Must Be the Season of the Witch: ‘Halloween III’ Turns 40

This is not another “Halloween III is good actually” article. After forty years, its reappraisal as a genre classic seems to be more or less complete. It is true that for years the absence of Michael Myers, Laurie Strode, and Dr. Loomis led many fans of the Halloween movies to confusion, rejection, or outright rage against the film, but as time has passed, tempers have cooled, and the film has been assessed on its own terms. Though John Carpenter’s original masterpiece is generally acknowledged as the apex of the franchise, Halloween III: Season of the Witch is, at least for many, the film that captures the essence of the Halloween season better than any other in the series. By looking to the ancient past and combining it with current American celebrations and cultural rituals, it creates a tapestry that reflects the “Season of the Witch” in a way that few horror films had ever attempted before.

Feeling they had stretched the Michael Myers saga as far as it could go, producers Debra Hill and John Carpenter opted to take the franchise in a different direction. The idea was presented to Universal to make a kind of anthology franchise. Each year a different film centered around the Halloween holiday could be released under the Halloween title and each entry could then spin off into any number of sequels that may arise. This kind of idea has become commonplace today and thrives within The Conjuring universe, not to mention the MCU, but was decades ahead of its time in 1982. With only this freedom of concept in mind, Carpenter and Hill approached Joe Dante, fresh off the success of The Howling (1981) to direct the first in this proposed Halloween anthology series. Dante in turn suggested Quatermass creator Nigel Kneale to write the screenplay. Despite openly disliking the first two Halloween films, Kneale accepted. The experience of working with Kneale proved to be difficult for Carpenter and Tommy Lee Wallace, the director that was brought on board when Dante departed to film a segment of Twilight Zone: The Movie. Wallace had served as production designer and editor on the first Halloween and had been offered the director’s chair on Halloween II, but turned it down after reading, and intensely disliking, the script.

According to the definitive book on the making of the Halloween franchise, Taking Shape by Dustin McNeill and Travis Mullins, “the producers allowed Kneale enormous creative freedom in writing his first draft of Halloween III. His only instruction per Debra Hill was that the film should bring witchcraft into the computer age.” This first draft contains the basic story and structure of the final film but does not contain the “android henchmen, Stonehenge, and children’s heads decomposing into creepy critters,” as McNeill and Mullins put it. Still, Wallace contends that more than half the final script was written by Kneale, including the ideas of the demented mask-maker intent on sacrificing millions of children on Halloween, but was not open to criticisms and departed when Wallace and Carpenter suggested revisions. Carpenter did an uncredited rewrite before Wallace did the third and final version. He has called his sole writing credit on Halloween III, “just about the most inaccurate credit you could ever conceive of.”

NECA's 'Halloween III: Season of the Witch' Toony Terrors Are Just the Cutest

There are several elements that make Halloween III a compelling film and a standout in the franchise. The very structure of the film is about as far from a slasher as you can get. It is a mystery-thriller, practically Hitchcockian in nature, in which an ordinary man finds himself in extraordinary circumstances, combined with supernatural and science-fiction elements. Dr. Dan Challis (Tom Atkins) is drawn into a web of intrigue that slowly reveals itself throughout the course of the film, keeping the viewer enough off-balance to keep them guessing all the way up to its ambiguous ending. Tommy Lee Wallace has called the first film a “knife movie” where Halloween III is a “pod movie,” drawing on the Don Siegel sci-fi/horror classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) for a great deal of inspiration. Like Body Snatchers, Halloween III is a film about paranoia. From the opening shots, we see Harry Grimbridge (Al Berry) running from mysterious agents. The dark-suited enforcers of villain Conal Cochran (Dan O’Herlihy) stand watch in every corner, especially when they reach the town of Santa Mira where the Silver Shamrock mask factory is headquartered. The town, named after the setting of Body Snatchers, has a strict 6pm curfew and is filled with security cameras. There is a constant sense that “Big Brother is Watching You” in the town of Santa Mira and no one, not even the pets of the townspeople, can avoid the all-seeing eye of the Silver Shamrock corporation.

Linked to this is the film’s examination of corporate America, particularly in the ways it deals with the takeover of the town and advertising aimed at children. Santa Mira was once a farming town that has been completely taken over by the Silver Shamrock factory. Because of this, it is as if the soul of the town has been sucked out, leaving behind a mere shell of what the town once was as its inhabitants are plagued by fear and paranoia. Even more biting is the ubiquitous television advertising depicted in the film with its earworm of a jingle (it’s in your head right now, admit it). The early 80’s saw more and more advertising, particularly for toys and fast food, being directed toward children in hopes that they would pester their parents into buying them action figures and taking them to McDonald’s for Happy Meals. Here the advertisements are used for the ultimate purpose of sacrificing children to the pagan god that Cochran worships which will not only destroy the children but their parents as well. It is a dark, satirical stab at corporations, advertising, and television itself that questions if Americans are willingly sacrificing their children to the gods of capitalism on the altar of corporate greed, a theme that has only become more acute in the forty years since the film’s original release.

