Thursday, 3 April 2014

Pumpkinhead: Ashes to Ashes

Director: Jake West
Writers: Jake West, ‘Barbara Werner’
Producers: Brad Krevoy, Donald Kushner, Pierre Spengler
Cast: Doug Bradley, Lance Henriksen, Doug Roberts
Country: UK/Romania
Year of release: 2006
Reviewed from: UK DVD

It is always an odd feeling, watching a film on which I got to hang out during shooting. Back in 2006 I spent a fabulous couple of days at Castel Studio in Romania with my mate Jake West while he was filming what was then simply called Pumpkinhead 3. I got to chat with Lance Henriksen and Doug Bradley and spend time with Mike Regan, Mitch Coughlin and Blake Bolger from Gary Tunnicliffe’s FX company. Look - there’s a photo of me with the monster suit head. Holy crap!

The other thing that makes this film special is that it is, to some extent, a vindication of the stance which I have always had towards up and coming film-makers, which is one of encouragement and support, encouraging a potential future quid pro quo. When I used to write about obscure indie films in the early days of SFX (back when there were neither enough suitable blockbusters to write about nor sufficient contacts to Hollywood which could be exploited, leaving me to write multi-page features about any old stuff I fancied) and also when I founded the ‘Independents Day’ column in the early issues of Total Film, what I said was this: we should write about these little indie films because, while many of the film-makers will disappear or stick at this low-key level, one or two will go on to greater things and will thank us/me for giving them a boost at the start of their career.

I still do this today through this website. If someone sends me a film then I will always find something good and quotable to say about it. Because it’s no skin off my nose and it matters to them. And maybe one of them will hit the big time and remember me.

So anyway, back in the heady days of the late 1990s I wrote about Jake West and Razor Blade Smile. It wasn’t the greatest movie ever made but it was a light in the darkness of a period when British horror cinema was almost extinct. There was a quote from me on the poster. Actually there were two: one from SFX, one from Total Film but both written by me! I remember someone accosting me at a convention and pointing out that I had called it “the best British vampire film for nigh on two decades” when in fact it was pretty much the only British vampire film for nigh on two decades. To which, I believe, I responded along the lines of ‘well, duh.’ That’s the skill of providing great quotable review copy.

From that coverage of RBS came a friendship with Jake who went on to direct various shorts, documentaries, title sequences and all sorts of stuff before his sophomore effort, the gloriously OTT sci-fi splatterfest Evil Aliens. Jake invited me along to the set but alas, it was at a time when I was unemployed and skint and TF Simpson was on his way to make life even more complicated. A day return to Cambridgeshire was simply not something that I could afford. Still, I got to go along to the UK premiere at Frightfest and hang out with Jake and the cast and crew, which was cool.

So then Jake gets back to work on DVD extras and whatnot until - holy cow - he e-mails me with some amazing news. He has been selected to direct a sequel to Pumpkinhead!

Pumpkinhead: directed by the mighty Stan Winston, starring the legend that is Lance Henriksen, inarguably one of the best monster movies of the the 1980s. My pal Jake was directing a sequel to this. In Romania. And he had got Lance Henriksen signed up to revive his character from the first film. Oh, and Doug Bradley was in the mix too.

And because I had supported Jake when he made his first feature and had stayed in contact since (which I would have done anyway - Jake’s a deeply cool guy) and because I now freelance for Fangoria, I got to fly over to Bucharest via Milan with a camera, a dictaphone, a change of undies and a toothbrush. And I got to hang out on the set for two days. And if that doesn’t make you jealous, my friend, then frankly I’m a bit puzzled what you’re doing here because in my world (and you’re welcome to it) this is about the coolest possible thing that could ever happen.

At this point you were going to be treated to a lengthy travelogue account of how I got out to Romania, what I did there, what a strange country it is and how I managed to get back to Leicester about twenty minutes before I was due on stage at Phoenix Arts to introduce a screening of, ironically enough, Evil Aliens.

