Halloween III: Season of the Witch Deserves Another Look
Where the hell is Michael Myers? Halloween 3 may not be a canonical Halloween movie, but it's much better than you remember.
“Eight more days til Halloween, Halloween, Halloween…Eight more days til Halloween…Silver Shamrock!“
No matter how undeniably great a film the original Halloween was, by the middle of Halloween II some of us—seven or eight of us anyway—were already pretty bored with the idea of watching Michael Myers carving up even more teens. That’s why for that small handful, Halloween III: Season of the Witch, no matter how different and unexpected and strange it was (and precisely for those reasons), came as a blessed relief.
Following the mind-boggling success of the 1978 original, John Carpenter and Debra Hill had a clever idea. Instead of traditional repetitive sequels, they’d turn Halloween into an anthology series: each year a new film would come out whose only connection to the previous films would be that it centered around a Halloween theme. As far as holidays go, Halloween was as rich with stories as Christmas, right? The clever angle was that not only would it keep the franchise alive and fresh, but any one of the entries could in turn become a franchise in its own right, spinning off its own sequels. It sounded like a studio’s dream.
Unfortunately, the blandly traditional Halloween II had gone into production about ten minutes after the original opened, so it was too late to do anything with the anthology idea. Or maybe not. Carpenter and Hill charged ahead, hoping to reclaim the anthology idea with Halloween III. Instead of Michael Myers with a butcher knife, the core idea of the film would be “witchcraft meets the computer age.” They brought in Joe Dante (The Howling, Gremlins) to direct, and hired the remarkable Nigel Kneale (the Quatermass films) to write the script, which focused on modern-day Druids practicing Halloween in the old old-fashioned way.
(Normally when I encounter a unique and intelligent science fiction/horror film, I suspect the screenwriter was ripping off Kneale. Now that I actually had a Kneale script, I suspect him of lifting from Larry Cohen. But that’s just me.)
Dante soon left the project and was replaced by longtime Carpenter collaborator Tommy Lee Wallace. In fact the entire project became a family affair, as most of the crew had worked on Halloween, The Fog, or both. The lead, Tom Atkins, had been in The Fog, and there were even small roles for Jamie Lee Curtis and Dick Warlock (an appropriate enough name), who played Myers in Halloween II. Both Carpenter and Wallace reworked the script, adding among other things the film’s most annoying and memorable element—the Silver Shamrock commercial jingle, which plays countless times throughout the picture and is guaranteed to get stuck in your head for years afterward.
Seriously…see for yourself:
Wallace also added a number of nods to a film he considered a primary inspiration, Don Siegel’s classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers, even shooting much of the film in the same little town where that was shot. In the end Wallace claims 60 percent of Kneale’s original script is on the screen, but Kneale still insisted on having his name removed from the credits for what he considered an over-bloodied oversimplification of his story.
Even if it is oversimplified, it remains a tight little sci fi horror mystery conspiracy tale.
After an incoherent man clutching a Halloween mask is delivered to a small Northern California hospital muttering that “they’re going to kill us all!” he’s in fact murdered in his bed by a strangely calm man in a dark suit who crushes his skull, then blows himself up in the parking lot. Understandably confounded and intrigued by this turn of events, Dr. Dan Challis (Atkins,), who had treated the incoherent man moments before the murder, teams up with the man’s daughter Ellie (Stacey Nelkin) to try and figure out just what the hell that was all about. Ellie’s dad had run a small toy shop, and their investigation leads them to the creepy little town of Santa Mera, a town built and overshadowed by Silver Shamrock, the world’s largest manufacturer of Halloween masks, and Conal Cochran (the Great Dan O’Herlihy), who built Silver Shamrock.
Things clearly aren’t quite what they should be in Santa Mera (the surveillance cameras and six p.m. curfew is a big hint), and despite his warm smile there’s definitely something sinister about that toy maker. Well, sure enough Dan and Ellie uncover a plot set to unfold on Halloween night that’s not merely fiendish—it’s downright diabolical, but the less said about it the better.
(Though the news report at the beginning of the film concerning the theft of one of the standing stones from Stonehenge is more than mere background noise.)
It’s an intelligent, surprising, and disturbing film with a number of nice touches. From the opening credits onward, television and computer screens are an almost inescapable bit of set dressing, and by the film’s end you see why. The music, though clearly having evolved from the original Halloween score (with a few passages remaining untouched), is more subtle and used to greater effect. And it’s a film, contrary to Hitchcock’s dire warning, that’s not afraid to kill innocent children in some really horrible ways.
And then there’s that grating Silver Shamrock commercial, which was created and performed by Tommy Lee Wallace himself. Those commercial sequences in particular were shot specifically to be seen on a wide screen in a darkened theater. If you watch them today on a TV screen in a well-lit room you’ll lose much of the effect, but trust me—they were intentionally designed to really mess with your head. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
Sadly for those of us who consider this the best of the series and who anticipated a continuing anthology, most everyone else who went to the theaters back in ‘83 (everyone except those seven or eight I mentioned) went expecting to see more of that crazy Michael Myers doing that one thing he does best. It seems all the clear references to the original in Halloween III weren’t enough, and when audiences didn’t get precisely what they were expecting—that is, another dose of what they’d already seen twice before—they got pissed, and as a result the film earned a terrible reputation for daring to be something a little different.
It also earned itself no money. Granted, releasing it as Halloween III after a traditional sequel had already hit the market might not have been the most straightforward or bright move, but that’s beside the point. The studio took the hint, and before you can say Halloween H20 they were back with the same damn thing again and everyone was happy. They knew what to expect every time, no one was gonna screw that up for them, and they were happy to continue paying for the comfort and the peace of mind. They didn’t want anyone messing with their heads.
That’s okay. They can have it. I don’t think I’ll even bother to tell them that Halloween III has got killer Irish robots in it.