Thursday, 3 April 2014

The Pumpkin Karver

Director: Robert Mann
Writers: Robert Mann, Sheldon Silverstein
Producer: Sheldon Silverstein
Cast: Amy Weber, Michael Zara, Terrence Evans
Country: USA
Year of release: 2006
Reviewed from: UK DVD (Revolver)

While it’s not completely terrible, The Pumpkin Karver is quite some way from being what you might call ‘good’. It seems to have been made by people who love films but don’t understand how they’re made. There’s the germ of a good concept in there somewhere but it’s buried under a confused and confusing mishmash of half-hearted ideas which probably all sounded like they could be scary when someone thought them up.

But first, let’s deal with that title. There is no reason to spell it with a K. Although the word ‘carver’ is frequently spoken in the film it’s just used in its normal sense - one who carves - and as such is just ‘carver’. The one and only time we see it written down, on a sign welcoming people to the little town of Carver, it is definitely spelled with a C. Maybe this is some homage to the Monty Python sketch about the man who can’t pronounce C but can pronounce K (“Khaki, Kipling, Keeble Bollege Oxford...”) but more likely it’s just designed to make the film easier to Google. Mind you, Googling ‘pumpkin carver’ still gives you the IMDB page for The Pumpkin Karver in its first ten hits, so what was the point?

Really, the title perfectly encapsulates the film. It looks like it might be cool and interesting but in fact it’s just pointless and not worth bothering with.

Anyway, this is a film about pumpkin carving. It’s set on two consecutive Halloweens and the main character, Jonathan Starks (Michael Zara) spends as much time as possible carving faces into pumpkins. When we first meet him in a pre-credit sequence which lasts a watch-checking eight minutes, he has a whole bunch of carved pumpkins on the table and is working on still more. Again and again in this film the concept of pumpkin carving will be discussed as if it is some sort of Olympic sport or a profession in which the best talents can earn a fortune if they turn pro - instead of a hobby that people do one weekend a year.

As the local kids wander from door to door in fancy dress (including two with an amusing Men in Black act), Jonathan’s elder sister Lynn (Amy Weber: Starforce, Kolobos, Dangerous Seductress) is visited by her drunk, arsehole boyfriend Alec (David J Wright, who was in an episode of Tremors: The Series) who has devil horns on his head and spits lager over Jonathan (and mocks his pumpkin carving!). After Alec has left, Lynn is getting changed upstairs when a figure enters the room (introduced via a steadicam shot that pays clear homage to Dean Cundey's work on Halloween). This guy is dressed in overalls and has a mask like a rotting pumpkin. He attacks Lynn with a knife and, hearing his sister’s screams, Jonathan runs upstairs and repeatedly stabs the attacker - who turns out to be Alec, horsing around with a joke-shop knife.

At last, it’s the credits! Oh, just before the credits, as some cops clean up the mess there’s some sort of red herring about Alec’s blood not being natural or something, but this is never followed up on.

Right. The credits.

One years later, Lynn and Jonathan and their never-seen mother have moved from the city to the nowheresville town of Carver, population 666. Despite being such a poky place, the town (which we never see) is able to rustle up at least 20-30 ‘college kids’ for a wild Halloween party. (That’s college kids in the Hollywood sense of all being in at least their mid-twenties. In fact Amy Weber was 36 when she made this!) Lynn knows these youngsters but Jonathan doesn’t. She’s hoping that he’ll hit it off with a perky chick named Tammy (Minka Kelly: Devil’s Highway) and indeed he does, much to the displeasure of Tammy’s aggressive and jealous ex Lance (David Austin, whose grandfather George Irving was in Island of Lost Souls and Son of Dracula), who is dressed as a pirate. Other costumes on show include Austin Powers, the Hulk, a trio of Charlie’s Angels, a girl scout and two guys in togas who are out to have a seriously inebriated time.

But let’s just recap what is happening here. Jonathan is still upset and guilty over killing Alec last Halloween. It’s not clear if he’s been like this for a full year or whether the anniversary is setting off his depression - but to distract him from obsessing about stabbing a pumpkin-masked maniac last 31st October, his sister is taking him to a Halloween costume party full of pumpkins. Glad she’s not my therapist.

