Retrospective: Halloween III: Season of the Witch

Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982) is a film ahead of its time, but not in any way related to the kind of filmmaking taking place here; instead this is due to the context of its existence. The idea of taking the Halloween series into the anthology route was an uphill battle for its creators. That’s exactly what John Carpenter and collaborators had in mind, and it’s the audience reaction that would push these filmmakers from the series they created. Michael Myers was laid to rest in Halloween II (1981),and his death opened up a world of possibilities in Carpenter’s eyes. The idea of making a Halloween-themed film without having to worry about the baggage from prior entries appealed to Tommy Lee Wallace, the production designer from Halloween (1978). He had passed on the directing duties for its sequel, mainly because of the lack of originality. As a result of the blank canvas set before him, he accepted the job for Halloween III.

Tasked with writing the screenplay was Carpenter’s favorite, Nigel Kneale, the creator of the Quatermass series. Studio heads balked at Kneale’s insistence for psychological scares over gore and forced the writer to include much more of the latter. Kneale was displeased and asked to have his name taken off the script. Wallace would provide a revision that would turn into the film that exists today. Carpenter and Debra Hill would once again serve as producers, with Carpenter providing the film’s score, along with collaborator Alan Howarth. The film would stand on its own, but there would be stylistic similarities, such as Halloween III’s own stamp on the pumpkin intro.

Halloween III: Season of the Witch. Dir. Tommy Lee Wallace.

Halloween III begins as a crazed man is brought into a Californian hospital. He is a local shop owner named Harry Grimbridge, and he rants about how something is going to “Kill them all” all while clutching a standard Halloween mask close to his chest. Later that night, a well-dressed man arrives and violently murders Grimbridge before getting into his car, which he set to explode, killing himself in the process. This doesn’t sit right with Dr. Challis, the film’s protagonist, who has never seen anything like this occur during his tenure. After meeting Grimbridge’s daughter, Ellie, they both leave their temporary lives behind to investigate the sketchy details of the murder-suicide. From what they uncover, it all seems to lead to a mask/toy manufacturer named Silver Shamrock located in the small town of Santa Mira. As more details are uncovered, it seems that Silver Shamrock and Santa Mira aren’t all that they seem.

This is normal.

Hill has gone on record several times to claim that Halloween III is a “pod movie” and not a “knife movie”, which is referring to Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956).  What this also means is that this isn’t the kind of film that is going to appeal to teenagers for date night. Halloween III features its heroes uncovering a greater conspiracy occurring around them. There is a small bit of commentary here warning of the dangers of commercialism along with the people who take advantage of it, but with a plot this insane it’s hard to pay attention to that aspect. Silver Shamrock is owned/founded by a man named Conal Cochran. He made his start selling practical jokes along with toys and made a fortune doing so. His latest venture is primarily aimed towards the manufacture of Halloween masks. Through them, he plans to play the biggest joke of all, at the expense of the lives of millions of children across the country.

Conal Cochran in Halloween III: Season of the Witch.

Cochran has a bit of a Bond-villain quality to him. He’s the head of a major corporation and seemingly evil for the sake of it (perhaps there is more social commentary here than I thought?). There’s frequent mention of his love for practical jokes, and that seems to be his primary motivation for his actions. That and going back to the days of Celtic Tradition “when the hills ran red with blood.”  This is often targeted as a weakness of the film by critics, including Roger Ebert, who questioned the strength of Cochran’s motives.

Sometimes, however, people are evil just for the sake of it. History has shown this through countless massacres. Cochran isn’t supposed to be someone the audience can relate to; they’re supposed to instead detest him. Tom Atkins’s Dr. Challis is a womanizing drunk who constantly neglects his family. It’s implied that one of the reasons he decided to take on this investigation was because of his attraction to the much younger Ellie, who sort of serves as a “manic pixie dream girl” type for Challis and a reason for him to be pulled further into the plot. Aside from one silly piece of writing at the end of the movie, Ellie doesn’t get much, which is unfortunate.

“Where do you want to sleep, Dr. Challis?”

It’s an absurd story, featuring robots, insects, and a little bit of Stonehenge. Silver Shamrock stole one of the Stonehenge monuments and uses a little science (magic maybe?) to fuse it with some computer chips that are then attached to their Halloween masks. These chips are activated from a signal sent by a commercial on television, which then turns the victim’s face into a mess of gore, insects, and snakes. It’s all ludicrous, but somehow it kind of works? There are a couple of scenes that display the horrors of this plan, including one on an unsuspecting family in a test room that absolutely steals the show.

It’s a testament to the filmmakers that a story this “out there” is made to be as horrifying as it is, because it could just as easily have been a disaster. Ironically, despite the lack of Michael Myers, Halloween III has perhaps the most disturbing scenes of violence and gore throughout the entire series. However, it doesn’t feel over the top or just for shock value. These scenes are actually necessary to sell the audience on the horrors of Cochran’s plan, and also give a reason to take this film seriously.

Halloween III: Season of the Witch. Dir. Tommy Lee Wallace.

Technically, the film is well-shot which is what can be expected of a director of photography like Dean Cundey. He elevates B-Picture material into the sort of elegance that’s expected of higher budget pictures. It’s thanks to his signature lighting (or use of shadows) along with Wallace’s direction that the moments of horror are as effective as they are. The film has a steady pace that ramps up towards the finale, which also increases the paranoia factor. The sounds and music provided by Carpenter and Howarth enhance the images and create dread, and the score achieves this by relying on ambiance and atmosphere over melody. It’s thanks to these elements that the horror and film itself can be taken seriously and doesn’t devolve into straight camp.

It would be wrong not to mention one of the more important pieces of music attached to the film. This, of course, being the Silver Shamrock Halloween theme. It makes use of the melody from “London Bridge is Falling Down” and is at once annoying and catchy, which is even remarked on by characters in the film. It plays throughout and has the effect of reinforcing that something unnatural and ominous is fast approaching while simultaneously begging the audience to stick ice picks in their ears.

“Eight More Days ‘Til Halloween”

Halloween III: Season of the Witch is a film with noticeable flaws, but it’s thanks to good filmmaking that the material is elevated. The plot is nonsensical most of the time, and there are some reveals that honestly don’t make much sense and are made more for plot convenience (particularly during the last ten minutes), but the more far-fetched elements are balanced by moments of dread and horror that actually work. Despite the film’s shortcomings, it all leads to a completely unforgettable finale that is as ominous as it is gloomy. The film may have initially been rejected by fans of the series, but as the years pass by its future grows brighter. It doesn’t need Michael Myers; the vast majority of Michael Myers’ movies wish they could attain this quality.

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