I know, I know. You can't believe the headline. And I don’t blame you if your reason for reading on was for purposes of skepticism only, because the third entry in the Halloween franchise has earned a reputation for being quite terrible over the years. But let me state for the record—and with absolutely no irony or sarcasm—that I am a fan of Halloween III: Season of the Witch.
Do I think that Season of the Witch stands up against the original Halloween, or that it’s even in the same category of caliber? Absolutely not. But it’s a hell of a lot more interesting than any of the five original Halloween sequels that followed (Rob Zombie’s remakes notwithstanding). Apologies to Paul Rudd, but have you actually seen Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers?
Of course, comparisons to John Carpenter’s legendary slasher flick are what got Season of the Witch into trouble in the first place. Though it was never intended to be a continuation of Michael Myers’ blood-soaked soap opera, audiences at the time of its release in 1982 didn’t appear to get the memo.
But take away all the Michael Myers and Dr. Loomis crap, and what you’ve got is an interesting little indie gem. Overacted and generic in some parts? Sure. But the first step in appreciating Halloween III: Season of the Witch is to accept its inherent cheesiness (it was 1982, after all) and ignore the “Halloween III” part of its title altogether. The next step is to embrace its storyline, in all its anti-children, corporate America-hating, nihilistic glory.
It’s the week before Halloween in northern California and Dr. Daniel Challis (Tom Atkins) is feeling a bit spooked following a bizarre murder-suicide in his hospital. The homicide victim is an old shop owner named Harry (Al Berry), who arrived at the hospital in a frazzled state, clutching a mask from Silver Shamrock, a corporate mask-maker, and shouting that, “They are going to kill us!” Hours later, Harry is dead and his killer has committed suicide in the hospital parking lot.
When Harry’s daughter Ellie (Stacey Nelkin) arrives on the scene, she’s just as suspicious about the events leading up to her father’s death and has already started nosing around. Dr. Challis’ curiosity is piqued (as is his libido, as Ellie’s pretty easy on the eyes). So the two set off for Santa Mira, home of the Silver Shamrock company, to find out exactly what her father was doing in the days before his passing. It’s here that they meet Conal Cochran, the company’s owner and a fan of ritual sacrifice who has wielded a little bit of black magic to turn his popular Halloween masks into weapons of mass destruction.
With the help of a massive advertising campaign and the catchiest jingle this side of a Meow Mix commercial, Cochran has ensured that on Halloween night a large chunk of the country’s pre-pubescent population will be gathered around the family television set, masks in place, only to have them activated by a signal from the TV that will immediately incinerate these pint-sized spectators and unleash a swarm of creepy crawly things.
Not a bad premise, right?
After co-scripting the first two films in the franchise, John Carpenter and Debra Hill turned the screenwriting duties for the third film over to Nigel Kneale, a celebrated British writer who at the time was best known for his Quartermass series, as the idea was to create a unique script that could be part of an ongoing annual horror anthology (not a derivative franchise in the vein of Friday the 13th). While Kneale eventually asked to have his name removed from the script when producer Dino De Laurentiis told him he wanted to see more gore, the general story doesn’t stray too far from what the award-winning writer created (even though Tommy Lee Wallace, who made his directorial debut with the film, is credited as the film’s sole writer). Also adding to the film’s enjoyment is Oscar-nominated actor Dan O’Herlihy as Cochran, the owner of Silver Shamrock and the mastermind behind the genocide.
"I could understand some of the critics. I got that, but why do the fans think I just raped Madonna, the Madonna off the cross." —John Carpenter
Despite this rather impressive pedigree, Season of the Witch has that same sort of synth-backed cultish quality that makes movies like The Fog and Escape from New York so watchable. While Carpenter didn’t direct the movie—he’s credited only as a producer and composer—there’s enough of his stamp on the film that his presence is felt throughout.
And Carpenter himself can't understand the film’s negative backlash. In a 2011 interview with Ain’t It Cool News, he admitted that “I was befuddled… I could understand some of the critics. I got that, but why do the fans think I just raped Madonna, the Madonna off the cross? Why do they think I just defiled a classic? I didn’t get it and I still don’t understand it. Maybe it was because, very simply, I had had a success with Halloween. I was a young whippersnapper, and I had a success with The Fog and Escape from New York and it was my time to be brought back down to earth… That’s the only thing I can figure out."
Carpenter’s right. The film was not a huge hit with critics at the time. Roger Ebert called it “a low-rent thriller from the first frame. This is one of those Identikit movies, assembled out of familiar parts from other, better movies.” But it did have a solid base of cheerleaders at that time, a base which continues to grow as time passes and the film is further distanced from its iconic cinematic origin.
“The title is a bit of a cheat, since the indestructible psycho of the first two films plays no part here,” noted Time Out’s Tom Milne, who went on to conclude that, “The end result is a bit of a mess but hugely enjoyable, and often (thanks to Dean Cundey’s camerawork and John Carpenter’s close supervision as producer) as striking visually as its predecessors.”
Vincent Canby, too, had more than a few positive comments about the film in his review for The New York Times, noting that, “As long as there had to be a sequel to John Carpenter's Halloween and Halloween II, both smash box office hits, Halloween III: Season of the Witch, written and directed by Tommy Lee Wallace, is probably as good as any cheerful ghoul could ask for… Halloween III means to be funny and frequently is. The sets, including a photogenic little town in northern California and the mad toy maker's Dr. No-like laboratory, are unusually good. Mr. Wallace clearly has a fondness for the clichés he is parodying and he does it with style.”
Sometimes the acting is a little overwrought. Or downright bad. And why snakes begin pouring out of the faces of the mask-wearing victims doesn’t make a lot of sense from a science standpoint. But science hasn't stopped Gravity, and it shouldn't stop this movie. After all, how is that any more of a cinematic crime than watching a masked serial killer survive gunshots, knife stabs and three-story falls and always walk away without a scratch?
And how could any horror movie produce a more addictively happy theme song than this?
Written by Jennifer Wood (@j_m_wood)