Wednesday, September 5, 2018

40 Years of Halloween - Halloween III: Season of the Witch

The Halloween franchise tries to continue without Michael Myers.

John Carpenter didn't have a story to tell about masked slasher Michael Myers when he sat down to write Halloween II, so when the opportunity arose to make another sequel to his instant classic Halloween, Carpenter decided he wasn't even going to bother to do something with Michael Myers this time around. He had a different idea - he wanted to turn Halloween into an anthology franchise, with new sequels coming out on a regular basis that would have nothing to do with each other, but each one would be a horror story set around the Halloween holiday. It was a cool idea, but one which the audience almost immediately rejected. If there hadn't been a Myers sequel before the anthology approach kicked in, maybe it would have had a better chance of working. It's easier to switch things up after one movie than after two.

Wanting to separate Halloween III from its predecessors, Carpenter and producer Debra Hill hired British writer Nigel Kneale to craft a story that would exist in a different sub-genre of horror than a slasher. What Kneale wrote was described as "a pod movie", a reference to the "pod people" of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. The writer was qualified to write such a sci-fi horror concept, because almost thirty years earlier he had written a television serial titled The Quatermass Experiment, which told the story of a dangerous alien returning on the spacecraft after man's first flight into space. By the early '80s, the lead character of that serial, a Professor Quatermass, had returned to the screen in more serials and a trio of feature films.

For a brief moment (just a couple days, apparently), Piranha / The Howling director Joe Dante was attached to direct Halloween III, and according to Dante he was the one who suggested Kneale as the screenwriter, although I've also heard that Kneale was on Carpenter's radar because he was a fan of the Quatermass stories. When the Halloween III schedule conflicted with Dante's work on the Twilight Zone anthology movie, Dante dropped out and was replaced by Halloween production designer Tommy Lee Wallace, who had previously been offered the job of directing Halloween II but turned it down because he didn't like the script. Kneale's script for Halloween III was more up his alley, although Carpenter and Wallace both did rewrites and Kneale demanded that his name be removed from the credits after he read the final script.

The story, credited solely to Wallace on screen, leaves the Haddonfield, Illinois setting of the first two movies far behind, heading out to the small, remote town of Santa Mira (the name of the town in Invasion of the Body Snatchers), California. In this town is the factory that makes the popular Silver Shamrock Halloween masks, which come in three varieties: a jack-o-lantern mask, a witch mask, and a skull mask. These masks can't match up to the blank, white, modified William Shatner mask Michael Myers sports, but they have become iconic in their own right over the years.

The title sequences for both Halloween and Halloween II played over the image of a jack-o-lantern, and Halloween III: Season of the Witch begins with its own variation on that idea, showing the image of a jack-o-lantern being created on a computer screen while we're introduced to the new music composed by John Carpenter and Alan Howarth. It's familiar but different, fitting for a new chapter in an anthology (they were hoping.) The film then opens more than a week before Halloween night, on October 23rd, with a man running for his life through a dark night.

This guy is Harry Grimbridge (Al Berry), and he's clutching a Silver Shamrock jack-o-lantern mask while being pursued by a group of silent, emotionless, homicidal men in suits. Incredibly strong - so strong then can tear a person's face apart or rip their head off their shoulders - these assassins are sort of the film's attempt to make up for the absense of Michael Myers; one of them is even played by Halloween II Myers Dick Warlock. We'll come to find out that they're robots, and their guts look quite similar to pumpkin guts.

After crushing one of his pursuers between two vehicles, Grimbridge finds help at a gas station, where the lone attendant (Essex Smith) is seen watching a news report about a five ton rock that has gone missing from Stonehenge. We'll find out what happened to that rock later on.

As a nearly catatonic Grimbridge is taken to the hospital, we're introduced to the film's main character, and it's sure not a teenage babysitter. The hero in this sequel is the great Tom Atkins (Night of the Creeps, Maniac Cop, etc.) as Daniel Challis, a hard-drinking doctor and a divorced father (his ex-wife is played by Halloween's Nancy Loomis) who is distant from his kids, despite his attempts to connect with them. Challis is alternating between caring for patients and trying to nap himself sober when an assassin catches up to Grimbridge and kills him. The assassin then goes outside and blows himself (itself?) up in a car right in front of a shocked Challis.

Challis would like to know what the hell's going on here, and he gets his chance when he's approached - at a bar, of course - by Grimbridge's attractive, early twenties daughter Ellie (Stacey Nelkin). Her father's records indicate he ran into trouble somewhere along the way when he went to visit the Silver Shamrock factory in Santa Mira, so Challis ditches his kids to accompany Ellie on a spur-of-the-moment trip to Santa Mira on a search for answers. He takes a six pack of beer for the road.

There's a twenty-six year age difference between Atkins and Nelkin, but that doesn't stop Challis and Ellie from jumping right into a sexual relationship once they settle into a motel in Santa Mira, just like a similar age gap didn't stop Nelkin from dating Woody Allen in real life a few years earlier. What's truly astounding about their relationship is that Ellie is the aggressor. She suggests that he stay in the room with her. He makes a booze run, and when he returns she greets him in lingerie. He's getting tired, but she wants to continue having sex through the night. She won't tell him how old she is, but assures him she's older than she looks. If Atkins weren't the sort of actor you tend to root for, seeing this young woman acting so inexplicably turned on by his drunken middle-aged deadbeat character would be disturbing.

