The Aberrations #5: Halloween III: Season of the Witch

Halloween III

The Aberrations aren’t likely to spawn sequels or inspire remakes. No one will mistake them for classics; their supporters are a silent minority. Yet there’s something interesting about them, something odd or provocative enough to warrant a bit of consideration.

It’s the one without Michael Myers. The one about the masks. The one that has nothing to do with any of the other ones. Halloween III: Season of the Witch was released in 1982, one year after Halloween II, and steered what appeared to be an unstoppable franchise directly into a brick wall of audience expectations.

John Carpenter and Debra Hill had written and produced the first two films, with Carpenter directing the original. Halloween was a surprise smash that became one of the most successful indie films ever. The sequel wasn’t nearly as well-received but still turned a healthy profit. Its distributor, Universal, naturally wanted the golden goose to keep a-laying.

However, Carpenter and Hill wanted to move on. They had emphatically killed off iconic villain Michael Myers with an explosion at the climax of Halloween II; the film’s final image is a closeup of Michael’s face burning down to ash. Clearly they were done with their boogeyman. What to do, then, when a major studio and the public still demand Even More Of The Night He Came Home?

Carpenter and Hill seemed to seek a middle way. Rather than refusing Universal or retracting the ending of Halloween II, the team had another idea. If there were to be more Halloween movies, they would tell standalone stories related only by name and holiday setting. As Halloween III’s writer-director Tommy Lee Wallace said, “It is our intention to create an anthology out of the series, sort of along the lines of Night Gallery, or The Twilight Zone, only on a much larger scale, of course.” [Fangoria #22, Volume 3]

It was a bold gamble. That 1988’s Halloween 4 was subtitled The Return of Michael Myers may tell you how well it paid off.

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Halloween III opens with a nighttime chase in Northern California, a few days before the holiday. A frantic middle-aged man, Harry, runs into a junkyard, pursued by two other men dressed in gray business suits. Harry fights off one and escapes the other, collapsing into the arms of a gas-station attendant. The attendant takes Harry to the local hospital. Dr. Dan Challis (Tom Atkins) is called in, interrupting a somewhat sour visit with his kids and ex-wife.

Challis arrives to find Harry clutching a Silver Shamrock jack-o’-lantern mask, the same brand as the witch and skull masks Challis’ kids were showing off. A Silver Shamrock commercial also plays on the hospital TV, causing Harry to gasp, “They’re going to kill us!” Challis has Harry sedated and takes a nap himself.

Another business-suited man drives up to the hospital and enters Harry’s room undetected. The suit crushes Harry’s skull with nothing but his gloved hands and stoically walks past the screaming nurse. He then goes to the parking lot, pours gasoline on himself, and sets himself and the car ablaze.

Harry’s daughter Ellie (Stacey Nelkin) comes to the hospital to identify her father’s remains. She meets Challis, and the pair resolve to investigate the baffling murder. Their research leads them to the Silver Shamrock factory in a town called Santa Mira (one of a few nods to Invasion of the Body Snatchers), where all the locals view the newcomers with suspicion.

Halloween III pivots toward fantasy and science fiction as Challis and Ellie encounter Silver Shamrock’s founder, Conal Cochran (Dan O’Herlihy), and discover his evil scheme. It turns out that Cochran is both a warlock and technological wiz. All those business-suited henchmen acting on his behalf are robots, as are his factory workers.  The automatons have been implanting each mask with a microchip while a much-hyped Silver Shamrock broadcast is scheduled to air nationwide on Halloween night. By way of black magic, that broadcast will trigger the chips to turn every mask into a festering nest of deadly bugs and snakes, killing countless children. Thus it falls to Challis and Ellie to prevent such a disaster as the air date fast approaches.

Critics have noted the plot’s more obvious holes: what, exactly, is Cochran’s endgame? If the mass murder is upholding an ancient Celtic ritual of human sacrifice – as Cochran explains in his villain speech – what does he plan to do come November 1? Hop on a broomstick and fly back to Ireland? Hold a very awkward press conference? The microchips contain slivers of a rock from Stonehenge, endowed with supernatural power for the sake of the story. How the hell did Cochran manage to steal and transport a Stonehenge slab to California?

The story’s slapdash construction may be traced to a troubled script. Carpenter approached director Joe Dante (The Howling, Gremlins) to helm the film. Dante ended up directing a segment of Twilight Zone: The Movie instead but pointed Carpenter toward Nigel Kneale, a British sci-fi writer known (and admired by Carpenter) for the Quartermass films. Kneale wrote the first draft of Halloween III, but Carpenter and Tommy Lee Wallace reworked it. Carpenter has said that Kneale was “unpleasant to work with” while Kneale has claimed that executive producer Dino De Laurentiis pressured him and Wallace to add extraneous gore. Kneale – who apparently was not a horror fan and uninterested in writing “horror for horror’s sake” – ultimately requested to have his name removed from the project. Wallace would receive the sole writing credit.