But I accidentally deleted it. So we’ll just crack straight on with the review, shall we?

Pumpkinhead 3, to no-one’s surprise, turns out to be better than Pumpkinhead 2 but not as good as Pumpkinhead (and I have yet to see Mike Hurst’s take on the story). Although Messrs Henriksen and Bradley understandably have their names above the title, the film is actually carried by a marvellous performance from Doug Roberts (who was in episodes of Angel, Strange Luck and Quantum Leap) as Bunt Wallace.

Bunt, you may remember, was the kid in the redneck Wallace clan who had some notion of morality, however confused, and who is the only person to survive an encounter with Pumpkinhead, the vengeance demon which  personifies the old saw ‘Be careful what you wish for...’ Although Brian Bremer who played Bunt in the first film 18 years earlier is still a jobbing actor he couldn’t be tracked down when Ashes to Ashes was shot. Which is a shame on the one hand but on the other Roberts is absolutely terrific in the role and really holds this film together.

Bunt, together with his junkie sister Dahlia (Lisa McAllister) and largely non-speaking brothers Junior (Iulian Glita) and Tiny (Aurel Dicu, a stuntman whose credits go back to Subspecies and Trancers III), runs a crematorium assisted by town doctor Doc Fraser (Doug Bradley hamming it up like there’s no tomorrow). The basic set-up is that, before the corpses go into the flames Doc removes salvageable organs which he then flogs to a junkie organ bootlegger named Lenny (Emil Hostina, who was in the Matt Lucas/Mark Gatiss version of The Wind in the Willows) who resides at the Sunny Days Motel. In a line of dialogue which I might have missed had I not had it specifically pointed out to me, Doc explains that this little one-horse town in the middle of nowhere could never afford his services as the local GP without this illicit sideline boosting his earnings.

None of this really stands up to close examination of course. Apart from anything else, transplant organs are only useful - on the black market or wherever else - if removed very promptly. By the time someone is ready to be cremated, post-mortem metabolic changes have rendered their organs pretty much useless. But we’ll gloss over this.

One also has to wonder at what seems to be a pretty small, isolated town having such a decent-sized crematorium. And a motel? Who would want to stay there? And although this is supposed to be the same town that we visited in the first film, the whole area seems to be a lot more wooded than before. Which is of course because Castel Studios are surrounded by woods.

Anyway, none of this matters. I’m even prepared to bite my biologist’s lip and ignore the floppy piece of offal which Doug Bradley removes from a corpse and refers to as a kidney, even though it’s plainly too large (a human kidney is about the size of your computer mouse) and looks more like a liver, although it’s too small to be that either. Maybe it’s a pancreas. I don’t know much about the organ-legging sector: is there a trade in secondhand pancreases?

Now all this would be fine and nobody would know anything except that a passing hiker wanders in when someone leaves the door unlocked and sees what’s going on. Hiding in a barn, he is found by Junior and Tiny who ironically use the chap’s own dog to locate him then stick him with a pitchfork.

Even this wouldn’t be a problem if the damn crematorium furnace was working but it has been kaput for some time now, requiring the Wallaces to dispose of the eviscerated corpses out in the woods. They throw the dead hiker into the same remote, muddy pool but he’s not dead. He drags himself from the water, staggers to a nearby road and flags down a passing pick-up truck, in the passenger seat of which he promptly expires. Still, that’s a more comfortable place to die than a muddy pool. All credit to Romanian-based American actor Bart Sidles here for his scenes. Rest assured that what you see is not some artificially created studio set. That muddy pool is a genuine muddy pool in the middle of a Romanian forest, full of Romanian pond-slime and Romanian leeches and Sidles actually, voluntarily lay down in it not once but several times for a number of takes. All that and all he gets is a small pay-cheque and a minor role in a Sci-Fi Channel creature feature. What a trouper! (Sidles had a different role a few weeks later in Pumpkinhead: Blood Feud and was also in Planet Raptor and Alexandre Aja’s Mirrors.)

