Keep away from Pumpkinhead,
Unless you’re tired of living,
His enemies are mostly dead,
He’s mean and unforgiving,
Laugh at him and you’re undone,
But in some dreadful fashion,
Vengeance, he considers fun,
And plans it with a passion,
Time will not erase or blot,
A plot that he has brewing,
It’s when you think that he’s forgot,
He’ll conjure your undoing,
Bolted doors and windows barred,
Guard dogs prowling in the yard,
Won’t protect you in your bed,
Nothing will, from Pumpkinhead.
–Ed Justin, Pumpkinhead
Whilst working on Parasite (1982), Stan Winston began considering the possibility of directing a feature film himself. The chance arose when producers of DeLaurentiis Entertainment Group sent Winston a copy of a script for a low-budget horror film — titled Pumpkinhead — in order to hire him to create the titular creature, a demon of vengeance summoned by a farmer whose son was killed. The story was inspired by the eponymous poem written by Ed Justin, also the film’s writer. Winston realized that he could actually direct the film. He recalled in The Winston Effect: “it was a small picture, something I thought I could handle as a director; and I felt there was a lot that I could bring to the story. So I told the producers, ‘yeah, I’ll do the creature — but only if I can direct the movie.'”
Co-writer of the film Gary Gerani further elaborated in an interview: “Billy Blake, Richard Weinman and Howard Smith were the original producers, and they were looking at people in the field. Stan had come off doing second unit photography for Aliens, so there was a feeling that he was a first class creature creator and a hell of a second unit director, so let’s do a deal where he can direct, which he wanted to do, and give this low budget movie a monster that can stand alongside Alien and Predator.”
Gary Gerani and Mark Patrick Carducci, original co-writers of the film, considered more than one conceptual version of the creature. With Winston’s involvement, Pumpkinhead began gravitating towards the duo’s original idea — which in turn had been inspired by Lovecraft — combined with elements of later ideas. Gerani elaborated: “Mark and I first played around with the revenge demon as a Lovecraftian scaly monster like the ones in our Super 8 projects. Then we got sidetracked into an interesting area; a lot of people thought if it’s called Pumpkinhead, it’s gotta have a pumpkin for a head. We got into trying to do a Sleepy Hollow-type of creature where the witch would tell Ed Harley to go to a graveyard, dig up a corpse, cut the head off, bring it back; in the meantime she’s carving out this pumpkin with these evil eyes, and when he brings the body back, she brings it all to life. When Stan got involved, you’ve got arguably the greatest creature maker around. You’re not going to tell him to simply put a pumpkin on a human body, so we got back to the Lovecraftian idea. It’s still a bloated head, and we even threw in an extra line in the film about how he comes from the old pumpkin patch in the graveyard.”
Winston expanded the script with themes inspired by Forbidden Planet, one of his favourite science-fiction films. He explained: “the essence of Forbidden Planet was the monster of the Id. Ultimately, what killed everyone was this creature that had been created out of the subconscious mind. That concept had always grabbed me, and I wanted to bring some of that to Pumpkinhead. On the surface, Pumpkinhead is a demon that a witch conjures up; but, at a deeper level, Pumpkinhead is an extension of Ed Harley. By the end of the film, Ed comes to understand that the only way to kill Pumpkinhead is to kill himself. That’s the story I wanted to tell.”
The writers and Winston shared a common love for classic monster films, and the rewriting process was pleasant for them: “with Stan we thought this guy would give us a great monster, and he liked the script, the whole simple moral fable of it,” Gerani said. “We did a few rewrites with him after that; Mark would go to California, and I had a 9 to 5 job at Topps in Brooklyn. I went to the set a couple of times. Mark would come back and we’d bang out our revised pages and hope Stan was pleased. One of the good things was Stan was such a horror buff in addition to a creature creator that we were all kind of on the same page. For the sequence in the burned-out church, Stan knew that we were all familiar with Howard Hawks’ The Thing, so he suggested we do the same kind of moment with a silhouetted Pumpkinhead standing in the doorway.”
Occupied with director duties, Winston was mostly unable to collaborate to the design process beyond simple director approvals; Pumpkinhead was designed and built by the artists of Stan Winston Studio. Tom Woodruff Jr. and Alec Gillis conceived the appearance of the creature. “Since Stan was directing the movie,” Gillis recalled, “he turned the creature work over to us. Stan said: ‘I’m the director on this. I’m the client — you guys are the effects guys.’ It was great to have Stan’s encouragement to just go with it, on our own. We sat down and started drawing, and then we presented those drawings to Stan, and he made suggestions. That’s how the character of Pumpkinhead developed.”
Woodruff added in an interview with Icons of Fright: “It was like your parents turning over the keys to the house and saying, ‘Ok, we’ll be back in three months’, and every day was just an amazing day at work. You just felt like nothing is going to go wrong with this movie. Not that it wasn’t hard work, you just knew that everything we built was going to be used the proper way because there was a director involved who knew and understood the importance to make our stuff on set work.”
Gerani elaborated on the conceptual approach to the creature: “we wanted it to seem like another life form from another dimension, like that famous line that ‘magic is just another person’s science.’ What we view as magic is another realm of existence we’re not aware of yet. That’s how Stan and his sculptors approached Pumpkinhead, like he’s conforming to the physical laws of somebody else’s universe. Maybe what we perceive as Hell is simply an alien environment or dimension filled with exotic, ultra-vicious life-forms.”