Sex isn't the only thing that goes on once they reach Santa Mira. It's immediately obvious that this is a very strange place. Silver Shamrock owner Conal Cochran (Irish actor Dan O'Herlihy) doesn't just run the factory, he runs the whole town, and most of the locals love him because the money the factory draws in keeps them going. Even though he doesn't employ any locals. There's a curfew in town every evening, with residents encouraged to stay inside after six o'clock. The voice that makes the curfew and other announcements over the P.A. system gave Jamie Lee Curtis an opportunity to make a vocal cameo in the film, much like she did in Escape from New York.


And just because this isn't a slasher movie, that doesn't mean it doesn't have a body count. Several people die over the course of the film, in some very weird and frequently disgusting ways. A homeless man (Jonathan Terry) with plans to burn down the Silver Shamrock factory gets killed by the robotic assassins. Another assassin kills Challis's associate Teddy (Wendy Wessberg), who has been trying to conduct an autopsy on the man who killed Grimbridge but found only mechanic parts and melted plastic instead of a body. A businesswoman (Garn Stephens) notices the logo on the Silver Shamrock masks has some kind of computer chip hidden on the back of it, and when she tampers with it the thing blasts a lazer beam into her mouth... a lazer that somehow causes a bug to come crawling out of her destroyed face.

The most nauseating, disturbing, and memorable sequence in the movie comes when a family of three - Ralph Strait, Jadeen Barbor, and Brad Schacter as Buddy, Betty, and Little Buddy Kuper - gets to serve as a focus group for Silver Shamrock. The company is building up to a big giveaway on Halloween night, with daily countdown commercials notifying the country that a special ad is going to be broadcast across the U.S. at a certain time on the holiday. The Kupfers are going to get a sneak preview of the giveaway commercial. They're put in a living room-styled room and Little Buddy is provided with a jack-o-lantern mask. When the commercial comes on, an announcer (the voice of director Wallace) encourages any children watching to wear their Silver Shamrock masks while watching it.

Little Buddy does. And something about the music of the commercial and its strobing imagery of a "Magic Pumpkin" actives the computer chip in the mask's logo. Little Buddy's head turns into a rotting pumpkin, and when he slumps over dead his pumpkin head splits open, releasing a torrent of bugs and snakes into the room. Betty faints, Buddy is bitten by a rattlesnake that came crawling out of his son... They're all killed. I'd much rather watch characters get bumped off with bladed weapons than witness this sort of icky oddity, but it certainly makes for an effectively unnerving scene.

If Halloween III is known for one thing, it's for the countdown jingle that plays on the Silver Shamrock commercials. If you've ever seen this film, you've probably had that jingle stuck in your head for the rest of your life. It's simple and sung to the tune of "London Bridge Is Falling Down", but it's unforgettable.

Cochran intends for the same thing that happened to the Kupfers to happen to children and their families all across the United States when the giveaway commercial airs on Halloween night. Why? On one level, Cochran enjoys the idea of his plan as a joke, a joke on the children, made possible by the magic contained within the Stonehenge rock. Magic Cochran has somehow managed to computerize. But he's also a practicer of witchcraft who is doing this to honor the origins of Halloween, the festival of Samhain. (Unlike the characters in Halloween II, he even pronounces Samhain correctly.) The last great festival occurred 3000 years ago, when the hills ran red with the blood of sacrificed animals and children. The planets are aligned now, and it's time for a new bloodbath. Again, I prefer a simple slasher, but Cochran is an intimidating villain whose objectives are fitting for a film with the title Halloween. If only Michael Myers hadn't already taken ownership of the franchise.

It's up to Daniel Challis to save thousands, if not millions, of lives. If he can stay sober long enough to do it.

Halloween III: Season of the Witch is so offbeat, it's no wonder it took a while for it to gain widespread acceptance. I wavered on it for years - when I was a kid, my stance on it was, "It doesn't have Michael Myers in it, so why even bother?" Once I reached my teens, I went from dismissing it to disliking it. But as time went on, I gradually warmed up to it. By the time I was about 18, I was able to accept it as a decent horror movie on its own merits. It was around that time when I purchased my DVD copy of the film, which I bought at the Monroeville Mall, where George A. Romero's classic Dawn of the Dead was filmed. The video store cashier was shocked to be selling a copy of Halloween III, calling out to his co-worker, "Somebody's actually buying Halloween III!"

After decades of being brushed aside, the film has gained a lot of fans by this point, with many of them counting it among their favorites. Halloween III doesn't rank as a favorite for me, it's too odd and both the deaths and Daniel Challis are too off-putting, but I enjoy watching it occasionally and will usually include it among the films I watch during the Halloween season. I stopped using "But it doesn't have Michael Myers in it!" as a reason to dislike it, and I've been glad to see that most other viewers have as well.

But if you want to get technical, Michael Myers actually is in it. The original Halloween is shown on TV in the film. In the previous two films, characters were watching a horrorthon that included Forbidden Planet, The Thing from Another World, and Night of the Living Dead. Here the horrorthon is led by "the immortal classic" Halloween (were people really already referring to it as an immortal classic just four years after its release, or was that Wallace making a joke that also accurately predicted what Halloween would soon be called?), making it clear that Halloween and Halloween III are set in different realities.

I've had a rocky time with Halloween III, but no matter what I thought of the overall film at any given time, I've always thought it had an awesome ending.

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