And boy, are there ever pumpkins. They pass an old guy on the road loading dozens of pumpkins into his truck, there are fields full of pumpkins, plus of course all the carved, decorated ones. These are bound to help Jonathan forget the manslaughter he committed exactly one year ago on a guy in a pumpkin mask while he was spending the evening carving pumpkins.

The party is swinging, including a rock band on an outdoor stage, and yet curiously whenever anybody wanders away from where people are dancing the night is silent. Apparently Carver is some sort of magic place where loud rock music and partying teenagers cannot be heard only a few hundred yards away. Or maybe this is just a film made by people who didn’t know and/or care what they were doing.

Jonathan encounters a creepy old guy, Ben Wickets (Terrence Evans: Crocodile, Curse II, Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake and prequel), who claims to own the farm where the party is happening. He also claims that he personally founded the town of Carver sixty years ago because it was such a great place to grow pumpkins and he is a dedicated pumpkin carver, and if Jonathan devotes his life to it maybe he could be a great pumpkin carver one day too because he is the chosen one, or something. For Heaven’s sake, we’re not talking about ice-skating or violin-playing here - it’s carving faces into pumpkins for Halloween. It’s not a viable, long-term, full-time career.

Now things start to get confusing because Jonathan, when he’s alone, starts hearing a spooky voice calling his name and then sees the rotting-pumpkin masked figure from one year ago who fires little lightning bolts from his fingertips, knocking Jonathan to the ground. At the same time, one of the Charlie’s Angels girls, making out with Austin Powers in a car, gets all prissy and Austin leaves, then somebody else gets into the car, traps the girl’s head in the window and slits her throat. She is later found by the other two Angels (who look for somewhere to pee, then decide they don’t need to go after all but continue looking anyway) with her face all horribly carved up and generally screaming as she falls to the ground. Of course they help their friend by both running off and, when they return, she has gone.

In a prime example of how inept this movie is, the two girls repeatedly claim that their friend was dead even though we saw her running and screaming in front of them only two minutes ago. Looks to me like the “she was dead - and now she’s gone” scene was shot first, then there was some practical difficulty having the actress just tumble out of a doorway onto her face so they let her be not quite dead when they shot the earlier scene. And the film-makers either didn’t notice or didn’t care that the two scenes simply don’t match.

What else? Well, the Hulk guy gets pushed onto a drill that goes through his ample stomach and one of the toga guys is decapitated while pissing in a pumpkin field but doesn’t fall over, leading to a nonsensical but childishly amusing shot of the corpse continuing to urinate on its own severed head. Then Tammy gets killed too and her face is carved up like the Angel girl’s one was. That’s what lies behind the icky image on the DVD sleeve. So, we have a psycho attacking the teenagers who likes to carve up their faces like pumpkins... could he be a pumpkin carver? Erm, could be, but why does he also use drills and decapitation? And why does no-one - not one single person - who sees either of the pumpkin-carved faces comment on how they look like a carved pumpkin? (I mean, they don’t really but they’re obviously meant to.)

So what is happening? There are four possibilities.

1) There is a masked psycho killing the teenagers. Not killing them for any moral reason: arsehole jock Lance is fine but nice guy Hulk gets it and only one of the two toga guys loses his head. Also, at no point do any of the partying kids realise they are in danger. Even the two surviving Angels simply decide to go home. And who could this psycho be? The most likely explanation is old man Wickets, especially after a completely gratuitous scene where he tries to persuade Jonathan to stab him in the chest with a chisel. But how would he know what Alec’s mask looked like? And what’s with the lighting-from-fingers schtick?

2) Maybe this is Alec himself, back from the dead. But then why is he brutally killing random party-goers he doesn’t know while simply throwing Jonathan around with magic lightning?

3) Okay, maybe it’s not Alec per se but it’s some sort of demon. But then, why is it singling out Jonathan for special attention and why is its mask the same as Alec’s was?

4) Okay, okay, how about this? It’s all in Jonathan’s head. After all, he only sees rotting-pumpkin mask when they’re alone. But then who killed Hulk, First Angel and Second Toga Guy?