Following these guidelines, the creature design was heavily grounded in reality, and was primarily inspired by reference photos of cadavers and decomposing bodies. “It was mostly from cadavers and dead bodies,” Woodruff said.”We definitely wanted it to have the feeling of something that had been dead and something that was partially human, but also more evil and monstrous. Not in a science-fiction way, but more of a folklorish kind of way. A legend that was brought to life.”
Various designs were considered, with the final Pumpkinhead taking elements from all of the previous iterations. The creature features overgrown bones on its shoulders and legs, long and skeletal fingers, and pale eyes with slit, reptilian pupils — almost unnoticeable in the film. “They just used their own initiative,” Gerani said, “and said, it’s a demon. What doesn’t look conventional or corny? They eliminated horns but thrust up his shoulder blades to convey it in an interesting way.” Completing Pumpkinhead is its namesake bloated cranium. Its color scheme also reflects its nature, with hues based on decaying flesh. Pumpkinhead was also portrayed as growing from a fetus-like stage which is unearthed to begin the summoning.
Winston’s limited collaboration also eased the process. “There was a shorthand with Stan that made it so easy,” Rosengrant related. “We could go to him with something, and ask: ‘is this enough? Will this do it?’ And he could look at it, and immediately say, ‘yeah, that will be fine,’ or, ‘no, we need more.’ That’s very different than the normal situation where we have to overbuild, just in case the director changes his mind and wants something more once he is on the set. Stan knew exactly what the tools were, what he needed and what he didn’t need. We didn’t have to go through the process of educating him, as we do with many directors. That made the whole job easier, and a lot more fun.” With the final design selected, construction of Pumpkinhead began. The fetus stage was sculpted by Alec Gillis and John Rosengrant and painted by Tom Woodruff, Jr.; it was built as a featureless dummy covered in dirt, as well as a simple cable animatronic that could rear itself. A second stage, seen only in one single shot of the film, was also sculpted and painted by Shane Mahan.
The final stage Pumpkinhead was sculpted by Alec Gillis (for the head), and Tom Woodruff, Jr. and John Rosengrant (for the body). Rosengrant and Howard Berger painted the creature, which was built as a full-size suit, performed by Woodruff. The skin was cast in foam latex, with spandex embedded to enhance the suit’s durability, whereas the claws were cast in translucent resin. For reasons of budget, the creature suit’s hands were poseable, but not articulated; two insert animatronic arms were thus constructed by David Nelson.
Both fully-articulated hero heads and stunt heads were built to be mounted on the suit, right above the performer’s actual head — to increase the monster’s height. Pumpkinhead’s digitigrade leg design also dictated that a system of leg extensions would be employed. They were devised by Richard Landon, and used in combination with a harness due to their design. “We never really intended [the extensions] to be weight-supporting so that I’d be able to walk on two legs,” Woodruff said. “The idea was always that we’d have some kind of rig system to take some of the weight off, because we didn’t want to build them up so big that we’d have to make them bulky. We wanted to keep everything really sleek in design.”
Pumpkinhead’s leg extensions were among the first to be successfully employed in a film, and the technology used to build and use them employed Boss Film Studios’ research for their unsuccessful attempt with the original Predator. Scenes with Pumpkinhead shot from the waist up did not even need to employ the extensions, and as such the performer simply walked on platforms to maintain the illusion of the creature’s height. Gerani commented: “what’s interesting is Predator originally had Pumpkinhead’s legs, these satyr-like legs, and it was difficult for him to walk, which is why in the film you only see quick glimpses. You really only see him walking in a church, and that’s because the stilts are off. The Predator has a lot of running around to do, so that’s why Pumpkinhead was given that unwieldy leg arrangement. It works pretty well, I think.”
Woodruff, who could see through two holes in Pumpkinhead’s neck, wanted to infuse specific vibes in the performance, also inspired by Ray Harryhausen’s special effects work. “We had to get the feeling that it was a creature born from a dead body,” Woodruff said, “a regenerating thing. That was the point where I tried to work in those Ray Harryhausen-type moments, always trying to look toward his stuff. I incorporated a lot of his idiosyncrasies into not just Pumpkinhead, but things I’ve done since then. There are times where I’ll try to put a lot of that body language into a performance.”
In the end of the film, to illustrate the creature’s bond with the farmer, Pumpkinhead’s face mutates into a more humanoid configuration, reminiscent of Ed Harley’s face. Again, a hero head and a stunt head were built; John Rosengrant sculpted the new face, infusing traits and connotations from Lance Henriksen into its appearance. Ed is ultimately damned to become the next Pumpkinhead — and is seen being buried as a deformed fetus, which was created as a featureless dummy, sculpted to include Henriksen’s features.
Thanks to Winston’s experience with creature effects, Pumpkinhead‘s budget was used to full potential. “It’s funny, but we never had a sense of being constrained by the budget on that show,” Mahan recalled, “and that was because Stan knew what to spend the money on and how to get the most out of everything we built.” He also commented on the experience: “When I revisit Pumpkinhead after all these years, and I realize that it was done in 1987, all in-camera, and for only three million dollars, I’m amazed at how much movie is there. I think it is a really impressive example of a first-time director’s work. And it is still used as a model for low-budget films. People reference Pumpkinhead all the time when they are looking at how to make an effective low-budget movie.”
Winston remembered the film fondly: “all the things I had ever done on my life came together and helped me as a director for Pumpkinhead. I loved every part of the process, from the camera work to the editing to the sound mixing. Rather than being intimidated by the job of directing Pumpkinhead, I was energized by it. And, in the process, I learned that I was a pretty good director.”
For more images of Pumpkinhead, visit the Monster Gallery.