We put together a strange but appropriate double feature of Pumkinhead and Phantasm a few nights ago. I’m a massive Lance Henriksen fan, and if you follow a B actor anywhere at all you know that it’s a shit proposition after awhile. Once you clear the high spots it’s solid work all the way down in increasingly boring and awful films. I’m pleased to report that Pumkinhead is no such thing, and I’m puzzled as to why this one doesn’t get more love from horror fans.
From Bishop to Bohunk
Pumpkinhead follows a man whose murdered son drives him to seek folkloric vengeance. First and foremost, the creature design is absolutely awesome. The strange ballet grace, the elongated Giger-esque physique, the transformation from twisted child to ungodly monstrosity – everything about the suit and the prosthetics rips, really. The kills are simplistic and somewhat childish, no doubt due to a limited budget, but they’re appropriate for the creature’s singular focus and purity. Bonus points for the “fuck this church” moment. Hallowed ground apparently does not do shit.
Back to the real reason why I demanded we watch this: (sweaty) (shirtless) Lance Henriksen. Is it wrong to be drooling over an dude who’s about to enact magical vengeance for the brutal murder of his child? Probably. I have a lanky ’80s B-movie weirdo problem, in case that’s not clear.
Henriksen is fascinating to watch because of how understated he plays his roles. We see it across his entire career, from Aliens to Millenium (shut up.) There are moments in Pumpkinhead where that flies out the window (head smacking in the witch hut, for example) but the chunk between his son’s death and the first creature reveal is extremely tense because he never actually loses it. The scene where he finds his son’s body is devastating, and we can feel how perilously close Mark is to a violent reaction. When Ed does finally look at him, the frozen rage and heartbreak in his gaze are chilling. Henriksen does a lot with stillness and economical movement, and his haunting features speak volumes.
The ensuing truck trip to visit his neighbors and the woman in the swamp is shot like a descent into Hell, and Henriksen’s stoicism lasts until the creature reveal. My partner noted that Pumpkinhead is one of the more interesting day-for-night movies out there, and I have to agree. That golden death scene echoes through the first kill, through the chases and through the grisly climax. Throwing up scenes to compare light levels, etc. leads to a bit of a breakdown if we get too analytical, but the sum effect is more important than what time it actually is in any given moment. What matters is the mood built by all that unearthly filtered light.
Another great thing about Pumpkinhead is the absolute trust it places in its audience. I notice this more often now because there’s so little of that trust in modern cinema and T.V. We have everything explained visually and, often, through dialogue either during a flashback (a top pet peeve) or in an exposition dump moments after an image. I would rather be confused by a time jump or “missing” piece of dialogue than beaten about the neck and shoulders as routinely as I am when watching something modern. Pumpkinhead shorthands quite a bit of disbelief and explanation. Something bad has happened, and something bad is out there now. That’s about all we need to get things rolling, and no one ever slams the brakes to try and stretch out the tension in an obvious way. Some of the performances are odd at times and there are lines that make you roll your eyes, but overall? Pumpkinhead doesn’t really give a shit about your skepticism, and does not apologize for its premise or its execution. Well done.
Phantasm Gives Zero Fucks
Good pulp is about butts in seats, dollars in your pocket and commitment to the bit. Connective tissue be damned! Phantasm is a staunch, unapologetic film that is actually several films jammed together for maximum surreal effect. It’s the last major franchise hurdle for me save Child’s Play which remains a hard sell thanks to video box trauma as a kid. I’ll get there because I can’t miss out on Brad Dourif in anything, but it’s still difficult for me to get over decades of nightmares. I fucking hate dolls.
Phantasm is inexplicable, but damn if it isn’t a memorable experience. The movie puzzles and at times frustrates, but there are big intentional laughs and surprising emotional twists that kept me glued to screen. Coscarelli goes for Italian horror visuals with the mausoleum scene and decks it out with blue-veined “marble” and lush, red curtains. It’s a decadent circle-jerk of visual symmetry, shadow and lengthy shots that I enjoyed immensely. We visit that set quite a bit and it’s a great scaffold for the far weirder portal scene, in which a blinding white closet filled with barrel pods gives way to an interplanetary hell-window decked out in an echo of that lovely red. We also see someone get their brain drilled by a very pissed-off metal sphere that first drips, then spouts, blood all over that polished floor. Hooray!
I love that Coscarelli and the team don’t bother to explain anything, or even really ask themselves, “How much is too much?” Unholy mortician deadlifting a coffin festooned with unpleasantly garish floral arrangements? Check. Finger-cum-extremely homicidal hair spider? Check. Murder Jawas? Check. None of this makes any sense if you try to string it together, but if you’re invested at any point you just don’t care. Phantasm trucks on its mood and proven ability to flirt with the line between dream and reality in a linear medium. The film spends just as much time on its measured daylight scenes as it does getting weird when the sun goes down, and the ultimate effect is a pretty sophisticated artifact.
The static shot where Michael Baldwin tears screaming across the cemetery grounds while his brother tries to get it on with the shape-shifted Tall Man is the highlight of the film for me. It’s the Marx Brothers gag coupled with Bill Thornbury’s line (quoted from memory here): “Hey, that’s my brother. I think he has some kind of problem!” Absolute gold.
Coscarelli kicks you in the nuts with a dream-within-a-dream-within-a-dream ending, which horror fans apparently did NOT appreciate when the film first came out. I say, to hell with them. Phantasm made me belly laugh and legitimately disturbed the hell out of me at multiple points. Job done, and done well. Also, it’s in the name? So, joke’s on you, pretty much.