In the prologue set in 1957, Tom Harley waits inside his farm cabin with his wife and young son, Ed. A doomed man seeks sanctuary at Tom's cabin, but Tom refuses and threatens to shoot him if he does not leave. Watching through a window, Ed witnesses the man caught and killed by a grotesque monster.
In the present, Ed Harley owns a small store in the country. He briefly leaves his young son alone while he runs an errand. A group of teenage campers stop by Harley's, and, while riding their dirt bikes, they mortally injure Harley's son. One teen, Steve, stays with the boy until his father's return; the rest flee the scene. At their cabin, the campers fight about whether or not to call the police. Joel, who is personally responsible for the boy's injury and is on probation for a similar incident, knocks one of his friends unconscious and locks him and another girl in the closet to stop them from contacting the authorities.
Harley, with his pet dog Gypsy, goes to see a supposed witch, who says she cannot bring his son back. Instead, Harley says that he wants revenge; the witch agrees to help Harley, but she warns him that vengeance comes with a terrible price. On her orders, Harley goes to an old graveyard in the mountains, digs up a disfigured corpse, and brings it back to the witch's home. The witch uses blood from father and son to resurrect the corpse, which rises as a gigantic, spindly demonic monster named Pumpkinhead.
Back at the cabin, Joel begins to experience remorse for his actions and determines to turn himself in to the police. The monster, however, has already arrived. One of the girls, Maggie, hears a voice whispering her name. Seemingly hypnotized, she follows the voice outside the cabin. Steve brings her out of her trance, but Pumpkinhead kills him. Harley experiences the murder through the monster's eyes. While the campers search for Steve, Pumpkinhead drags away Maggie, and Harley again experiences the ensuing murder. He returns to the witch and begs her to stop the monster's actions. The witch laughs mockingly and says that Pumpkinhead cannot be stopped, and warns that Harley will die if he interferes with the killing spree.
Joel confronts Pumpkinhead with a knife, but it swats him aside and drags off Kim, whom it drops from a fatal height. The three remaining campers unsuccessfully beg the locals for help. Harley arrives and shoots Pumpkinhead, but when Joel checks to see if the creature is still alive, it grabs a fallen rifle and impales him with it. A local boy, Bunt, helps the two remaining campers, Tracey and Chris, reach an abandoned church. Bunt relates the legend of the monster Pumpkinhead, explaining that the monster avenges one who was wronged. If anyone tries to stop Pumpkinhead, that person becomes marked, too. As Chris' dirt bike fails to start, he sees that Pumpkinhead has removed the drive chain; he lifts up the bike, with Chris still on it, and throws it against a tree. He then drags his body back to Harley's house, where Tracey, Bunt, and Harley have taken shelter.
Pumpkinhead captures Bunt, and as Harley experiences the attack, Tracey is terrified to see that the monster's head now resembles Harley's. She runs outside and finds Chris struggling to crawl away as Pumpkinhead prepares to kill Bunt. Harley stumbles out of the barn but is accidentally stabbed in the arm by a pitchfork. Both Harley and Pumpkinhead cry out in pain, and Pumpkinhead releases Bunt. Harley notices that Pumpkinhead's head is turning more human, then realizes that he and Pumpkinhead are one: the only way to kill the monster is to die himself.
Pumpkinhead grabs Tracey by the neck, but before he can kill her, Harley shoots himself in the head. Pumpkinhead momentarily collapses to the ground, then grabs Bunt again. Tracey takes the gun and Harley begs her to finish him off. Harley, now fully changed, tries to attack Tracey. She shoots him until both he and Pumpkinhead fall to the ground dead. Tracey, Bunt, and Chris then watch as Pumpkinhead bursts into flames. Later that night, back in the pumpkin patch, the witch buries Harley's now-disfigured corpse in Pumpkinhead's grave, still wearing the necklace his son Billy made him.Lance Henriksen as Ed Harley
Jeff East as Chris
John D'Aquino as Joel
Kimberly Ross as Kim
Joel Hoffman as Steve
Cynthia Bain as Tracy
Kerry Remsen as Maggie
Florence Schauffer as Haggis
Brian Bremer as Bunt
Buck Flower as Mr. Wallace
Mayim Bialik as Wallace daughter
Matthew Hurley as Billy Harley
Lee DeBroux as Tom Harley
Madeleine Taylor Holmes as Old Hill Woman
Tom Woodruff, Jr. as Pumpkinhead
Pumpkinhead was inspired by a poem by Ed Justin. Filming took place in Los Angeles, California.