The woman driving the car is Molly Sue Allen (Tess Panzer, subsequently in Adam Mason’s Blood River) who takes her deceased passenger to the local sheriff (Dan Astileanu: Subspecies IV, Return of the Living Dead: Necropolis) who then arrests the Wallaces but not Doc Fraser who has no apparent connection with the matter. As the desiccated corpses that everyone assumed had been cremated are recovered from the swamp - and from the barn too, for some reason - Doc Fraser tuts and shakes his head with the rest of them. Among the ungrilled dead is Molly Sue’s own baby.

It’s not clear whether anyone is able to spot that these decomposing cadavers are missing certain vital organs. I would imagine that only Doc would recognise something like that and he ain’t telling. So I think it’s just the opprobrium of their relatives festering in a barn or muddy pool when they should have gone up a chimney which upsets the locals. Molly Sue, together with her brother Oliver (Emanuel Parvu, who was stills photographer on the two sequels to Wes Craven’s Dracula 2000) and some other friends decide that they should take revenge on the Wallaces and enlist the help of the old witch Haggis (Lynne Verrall doing a great voice under prosthetic make-up which unfortunately makes her look like Zelda from Terrahawks) who helps them to resurrect Pumpkinhead.

Now this all seems a bit much to me. Back in the first Pumpkinhead Ed Harley raised the demon in revenge for the death of his son, struck down by some irresponsible and unrepentant townies roaring around on motorbikes. I can’t remember why the demon was raised in Pumpkinhead 2; I don’t think there really was a reason but that film’s not really part of the franchise, is it? It is to Pumpkinhead films what Halloween III: Season of the Witch is to Halloween movies.

My point (and I do have one) is that Ed Harley sought vengeance for the death of his child. Molly Sue and her pals seek vengeance just because an already dead child was tossed into a barn instead of being cooked to a cinder. It’s undoubtedly illegal and indubitably immoral but does it merit slicing your hand open to mingle your blood and resurrect a twelve-foot tall killing machine? Not in my book, especially when the perpetrators are already in gaol (well, jail I suppose, this being the USA). Ed Harley lost the most precious thing he possessed through someone else’s careless and selfish action and he had no other means of restitution, Molly Sue’s baby was already dead and wasn’t even lined up for a decent Christian burial. She’s been defrauded if she paid for a cremation because all that got cooked was a small coffin. No, but hang on. If the crematorium furnace isn’t working, not even the coffins get burned and there ought to be a stack of decent wood and some brass handles somewhere, Mind you, there’s no indication that this little town, despite having a motel, a church and an enormous crematorium has any sort of undertaker.

Let’s just try and think this through logically. When someone local dies, presumably they have a funeral in the church, then the coffin (obtained from, I don’t know, a mail order firm?) is taken to the crematorium out in the woods, where Doc Fraser and the Wallace kids open it up, dispose of the wood and brass somehow, snip out the body’s pancreas, then chuck the thing into either the neighbouring barn or a muddy pool in the middle of the forest. No-one else ever visits the crematorium and no-one has even been close enough to spot the total lack of smoke emanating from the building, which is sort of a distinguishing feature of crematoria.

This has evidently been going on for a good while now because there are a lot of corpses, almost as many as the total number of live people we see. This is a small town and unless half the population died last month, then the furnace has been out of action for a long, long time. But why don’t the Wallaces just get somebody in from another town to repair their furnace, which would make the organ-legging much, much simpler and safer on account of there being no bodies left? In fact, why not just burn the bodies on a funeral pyre round the back of the barn, thereby not only disposing of the evidence but also providing some smoke to allay suspicions if they arise? They must be burning something somewhere because customers are still being provided with urns full of ashes.

You know, I really enjoyed watching the film but the more I think about the plot, the less sense it makes.

