is to run because he had been consuming alcohol before his joyride and he is on probation for a previous accident. His younger brother Chris (Jeff East) tries hard to support Joel, but he also pushes him to do the right thing. Joel's girlfriend is Kim (Kimberly Ross), who at one time deeply loved him but now exists under his shadow, afraid of ever openly defying him. Tracy (Cynthia Bain) is a woman of action who simply does not have the strength to contend with Joel, and her counterpart is Steve (Joel Hoffman), who does have the strength to overcome Joel but whose bravery is no match for Joel's treachery. And then there is poor Maggie (Kerry Remsen), who breaks down when the Harley boy dies (much like Barbara does in Night Of The Living Dead). These are multifaceted characters that are not drawn with broad strokes and clichés, but rather as believable people who make mistakes.
Henriksen also turns in an excellent performance as he goes from kind father to vengeful monster to rational man. In the end, Ed Harley realizes that vengeance is blind, relentless in its hunger for death - guilt does not matter, only justice. Which brings us to the title character, which was originally inspired by a poem by Ed Justin. Pumpkinhead is a demon representing vengeance (indeed, the film at one time was titled Vengeance: The Demon). As the film progresses, the demon begins to assume the facial characteristics of Harley, whereas Harley succumbs to the ugliness that is at the very essence of vengeance. These transformations are far from subtle, but it is interesting to note how few critics actually noted them in their reviews.
The witch who brings Pumpkinhead to life is Haggis (Florence Schauffler) and she describes the demon as follows: "For each of man's evils a special demon exists. You're looking at vengeance. Cruel, devious, pure as venom vengeance." Once the stage is set for vengeance to be carried out, however, the film suddenly begins to falter. All of a sudden, the carefully crafted characters begin to do the typical stupid things expected of characters in a horror film. For example, characters split up so that they can be killed in really elaborate ways. In another classic boner, Joel approaches a fallen Pumpkinhead, and thinking the monster is dead, he prods and pokes at it, only to be dispatched by a revived creature moments later.
Moreover, the titular creature goes from blind wrath to a typical 'slasher' monster (such as Freddy Krueger in A Nightmare On Elm Street). At one point, Pumpkinhead removes the chain from a motorcycle and dangles it in front of a victim. This type of behaviour is not in keeping with a previous slaying, in which the monster toys with its victim much like a cat would play with its prey.
Despite these flaws, Pumpkinhead remains a solid horror film that quickly establishes mood, creates some genuinely creepy environments, and contains one of the best witches and monsters ever created. If you can overlook some of the clichéd horror-movie window dressing, then you will definitely enjoy this.
DVD extras: anamorphic widescreen presentation with Dolby digital sound, star and director filmographies, and the original trailer.