Despite its half-baked plot, Halloween III still makes for an interesting film. Watching it now, thirty-four years and seven Halloween movies later, its kinship to the first two movies is striking. It looks like a Carpenter film, thanks to cinematographer Dean Cundey, who also shot the first two films, along with Carpenter’s The Fog, Escape From New York, and The Thing. It also sounds like a Carpenter film, with Carpenter and Alan Howarth collaborating on the brooding synth-driven score; they had scored Escape From New York and Halloween II, and would team up for four more Carpenter movies. Wallace had also been a longtime friend and assistant to Carpenter throughout Carpenter’s career, most notably serving as production designer and editor on the original Halloween. He’s credited with creating the Michael Myers mask, which is no small contribution to horror-movie history.

Actors from the first two films resurface, too. Nancy Kyes (aka Loomis), who played the best friend to Jamie Lee Curtis’ Laurie in the original, here plays Challis’ ex-wife. Dick Warlock, who played Myers in Halloween II, appears as one of the murderous henchbots. Curtis has a cameo of sorts, too; she voices both an off-screen telephone operator and a Silver Shamrock employee who announces Santa Mira’s curfew via loudspeaker.

In other words, Halloween III feels very much like the Carpenter-Hill production it is, sharing more of the first two films’ style than the subsequent sequels do. It also offers unique perks of its own. Atkins and Nelkin do well with what they’re given, and O’Herlihy is fun as the rather self-satisfied villain. The Silver Shamrock jingle, set to the tune of “London Bridge,” is appropriately infectious; you’ll hear it for days (or years) after the final credits roll. There are perversely effective moments, like this scene in which Cochran demonstrates his plan on an unsuspecting family. Whatever one thinks of this, it’s not easily forgotten:

Or this montage showing kids across the country as consumerist lambs lining up for slaughter:

Speaking of marketing, Universal’s promotional team pitched in with some eye-grabbing work, too. The trailer and Edd Riveria’s poster art (with the clever callback to the original’s tagline) might have been too good, promising audiences a thrill ride the actual movie couldn’t quite deliver.

It certainly didn’t deliver what audiences were expecting. Serious horror fans would have known about Halloween III’s departure from its predecessors through magazines like Fangoria and Cinefantastique. But the vast majority of the moviegoing public, especially in pre-Internet 1982, would have understandably assumed that a movie called Halloween III would have something to do with Halloween II and Halloween. In that sense, the marketing of III, as cool-looking as it was, also failed the movie by doing nothing to prepare audiences for Carpenter-Hill’s anthology concept.

The result was viewer confusion and anger, and the slew of brutal reviews didn’t help, either. Halloween III grossed $14 million on a $2.5 million budget, which doesn’t seem so bad until you consider that II grossed $25 million on the same while the original had grossed $70 million on $325,000. Universal then quietly backed out of the Halloween business, and the brand appeared to be dead.

While the Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street franchises dominated the horror box-office in the mid-80s, the Halloween series’ executive producer Moustapha Akkad sensed that fans would welcome a returning Michael Myers. Carpenter and Hill sold their rights to Akkad, who proceeded to resurrect the series in 1988. It has lumbered on into this century with Myers prominently placed on the posters lest anyone forget he’s the star.

Say this much for Myers: he has the gravitational pull of our sun. He brought the series back to Haddonfield, Illinois and dragged poor old Donald Pleasance through Halloween 4, 5, and 6 even though Pleasance’s character was also supposedly killed off in Halloween II. He lured Jamie Lee Curtis back to the fold for two movies after a 16-year gap, and director Rick Rosenthal (who clashed with Carpenter during the production of Halloween II) came back after 21 years. And, in a twist any fan of the Frankenstein story can appreciate, John Carpenter himself recently announced that he’ll be producing yet another Myers Halloween movie due in 2017.

Meanwhile, Halloween III remains an outlier that continues to provoke debate among horror fans. (For what it’s worth, I vote “guilty pleasure.”)  Its reputation seems to be improving with time, possibly helped by hindsight and a parade of tiresome stalk-and-slash Myers sequels. Whether it ever could have fulfilled its producers’ ambitions is a fair and open question. Carpenter and Hill may have underestimated Michael Myers or overestimated their ability to kill him. In any event, we’ll never know how strange and adventurous the Halloween series might have been if they’d succeeded.

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