Still, this is all just preamble to set up the unleashing of Pumpkinhead, first seen chasing Bunt in a dream prologue in order to satisfy the Sci Fi Channel requirement to show the monster within the first five minutes. Gary Tunnicliffe’s shop constructed the monster suit and Mike Regan was in charge of it during its time in Romania. One of the technical problems with the creature design is that the legs clearly won’t support the weight if there’s a person inside. In the original movie they got round this by suspending the suit on wires for certain shots but this wasn’t feasible on the sequels. So basically you don’t get to see the creature full-length. You can see most of it but not the feet (allowing the chap inside to stand on something) or you can see the lower half only (allowing him to hang from a bar or whatever). It pretty much works.

It is also notable that the creature design looks a bit different but that is entirely consistent with the mythology (if we ignore P2, which we should do because P2 ignored P1) which is that whoever raises the demon becomes the next demon. So this isn’t the same Pumpkinhead that was in Pumpkinhead, this is a demon created from the mortal remains of Ed Harley.

Speaking of which, how come Ed is back in the film when he died in P1? Well, he’s sort of a ghost who only Bunt can see, which works fine. Maybe he’s just an illusion, all in Bunt’s mind, because the fellow is pretty screwed up. But maybe he really is a ghost because if we accept a giant demon-thing then we can easily accept a spectre. Fortunately, Lance Henriksen looks pretty much like he did 18 years earlier - indeed like he did in every film he has made before or since - and some skilful make-up gives him the vague facial similarity to Pumpkinhead that is essential to this mythos. There is a particularly effective scene where Bunt, Dahlia and Doc Fraser are in a car and Bunt sees Ed Harley sitting in the driving seat, talking to him, instead of Doc.

Anyway, we’ve come to see Pumpkinhead stalking and killing people and that he does. He breaks into the gaol in the Sheriff’s office, he leaps through a church window and he drags someone (Tiny? Junior? not sure) up to the top of the crematorium and impales him on a weather-vain. This leads to a great scene of Bunt trying to remove the body which is obviously not as easy as it sounds. Meanwhile, crafty Doc spots that the young folk who raised the demon suffer the agonies of those whom it kills, just toned down a little bit.

After various bits of driving around and running around and the occasional thing blowing up, the film culminates in a scene so powerful and disturbing that it lifts the whole thing up a notch. Molly Sue’s brother “can fix anything” we are told in a slightly clumsy infodump although we see no actual evidence of this until it becomes relevant. With Bunt’s and Molly Sue’s help he gets the furnace working again and they start shovelling in the corpses, figuring that if the wrong is righted that way then Pumpkinhead will go. What this leads to - and I’m not sure it makes any more sense than the rest of the film but jiminy it’s a powerful image - is Molly Sue committing suicide (which will destroy the demon) by crawling into the blazing crematorium furnace. Ick.

Pumpkinhead: Ashes to Ashes scores over Pumpkinhead 2 by actually using the ideas and themes from the first film. Pumpkinhead 2: Blood Wings was, you know, an okay monster film but it had a monster that just happened to look like Pumpkinhead (and had the same name). In other words, it just used the design as an off-the-shelf, generic creature and thereby completely missed the point.

P3 also benefits by having not just Ed Harley but Henriksen as Ed Harley plus the essential character of Haggis; it’s no coincidence that Henriksen and Verrall were the only two cast members to stay on in Romania for P4.

What this doesn’t really feel like, interestingly, is a Jake West film. Although it’s fabulous to see Jakey-boy given a decent budget to play with and some top-flight actors - and I know that Jake himself had a great time on this film and really put his all into it - nevertheless it’s evident to those of us familiar with his work that his individualism has been reined in. Sci Fi Channel creature features are fairly rigidly structured (although I believe they loosened up a bit with these films because they were sequels to such a popular cult classic) and there’s little room here for West-ian touches. Those of us who have seen Evil Aliens, Razor Blade Smile and Club Death know what a Jake West film should look like and there are only occasional moments when the authorial spark can be spotted in Pumpkinhead 3.

