From the Shelf – Halloween III: Season of the Witch

What makes a film appeal to one person more than another? How does a film impact someone so much as to make them want to watch it over and over — to the point where they can reenact every scene and quote every line? What actually makes a film significant and memorable? Does it have to impact cinema as a whole or just impact a single person profoundly?

In this periodic column, the Inside Pulse Movies staff delves into their own collection of films in order to discover the merits of some of their favorite movies. Today: Halloween III: Season of the Witch.

It’s ironic really. Few horror movies that intentionally set out to become a franchise — spawning a bottomless well of sequels and making their filmmakers ultra rich — succeed in their objective. These sequel-baiting horror films more often than not wind up damned to a future sitting on the clearance shelves of big-box retailers around Halloween time — hoping to entice customers with cheaply purchased, if ultimately bland, scares.

On the other hand, some of the longest lasting, most beaten into the ground horror movie series were spawned from films originally envisioned as standalone projects. A Nightmare on Elm Street. Friday the 13th. Saw. These horror films have become synonymous with sequels of diminishing returns but they all had humble origins there were eventually twisted around, propped up and pumped full of steroids to prolong the series’ lives.

In 1978, Halloween was released in theaters — ushering in both the slasher sub-genre and the beginning of director John Carpenter’s success as a popular horror film director. Halloween eventually spawned Halloween II, a direct continuation of the first film that saw masked serial killer Michael Myers continue to stalk Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis), the one victim who got away.

When it came time to film Halloween III, though, John Carpenter and Debra Hill, who had written the scripts for the first two Halloween movies, saw an opportunity to take the franchise in a whole new direction and do something that had never been done before. Carpenter and Hill wanted to transform the Halloween franchise into an anthology series. The two saw the promise of a new film released every Halloween — completely independent of the other films in the series and with its own scary plot and characters.

Friday the 13th producers had also banded this idea around for their series but it was Carpenter and Hill who put their money with their mouth was and produced Halloween III: Season of the Witch, a film that dropped the popular Michael Myers character and exited the slasher sub-genre for an almost science fiction plot about killer Halloween masks and an evil mad scientist keen on murdering children.

They’re going to kill us. All of us! All of us!

Tom Atkins, who had previously appeared in Carpenter’s The Fog and Escape from New York, stars as Dr. Dan Challis, an alcoholic medical doctor who finds himself deep in an investigation into the mysterious death of a novelty gift store owner.

Challis becomes entangled in the bizarre mystery when one of his patients, a local shop owner who was brought into the hospital after being attacked by mysterious business-suit wearing figures, is killed — his skull crushed by an assailant’s bare hands. After Challis chases the man’s killer to the hospital parking lot, he’s shocked to see the assailant commit suicide — dowsing himself in flammable liquid before setting himself and his car on fire.

When Ellie Grimbridge, the deceased shopkeeper’s daughter played by Stacey Nelkin, starts poking around the mysterious circumstances that lead to her father’s death, Challis volunteers to drive out to a small factory town of Santa Mira, a place that could provide clues to why the shopkeeper was attacked and killed.

Santa Mira, a fictional California town that has also been the setting for Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Dean Koontz’s novel Phantoms, is the home to Silver Shamrock Novelties.

Silver Shamrock is a powerful gag gift manufacturer that has lately specialized in Halloween masks — most particularly a trio of colorful latex masks heavily promoted throughout the film. The masks, a witch, a jack o’ lantern and a skull, are the pride and joy of Conal Cochran, the enigmatic owner of Silver Shamrock Novelties.

Challis and Grimbridge’s investigation into Silver Shamrock and its surrounding town begins to hint at some deadly shenanigans at foot. Before long, the two are targeted by Cochran and his team of enforcers as possible threats to his very bizarre plan to kill off as many children as possible via a computer chips installed in the masks that contain a fragment of Stonehenge and, when triggered, will open a portal inside the mask wearer’s head that will insert all manners of creepy animals where their brains once were.

The world’s going to change tonight, doctor, I’m glad you’ll be able to watch it.

