HALLOWEEN III: SEASON OF THE WITCH (1982)
[98 minutes. R. Director: Tommy Lee Wallace]
In the featurette on Scream Factory’s Blu-ray of Halloween III: Season of the Witch, producer Irwin Yablans, going to bat for the late Moustapha Akkad, takes swing after swing at the creative team, insisting that the removal of burgeoning slasher icon Michael Myers from the series was “a bad idea,” and that he had little involvement with the film outside of “collecting a check.” This not only typifies the cynical stereotype of a film producer, but is an intriguing echo of Akkad’s own cash-grab mentality for the series, which reared its head something bigger and uglier as it continued miserably through the ‘80s and ‘90s. The franchise was never really about Michael Myers: it was about guys like Yablans and Akkad docking another yacht at the pier.
My own history with Season of the Witch – and the Halloween series overall – is odd. For the most part, I prefer the lesser-liked entries as opposed to the canonized fan favorites (I think John Carpenter’s 1978 original is, like The Shining, one of the most overrated horror films of all time). The irony is, I grew up disliking III for the reason Yablans stated – a Halloween film without Myers? That’s like a Reese’s without peanut butter – what’s the point?
But there was something to it all the same. Along with my lukewarm perception of some of the other series entries, I found myself returning to III time and again over the years.
Now I think I know why: rejected initially for its refusal to conform to what the series had established up to that point (the Michael-Loomis-Laurie triangle) – along with a title and marketing campaign that confused potential ticket-buyers – the film failed at the box office. In the ensuing years, as the producers returned to the Michael mythos (following them down the dire “Thorn” rabbit-hole), the original icon proved the law of diminishing returns with some truly abysmal outings.
This, I think, is when the attitude toward III began to change. I know several horror fans who consider it the best of the series because it ditches Michael (outside of his briefly-glimpsed movie-within-a-movie image on TV monitors), and I can imagine those – like myself – who were harsh on it before, noticing new wrinkles in its actually-very-good quality as the Michael slasher antics became indistinguishable from the imitators he spawned.
So, in a way, the producers’ insistence on driving the Myers story into the ground probably worked to III’s ultimate advantage.
While the film didn’t necessarily launch rugged tough-guy actor Tom Atkins into the stratosphere, it did establish his signature character: confident yet not macho; a deadbeat dad, yet not a bad guy; an Average Joe who still wants to do the right thing – not only for his fellow human, but for the world at large. He’s the type of doctor who goes about work with half his shirt unbuttoned, and casts a spell of desire over women almost half his age! He’s the type of blue-collar hero who does his best thinking with a six-pack of Miller or a bottle of bourbon. As typical as it sounds, we want him to save the world and get the girl at the end.
III’s reduced focus on horror is something that also may have soured word of mouth for those who actually did venture out to see it during its theatrical run. Most genre hybrids at that time (like, say, Alien) seamlessly interweaved elements of sci-fi and horror, while the semi-comedic likes of Night of the Creeps were still several years away (you could cite 1981’s Student Bodies, but that was another film that didn’t attain cult status until years later). III integrates everything from Noir (silhouetted characters, smoky bars, rain-streaked windows, seedy motel rooms) to science fiction (Atkins’ “Stop it!” plea at the end is an effective riff on “You’re next!” from Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers) to horror (the film takes place in the isolated town of Santa Mira, rich with banal, Lovecraft-styled menace).
Like many latter-day remakes and homages, III shares more in common with its predecessors than most of its detractors would probably like to admit: Carpenter’s Halloween is alluded to early on as “the immortal classic” and serves as the preamble to the televised “giveaway” that frames the final minutes; ditto the extensive use of over-the-shoulder shots and silhouettes of stoic characters glaring on. In a nod to Halloween II, some early action takes place in a hospital, wherein an assassin (stuntman Dick Warlock), after stalking the halls Michael Myers-style, kills a catatonic old man before proceeding to incinerate himself in the parking lot (remember when Myers went on a hospital rampage before meeting a similarly fiery “end”?).
The elements of mystery are well-integrated, and in telling a different kind of story, writer-director Tommy Lee Wallace (the It television miniseries) avoids a lot of the pitfalls that marred Carpenter’s film. What I found frustrating about the original Halloween (and something that was corrected rather well in the 1981 sequel) was the way it telegraphed its scary moments well in advance – whether by triggering an intrusive musical cue or making the viewer privy to information other characters were not.
III, on the other hand, leaves the audience to speculate on what might be happening in Santa Mira, where the lone industry is Silver Shamrock, a novelty company that manufactures Halloween masks. We pick up on information only as the characters do; thus, an atmosphere of suspense is maintained throughout – Wallace’s script may be the stuff of pulp dreams, but it’s almost brilliant in its execution. And the fact that Silver Shamrock’s founder, Conal Cochran (Robocop’s Dan O’Herlihy) ingratiatingly leaves some of Atkins’s questions unanswered upon his capture is surprisingly endearing. When revealing one of the Stonehenge stones in his factory warehouse, he laughingly states, “We had a time getting it here – you wouldn’t believe how we did it!” And honestly? That’s all we need to know.
But for those who haven’t seen it, the plot involves lifelike robots in business suits, the Celtic festival of Samhain (which, if you’ll recall, was mentioned several times in Halloween II), and a plot to kill the children of America on Halloween night.
The key supporting cast is wonderful: Stacey Nelkin plays a Nancy Drew-ish daughter pursuing the explanation for her kindly father’s murder, her performance reverberating with as much common sense as wide-eyed wonder as events unfold. O’Herlihy essays one of the most unconventional villains ever depicted on-screen; with charm to burn, he lays out his plans for world annihilation with the confidence of a Bond villain, but is never smug. If anything, his bemusement at his own fate nicely mirrors his P.T. Barnum approach to chaos. And if we want to go even further, his character is an apt corollary to Sebastian (William Sanderson) in Blade Runner (released the same year) – a lonely toymaker who relates more to automatons than people.
Granted, there are things in III that are kind of stupid: from the cheaply-affixed buttons that fall off the kids’ masks (calling into question the robots in charge of Cochran’s quality control); the way Atkins – who isn’t seen operating a computer at any point in the film – is able to easily cue up the Silver Shamrock “death feed” at the climax; and how, mere minutes before the mass murder is scheduled to occur, Atkins is able to get a national TV station on the phone and, despite his manic demeanor…well, I won’t give it away. (But seriously: in 1982, were there really only three television channels in the United States?) There’s also the “hide-behind-the-moving-mask-cart” trick that Sideshow Bob subsequently used on an episode of The Simpsons. These elements would be distracting in a lesser film, but here they add a peculiar charm.
The plot is already out there, so why not shoot for the moon – or, at the very least, Stonehenge?
4 out of 5 stars
Crash Analysis Support Team:
Jonny Numb (aka Jonathan Weidler) spends his days clowning around for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and writes horrific movie reviews by night. His work can also be found at loudgreenbird.com. He judges other things via antisocial media @JonnyNumb (Twitter and Letterboxd), and co-hosts THE LAST KNOCK horror podcast with @crashpalace.
(Halloween III photo from Atherton.)