The acting is generally good although the various accents do tend to wander across most of the Southern USA, depending on which scene we’re watching. Erik Wilson (Broken, Dust) provides cinematography that is frankly terrific, bleaching the colour out of some scenes to an almost sepia tone that gives the film the ‘American Gothic’ ambience it needs. And the special effects are... well, some of them are good.

Can’t fault the suit. It’s a great suit which snarls and roars but maintains the emotions and sense of pathos which are evident in all the best movie monsters. There are a few scenes where the creature’s long tail is rendered in CGI and that works fine. But, let’s be honest, the occasional long-shots of a full-rendered CGI creature, such as when it climbs up to the roof of the crematorium, don’t work at all. They’re embarrassingly bad. I’m sure that Stephen Dryer at Black Magic Digital did his best with what was available - I met him on set where he was taking notes and checking things - but the results look nothing at all like Pumpkinhead. It’s just a half-formed, roughly humanoid figure with a tail, moving stiffly and unnaturally up a wall with which it seems to have little if any physical connection.

My guess is that all the effects budget went on the suit and the visual effects had to be knocked together for a tenner. Realistically, the film would be better without those shots. They’re not needed and they spoil the movie. A little bit of judicious editing, maybe a couple of close-ups of claw on brickwork and the same idea could be conveyed without making all but the most drunken and least discriminating viewers wince. Sci Fi Channel movies are not renowned for top quality CGI creatures but these few shots are simply awful. Let’s move on.

The script is credited to Jake West and the pseudonymous Barbara Werner; the Inaccurate Movie Database reckons this is John Werner (or rather, credits both the Werner pseudo-siblings, alongside Jake). John Werner wrote the Sci Fi Channel flick Manticore so that’s probably him but for contractual reasons it’s best if I leave that as speculation. The expected army of producers, associate producers, co-producers, assistant producers, line producers, executive producers and deputy acting producers third class includes Karri O'Reilly and Brad Krevoy whose Motion Picture Corporation of America was the main production company behind this brace of sequels. Pretty ironic for films that are nominally UK/Romanian co-productions! Krevoy was also a producer on Pumpkinhead 2 and his many other credits range from the brilliant Retroactive to the dire Dracula 3000.

Although Jake is an editor by training, on this occasion he left the cutting to Justin Rogers (director of the short thriller Callback). Rob Lord, who previously worked on various Discworld computer games, composed the music. Production designer Cristian Niculescu is a regular at Castle Studios where his previous films have included Mimic and Prophecy sequels and the astoundingly awful Incubus; further back he worked on some Charlie Band movies including Frankenstein Reborn! and The Boy with the X-Ray Eyes. The costumes were designed by Ioana Alboiu (Madhouse, Mammoth, Ghouls).

Henriksen and Bradley previously worked together on Hellraiser: Hellworld, the eighth (and to date, final) entry in that series which was filmed back-to-back with Part VII in 2004 at - where else? - Castel Studios. Henriksen, who makes about a film a week, shot this around the same time he was making Pirates of Treasure Island for The Asylum and Bone Dry, with Luke Goss, for Brett A Hart. The much less prolific Bradley subsequently appeared in The Cottage, narrated Ten Dead Men and added another title to his Clive Barker collection of roles with a part in Book of Blood.

Also in the cast are Ioana Ginghina (an uncredited role as one of the brides in Dracula III), Catalin Paraschiv (Return of the Living Dead: Rave from the Grave), Radu Banzaru (the Ray Winstone version of Sweeney Todd) and Philip Bowen (The Brides in the Bath) as the priest.

Pumpkinhead: Ashes to Ashes is a respectable and respectful continuation of a franchise based around one of the classic movie monsters de nos jours. What is more, it’s a great vindication of Jake West as one of the most exciting and talented directors currently working in horror. Razor Blade Smile was shot for about twenty grand, Evil Aliens cost ten times that and this film cost a couple of million. Imagine what Jake could do if his budget went up another factor of ten.

MJS rating: B+

No comments:

Post a Comment