Yes, Season of the Witch has a strange, somewhat hokey plot but that’s what makes the movie so much fun. The sequel does not feature the ever-present ominous dread of the first two Halloween movies. Instead of the primal fear of the boogeyman, the shape out there in the darkness waiting to rob us of our lives, Halloween III melds traditional Halloween motifs such as witchcraft, costumes and trickery with a plot heavily steeped in the fears of the ‘80s — paranoia, mass consumerism, corporate misdeeds and, most of all, the fear that television can literally rot your brain.

Released in 1982, Season of the Witch sought to break free of the tightly bound formula already becoming prevalent in the slasher sub-genre and create a mystery story reminiscent of The Wicker Man — but with a decidable ‘80s bent to it.  The story is first and foremost a slow-burn mystery — heavily accentuated with the appropriate amount of atmosphere and tongue-in-cheek wit.

The film was originally set to be directed by The Howling filmmaker Joe Dante. During pre-production, Dante approached science fiction writer Nigel Kneale to write the screenplay for the film — letting him have free reign with the story as Kneale had not seen the original two Halloween films nor had any interest in seeing them.

Dante soon dropped out to take on another project and Tommy Lee Wallace was hired to direct the film. Wallace had worked on several of Carpenter’s previous films behind the scenes as an art director and production designer and had been asked to direct Halloween II. After Season of the Witch, Wallace went on to direct another underrated horror sequel, Fright Night II, along with Vampires: Los Muertos, a sequel to another John Carpenter film, and the mini-series adaptation of Stephen King’s It.

Kneale’s script was a huge departure from the first two Halloween films not just in plot but also in the way it handled its horror — aiming more towards psychological scares than gory violence.

The film’s distributor Dino De Laurentiis, who recently passed away, did not appreciate the draft by Kneale, though, and requested more graphic violence and gore be inserted. Kneale balked at the idea and requested his name be removed from the script. Wallace was assigned to rewrite the script and subsequently had sole writing credit for the movie.

As stated earlier, Season of the Witch was intended to be the launching of the Halloween series as an anthology franchise — similar to the television shows Night Gallery or The Twilight Zone. When seen from a modern eye, though, the plot of Season of the Witch could have been an episode of The X-Files or Supernatural — with the film’s askew take on the supernatural blending nicely with a tone that never takes itself too seriously. To tell the truth, though, there’s another show that Season of the Witch resembles more than any other — Scooby Doo.

I do love a good joke and this is the best ever: a joke on the children.

Season of the Witch is one talking dog away from being a Scooby Doo movie. From the evil old man with a larger than life plot to kill children to the almost comical ways Challis and Grimbridge stumble along their investigation — uncovering clues and foiling enemies as if it were the easiest thing to do in the world, the movie is a live action cartoon in many ways. Even the idea that the film’s biggest threat involves a mask could be seen as homage to the classic cartoon where simply pulling off a rubber mask could stop a monster in his tracks.

It’s these comparisons that cause me to believe Season of the Witch is actually a perfect introductory horror movie for children. While the film features quite a few gory death scenes, most of the movie’s carnage is just slightly off-screen — either obscured by a layer of latex hiding the melting of heads or hidden in the shadows of a dark room.

A heavy amount of profanity and sexual situations prevents me from outright saying Season of the Witch is a full-out children’s movie, but I do believe the film is a great way to test your young one’s tolerance for scary movies when they begin to insist on watching horror movies.

The film features a scary plot — especially scary for children since the movie’s villain is keen on killing the world’s tykes by melting their noggin and having snakes and spiders crawl out the oozing cavity — but it is just an exaggerated version of a Scooby Doo episode. Season of the Witch represents a great stepping stone for children seeking to get scared and who have grown too old for Goosebumps but aren’t quite ready to watch Saw.

It will be morning soon. Halloween morning. A very busy day for me.

A huge chunk of what makes Halloween III such an enjoyable movie is the presence of Tom Atkins. Atkins, who has been in such memorable films as Creepshow, Night of the Creeps, Maniac Cop, Lethal Weapon and My Bloody Valentine 3D, is not a traditional horror movie hero. He’s a doctor with a drinking problem, a lousy father and will, without questioning such small niggling things as details, take for granted that the woman he’s been sleeping with is dead and leave her to her fate without attempting a rescue operation.