The film was given a limited release theatrically in the United States by United Artists in October 1988 and again in January 1989. In total, it grossed $4,385,516 total at the domestic box office.
The film was released on VHS in the U.S. by MGM/UA Home Entertainment in May, 1989 and again in April 1995. MGM released the film on DVD twice: once in 2000 as a standard edition and again in 2008 in a 20th Anniversary Edition featuring an audio commentary and over an hour of featurettes. It was released on Blu-ray in September, 2014.
Rotten Tomatoes, a review aggregator, reports that 65% of 19 surveyed critics gave the film a positive review; the average rating was 5.6/10. Dave Kehr of the Chicago Tribune wrote, "As a technician, Winston clearly knows how to make a monster, but as a director he's yet to learn how to bring one to life." Richard Harrington of The Washington Post wrote that the film has poor writing and acting, but it is surprisingly polished for a B movie. Chris Willman of the Los Angeles Times wrote that, despite its poor writing, the premise is interesting, but it's not executed as well as Forbidden Planet. Empire rated it 2/5 stars and called it a Friday the 13th clone with "little atmosphere and no surprises". TV Guide rated it 2/5 stars and wrote that the film's second half becomes tedious because of its overdone slasher formula.
In a 1992 retrospective, Jon Nalick of the Los Angeles Times described it as "a well-executed film in a genre that is littered with dimwitted slasher flicks". Bloody Disgusting rated the film 4/5 stars and called it "a gothic story of love, loss, vengeance, and redemption." Joshua Siebalt of Dread Central rated the film 4/5 stars and wrote that film "stands as a timeless, dark fairy tale." Reviewing the 2000 DVD release, G. Noel Gross of DVD Talk rated it 3.5/5 stars and wrote that the film is "too good to pass over", despite its lackluster presentation. Nick Nunziata also criticized the 2000 DVD release and wrote that the film does not hold up. Nick Schager of The A.V. Club called it an endearing, pulp film that lacks subtlety. Reviewing the film on Blu-ray, Ken Hanley of Starlog said it is "one hell of an impressive directorial debut". Writing in Horror Films of the 1980s, critic John Kenneth Muir called it "a meditation on vengeance" that is "surprising and rewarding" for its rejection of vigilante justice, a popular theme in the 1980s.
Despite its poor box office results, Pumpkinhead has become a cult film. In 2013, Tyler Doupe included Pumpkinhead in his list of Underrated Horror Killers at Fearnet, and Fangoria included it in their 101 Best Horror Movies You've Never Seen.
A sequel, entitled Pumpkinhead II: Blood Wings, went straight to video in 1994 directed by Jeff Burr.
Two additional sequels, titled Pumpkinhead: Ashes to Ashes and Pumpkinhead: Blood Feud, were filmed in 2006 as made for television movies and aired on Syfy. Pumpkinhead: Ashes to Ashes aired in October 2006, and Pumpkinhead: Blood Feud aired on February 10, 2007.
A reboot of the series is currently in the works and is to be produced by Saw Producer Peter Block. Block told Entertainment Weekly that Nate Atkins will write the script for the reboot and will start filming in 2017, the film will pay homage to the original film but only those who know the first film.
In 1993, Dark Horse Comics published a Pumpkinhead comic book series called "Pumpkinhead: The Rites of Exorcism". The comic was supposed to be a four-part mini-series but only two issues were published. The second one ended in a cliffhanger leaving readers with the prospect of a winged Pumpkinhead that would have appeared in the third issue.
In 1995, Electronic Arts published a first-person shooter computer game for Microsoft Windows called Bloodwings: Pumpkinhead's Revenge. The game was poorly received.
In 1991, GEOmetric Design, Inc. produced and marketed the first licensed Pumpkinhead model kit. It featured the demon on a display base depicting a portion of a burned out church. The model kit was sculpted by American artist Randy Bowen. The kit was discontinued when GEOmetric Design released its Pumpkinhead: The Metamorphosis kit in 1994. Sculpted by Japanese artist Takayuki Takeya (竹谷 隆之), the second kit was based on the Pumpkinhead sequel story written by Carducci and Gerani and published in the Dark Horse Comics series. The kit included a glossy, full-color booklet that concluded the cancelled comic.
In 2005, Sideshow Collectibles released a Pumpkinhead maquette.
The horror punk band The Misfits released a song entitled "Pumpkin Head", which was featured on their album Famous Monsters, released in 1999. Boondox, a horrorcore country rapper, released an EP entitled Punkinhead on May 1, 2007. It features a song of the same name.