The original Halloween came out in 1978, and told the tale of Michael Myers returning home to terrorize his old neighborhood. The sequel came out in 1981 and continued the story of that same Halloween night. Halloween III: Season of the Witch came out a year later, and did not continue the story of Michael Myers. This is sometimes cited as a significant reason in the third film’s poorer reception among fans. But John Carpenter reportedly had always intended Halloween to be an anthology series, in which each entry would tell a different tale of Halloween horror. (Which begs the question of why Halloween II is a direct sequel, as — entertaining though it was — it was rather redundant.) Halloween III may not be a tale of Michael Myers, but it is arguably closer to the original intent of the franchise because of that absence.
When watching Season of the Witch, I decided to keep an open mind and view it in the spirit that it was made. My thinking was that perhaps if it had been the second film, and the “Halloween = Michael Myers” mindset had not been established, perhaps it would have been better received. If nothing else, the film deserved a chance to stand on its own.
I can now state, with no evasion, that the absence of Michael Myers does not make Halloween III a bad film. It’s everything else about it that does that.
OK, everything but Tom Atkins’ mustache.
The film opens up with a man on the run, which isn’t a bad start to a horror film. He’s being chased by some stiff suited men, and as they’re in a car and he isn’t, it would seem a foregone conclusion. The film shows its first questionable aesthetic decision here by playing a BWEEE-OOOO sound effect every time the suited men suddenly appear on screen. The man is lucky enough to escape, and winds up in the hospital, only to be murdered. The murderer then immolates himself inside his car. The only clue? The murder victim was grasping a “Silver Shamrock” brand Halloween mask as if his life depended on it. Dr. Daniel Challis (Tom Atkins) takes the murder personally, and along with the man’s daughter Ellie (Stacey Nelkin) decides to investigate. Their investigation leads them to the Silver Shamrock factory, in a small company town in California.
Subtlety is not this film’s strong suit, if it has a strong suit at all. That something is amiss at Silver Shamrock is clear even before the protagonists know to look into it. This is because the movie frequently — roughly once every fifteen minutes — shows televisions playing Silver Shamrock commercials with a catchy-and-annoying jingle based on “London Bridge.” Simply due to the law of conservation of detail, every viewer knows Silver Shamrock is evil because nobody could listen to “Three more days ’til Halloween, Halloween, Halloween; three more days ’til Halloween, Sil-ver Shamrock!” repeatedly without wanting to kill somebody.
Happy happy homicide, homicide, homicide…
First-time director Tommy Lee Wallace also has the sole writing credit on the film. Reportedly, it was primarily written by Nigel Kneale, but Kneale requested his name be taken off after Wallace and John Carpenter made alterations. Going by the end result, I can understand why. The dialogue in this film is nowhere near up to the level of the first two films in the franchise; it’s more reminiscent of the dialogue from a soap opera.
“What I mean is, if it’d make you more comfortable… I can sleep in the car; be a lot better than this floor, anyway.” “Where do you want to sleep, Dr. Challis?” “That’s a dumb question, Miss Grimbridge.”
Characterization is shallow, dialogue is trite and cliched, and the performances aren’t very good. It’s hard to blame the actors too much, given what they have to work with, but Tom Atkins and Stacey Nelkin are pretty wooden for much of the film, with occasional lapses into overacting on Atkins’ part. Dan O’Herlihy does better as villain Conal Cochran, but it’s a villain role; it’s a little easier to get away with hammy dialogue in that position.
As for the plot, it plods along patiently without creating anything to scare the audience or to build suspense. It tries to imply suspense with the BWEEE-OOOO sound effect, but it doesn’t succeed. The question of who killed Ellie’s father is a mystery that isn’t all that mysterious; the only question is why, and it’s reasonably clear as well. It’s just the particulars of what Silver Shamrock’s plan is that will give the audience something to wonder about and something to be interested in. Unfortunately, those particulars are laughably dumb. This is spoiler territory, so if you haven’t seen the film and don’t want it spoiled, I’ve bracketed the spoiler text between the next two images (the images and captions themselves are safe). For those who have seen the film, or who don’t care about spoilers, check out the text between by highlighting the text from one pair of asterisks to the next.
Hi! We’re the Smiths, and we’re absolutely not spies here to expose your factory of evildoing.
** Conal Cochran’s plan is to sacrifice a vast number of children in a celebration of Samhain, the likes of which haven’t been seen in 3000 years. He is doing this by implanting circuits with bits of Stonehenge into the tags of the three major masks his company is selling this Halloween. During a Halloween movie marathon (including the original 1978 Halloween) that his company is sponsoring on all three networks, there will be a commercial for “the big giveaway”, encouraging kids to put on their masks. This commercial will feature a pumpkin blinking repeatedly while a synthesizer tone plays and nothing else happens on screen. Watching this will trigger the magic of the Stonehenge-imbued circuits to kill the children and turn their flesh into bugs and snakes and assorted vermin.
Even assuming that Cochran only needs some of the kids, and not all of them, to fall victim to it this seems like a plan with a lot of flaws. Putting aside the fact that this establishes Halloween III: Season of the Witch as taking place in a world where Halloween is a fictional movie (i.e., nobody in this film would be picking up a newspaper reading of the Haddonfield massacre) like our own world, it has a few quirks of its own that differentiate it from the real world. This is apparently a world where children will all want to wear one of the same three masks from the same company. It’s a world where children leave the tags on their Halloween masks (are they going to do the Prom dress trick and take it back to the store after?) It’s a world where children can apparently be counted on to end their trick-or-treating by 9:00 sharp; I’ll forgive the apparent discrepancy of it happening across the country by imagining that a different time is given for other parts of the country (east coast would be midnight, where it’s more a question of whether the kids would still be awake). And apparently their mothers will let them watch an R-rated movie like Halloween. Speaking of, apparently in this film all the networks are OK with showing the same material all night long, and all across the nation, and all three networks — again all across the nation — can be reached with a single phone call.
The Stonehenge-powered circuitry that turns kids’ heads into piles of bugs is arguably the most believable part of this entire situation. **
Witches and skulls are common, but I can’t recall ever seeing someone use a pumpkin mask in real life. Is it common elsewhere? A Headless Horseman costume could make use of it, though I’ve never seen one.
There is, to be honest, the kernel of a good story in here somewhere, but it needs a severe rewrite on the main scheme. And a rewrite on the dialogue. Some more skillful actors. Better sound and visual effects. The main theme isn’t bad, though.
I had hoped that Halloween III: Season of the Witch had gotten its bad reputation solely from jaded fans of Michael Myers. But this is not the case. It earned its bad reputation.