Atkins is the epitome of the ‘80s blue-collar worker — which makes the fact that he plays a medical doctor in Halloween III all the more awesome. He’s gruff yet smooth with his words when he wants to have sex and he knows his way around using his fists. Plus, he has an awesome mustache.

Halloween buffs should keep an eye out for cameos from Nancy Keyes, who plays Challis’ ex-wife and played Annie Brackett in the original Halloween; Dick Warlock, who played Michael Myers in Halloween II and is an android assassin in Season of the Witch, and Jamie Lee Curtis who lends her voice to that of a telephone operator in Halloween III.

Speaking of Halloween ties, Season of the Witch uses footage from Carpenter’s classic film in a way that will either be seen as a clever homage or a groan-worthy and self-congratulatory metafictional slap on the back. Personally, I thought it was genius.

Throughout the film, scenes from Halloween show up on various television sets. In one particular scene, the soundtrack from the television playing Halloween manages to use Carpenter’s famous piano theme as situational music for Season of the Witch — allowing the musical theme from the first two films to carry over into the third despite the clean slate producers were aiming for.

Besides the direct musical carryover of the famous Halloween theme, there was the continuity of having John Carpenter and Alan Howarth compose the music for Halloween III. The two had previously worked together for Halloween II but in Season of the Witch they decided to venture into heavy use of a synthesizer, a sound that would later become synonymous with Carpenter’s musical style.

And then, of course, there’s the famous Silver Shamrock jingle — used ad nauseum throughout the film to advertise the novelty gift company’s line of Halloween masks. The earworm uses the tune of “London Bridge is Falling Down” and features director Tommy Lee Wallace’s voice as the announcer.

Final Thoughts

Halloween III was one of the least successful films in the Halloween franchise — dooming Carpenter’s plans to turn his film series into a yearly Halloween present for horror fans and leading to the return of Michael Myers in Halloween 4.

Despite the commercial and critical drubbing Halloween III received upon its release, a cult following has grown around the movie in recent years — with film historians pointing out many of the deeper themes in the film that had initially been overlooked. These Reagan era motifs of consumerism and capitalism are there to be found but I think there’s an even deeper theme lurking under the surface.

It’s interesting that for a evil scientist keen on selling as many Halloween masks as possible in a plot to melt kids brains, he would only make three variations — a skull, a jack o’ lantern and a witch. While in the movie, kids flock to these three variations — braying for the Silver Shamrock brand name and using the masks with a variety of different cheap, plastic costumes that give the illusion of variety — there remains only three distinct masks.

I feel this is a commentary on the state of horror movies in 1982. After Halloween‘s success, a rash of copycat films had been rushed into production — all variations of the same masked serial killer theme. Similar situations happened whenever another horror movie found success — thinly veiled copycats were slammed into theaters.

Before long, there were only a handful of types of horror movies being made — with distinctions shallow among the imitators.

Sure Halloween III is a bit weird and cheesy but it represented an attempt to do something different, to step outside the same cookie cutter formulas that had been choking theaters since the ‘70s. By having the horror-loving children of America toppled by cheap, mass-manufactured Halloween masks, Tommy Lee Wallace was pointing out the direction American horror was headed.

Was Halloween III the best way to break free of this pattern? Attempting this message in the third part of a horror movie franchise is probably not the best idea but when seen in hindsight, it remained a clear battle cry that, I believe, ushered in a small but audible shockwave in horror movie history.

Horror is a lot more distinctive today than it was in 1981. There is a wide variety of scary movies from which to choose from. It would be hard of me to argue that this is due to Halloween III‘s influence, but one thing that isn’t too hard to argue is the fact that the movie did have an influence of some kind.

Whether you are a longtime fan of the film or you’ve been avoiding it due to the unfair criticism it received upon release, don’t miss an opportunity to watch Halloween III: Season of the Witch. It’s a much, much better movie than you’ve heard.

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