5) Wait wait wait! Here’s a fifth possibility. Maybe Jonathan is the psycho! Maybe he somehow got hold of a mask just like Alec’s and killed First Angel and imagined meeting his deadly alter ego and - no, hang on. That doesn’t work because of the climactic scene where Lynn and Jonathan both find dead Tammy and confront old man Wickets who admits to the murder and then turns into Alec. Except this is then contradicted by an epilogue where the cops clear up the bodies - apparently unconcerned by at least five brutal murders in a town of 700 people on one night - and the siblings get into a car only for Jonathan to turn into Alec and threaten Lynn...

In a nutshell, the maroons who made this film had no idea what the actual threat was so they tried to have it all ways by just throwing all sorts of shit together and as a result the film makes no sense. Not a shred of sense. Not one iota. What a load of crap.

There's no structure to this film, no pacing, no motivation, no empathy, no thing. Well, there is one thing...

Pumpkin carving. Thought I’d say it once more because it’s so important to modern civilisation.

In fact, even the pumpkin-carved faces don’t make sense. Look at that make-up, which is barely glimpsed in the film but plastered on the DVD cover. Are we supposed to think that carving crude eyes, mouth and nose into a person’s face turns their skin white and exposes black flesh beneath? And for Christ’s sake, you can still see the actress’s lips behind the make-up! It’s a real contender for the worst, most nonsensical sleeve image ever.

Also in the cast of this shambolic excuse for a movie are... hmm, that’s odd. Very few of the other actors seem to have been in anything at all. Crumbs, imagine having nothing but this rubbish on your CV. Okay, let’s name some crew names instead, starting with writer-director Robert Mann. As far as I can tell, with little to go on but the Inaccurate Movie Database, this guy is an actor but he’s not the Robert Mann who was in the remake of Black Christmas, as they have very different photos on their IMDB pages. He wrote, directed and starred in a thriller called Trapped in 1999 and beyond that his career is a bit of a mystery. Has he really not appeared on screen since a role in Sometimes Aunt Martha Does Dreadful Things in 1971? And has writer-producer Sheldon Silverstein really got no credits between a 1994 thriller also called Trapped(!) and The Erotic Adventures of Robinson Crusoe in 1974? (Or was that the children’s author of the same name?)

The IMDB, as usual, is as much use as no use. However I did find an interview with Robert Mann on where he comes across as thinking he has made some sort of masterpiece and calls this “a psychological/horror film”! Yes, Robert, it’s about as psychological as Dance with a Vampire.

There are half a dozen associate/executive producers including leading lady Amy Weber. Most of cinematographer/editor Philip Hurn’s previous credits seem to be golf documentaries. Could production designer George Stokes really be the same guy who was construction co-ordinator on Capricorn One, Spaceship, Buckaroo Banzai, Lethal Weapon and The Abyss and/or the guy who designs the background for the Justice League cartoon?

Ah, here’s a credit that seems apposite. 'Special make-up effects supervisor’ Jeff Colbert also worked on the unbelievably poor Camp Blood 2 (as well as Dead Seven, Endangered Species and The New Adventures of Robin Hood). He teaches make-up effects through his imaginatively named Motion Picture F/X Company; I hope the first thing he teaches his students is to stay away from crappy films like The Pumpkin Karver. ‘Visual effects supervisor’ Michael Webber is also a producer, his films including a ‘Christian-friendly’ horror flick called Thr3e and something called House which is apparently not a remake of House. Stunt co-ordinator Scott Blackwood (odd - I don’t recall any stunts in the movie) also worked on The Glass Trap, Cyber-Tracker 2 and Project Vampire.

The Pumpkin Karver is generally shoddy all round and it’s difficult to work out who could possibly get any enjoyment from watching it except somebody so drunk/stoned that they would watch anything. The DVD includes an alternate ending with the same dialogue but dead Tammy in a car boot and Jonathan waving a gun at old man Wickets instead of a pitchfork. Also a trailer and a few minutes of ‘bloopers’ which appear to just be random scraps of B-roll footage. The US disc apparently includes a director’s commentary.

MJS rating: C-

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