Halloween III masks

Still, a great concept is nothing without great characters, and Halloween III features a number of them, but none greater than its hero Dr. Challis. Tom Atkins had become part of the Carpenter/Hill film family with his roles in The Fog (1980) and Escape from New York (1981) and jumped at the chance of a lead role in one of their films. Challis is compelling not because he is a great or even good man, but because he is a flawed hero. His motivations are not altruistic. In fact, he seems to agree to investigate the death of Harry Grimbridge only because he is attracted to his daughter Ellie (Stacey Nelkin), leaving behind his children and ex-wife (Nancy Loomis) with hardly a word and taking nothing but a six-pack of Miller High Life on his adventure with Ellie. But despite, or maybe even because of, his flaws we are on Challis’s side throughout. Of course, this is due in large part to Atkins’s intense likability as an actor but also because of the way Challis is written. He is a relatable hero. He is far from invincible; aging and exhausted by the end, surviving only by his wits and luck. He never seems quite sure if what he tries will work, and in the end, he may not even succeed.

In a direct homage to the original ending of Invasion of the Body Snatchers in which Kevin McCarthy pleads with passing cars that the invasion has already started before shouting directly at the screen and to the audience “you’re next!,” Challis pleads for the Silver Shamrock commercial to be stopped. Even here, can we be sure that his motives are pure? Is he really thinking of all those millions of children or is he only thinking of his own, who he last saw in a skull and witch mask dancing in front of the television? Either way, we don’t know for sure if Challis is successful in convincing the final station to interrupt the ad. In Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the studio felt it was necessary to add a “happy” ending in which the police believe McCarthy’s story. Here, there is no such reassurance. We are left with Atkins looking directly at us, the audience, and shouting “stop it!” This serves the dual purpose of a strong, ambiguous ending, but also implicates the audience in participating in the issues raised by the film and challenging us to take part in changing them.

Of course, a film’s hero is only as good as its villain, and Conal Cochran is one of horror’s true greats. Like Michael Myers, he is an embodiment of pure evil, an immortal force fixated on the destruction of innocents. Played by Dan O’Herlihy with a sophistication and charm that just barely masks his evil nature, Cochran draws others to himself before they even realize they have been caught in his web. O’Herlihy is at his malicious best when delivering his monologue to Challis about the true nature of Halloween. He describes the last great festival of Samhain that happened 3,000 years before when, “the hills ran red with the blood of animals and children.” And now that the planets have aligned, he plans to make that happen again. Perhaps even the same spirit of evil that inhabits Michael Myers inhabits Conal Cochran, making Halloween III more a piece of the franchise as a whole than usually discussed.

Ultimately, Halloween III is about why the Halloween season itself exists. It calls back to the ancient roots of the season and combines it with the present American rituals. Conal Cochran’s entire scheme is a combination of past and present. His resentment toward the idea of children putting on masks and “begging for candy” is how he plans to sacrifice them all to the gods. It is a delicious irony that makes Cochran all-the-more maniacal and his evil all-the-more pervasive. The icons of the season—the witch, the skull, and the jack-o-lantern—are perfectly placed in a way that evokes the ancient and modern, and the Don Post versions of these have become icons in themselves. The great nationwide montage near the end of the film as dozens of Silver Shamrock-masked children make their way home for the “big giveaway” gives the sense that the modern Halloween celebration has been co-opted into a form of Americana that Cochran and the film itself wishes to subvert. As the years go by and Halloween becomes more and more popular, as thoroughly commercialized as Christmas, we move further away from its roots, for better or worse depending on your point of view. Halloween III captures these ideas and becomes ever more relevant as time goes on.

Watching Halloween III: Season of the Witch forty years later becomes an exercise in “what ifs?” What if this had been the second Halloween film released? Would it have spawned a horror anthology series decades before The Conjuring universe? What if it had been released before the slasher craze had so thoroughly taken hold? Would it have been more successful in its day? What if it had a different title? Would that really have made a difference? Maybe audiences just weren’t ready for this movie back in 1982. On first watch, when I was deeply invested in the Michael Myers saga, I must admit that I found this film to be a disappointment. But taken on its own terms, Halloween III is a great horror thriller that takes big swings and connects on most of them. Above all, it captures an essence of the Halloween season that is to some degree intangible. Because it takes place in California, there is not a lot of fall atmosphere, the decorations and trick-or-treating really only arrive late in the film, but somehow the film as a whole captures the Halloween feeling through and through. Like the character of Conal Cochran, it covers itself with a veneer of charm and affability that just barely hides an acid wit and biting satire. It is a brilliant film that deserves to have finally gotten its long-delayed due.

Halloween III 40th anniversary

The post Must Be the Season of the Witch: ‘Halloween III’ Turns 40 appeared first on Bloody Disgusting!.