Thursday, October 16, 2008

Halloween III: Season of the Witch

Having burnt Michael Myers to a cinder at the end of 1981's Halloween II but feeling pressured to not let the brand name go unexploited, producers John Carpenter and Debra Hill decided to fulfill the pragmatic demand for more Halloween movies by continuing the series as a Halloween-themed anthology.

With an original script by Quartermass scribe Nigel Kneale (who requested his name be removed due to the gratuitous violence that was later inserted - the sole writing credit going to director Tommy Lee Wallace) involving a malevolent mask maker and his schemes to inflict mayhem in the name of Halloween, Season of the Witch was the promising launch of a new Shape-less direction but whatever ambitions that may have been behind it, upon its 1982 release Halloween III: Season of the Witch was roundly rejected as a colossal cheat. Where was Michael Myers? Where was Laurie Strode? Where was Dr. Loomis? And where, in the name of Samhain, was anything that fans would recognize as part of the Halloween mythos?

Rather than a thug in overalls slaughtering promiscuous teens, Season of the Witch instead offered up a certifiably zany plot involving no less than Stonehenge, pagan magic, killer robots, and Halloween masks with frigging laser beams. Far-fetched? Hard to swallow? Bat-shit insane? Yep, Season of the Witch is all of that.

As Debra Hill said at the time, this was more of a 'pod' film than a 'knife' film, in reference to the sci-fi elements of Season of the Witch (the film itself explicitly references the 'pod' terrors of Invasion of the Body Snatchers by naming its small town Santa Mira, after the one in Body Snatchers). But that doesn't even begin to describe the endearingly dopey hijinks that make Season so nutty. It may be too over-the-top to ever be convincingly creepy but this odd-man-out Halloween sequel is a fun ride filled with moments of cool menace. It has the virtue of not only being unlike any other Halloween sequel but being unlike few other films at all (although it shares an intriguing connection with 1983's Videodrome in that both films involve television signals that initiate fatal bodily mutations).

Carpenter regular Tom Atkins (The Fog, Escape from New York) stars as Dr. Dan Challis, a middle-aged medic who while on the job witnesses the grisly demise of a store owner clutching a Halloween mask ("They're going to kill us all!" the doomed man warns prior to his death), and soon after Challis stumbles onto an outrageous plot by the world's leading mask maker - Conal Cochran (played with avuncular evil by Dan O'Herlihy) - to exterminate as many people (mostly children) as possible by sending a signal on Halloween night through TV ads for his line of Silver Shamrock masks (a witch, a skull, and a pumpkin - collectively known as "The Halloween 3") to activate electronic chips embedded in the masks (each containing a small piece of Stonehenge!) to make the heads of every punk kid wearing them to erupt in an unholy burst of beetles, snakes, and assorted other creepy-crawlies. And as this ghoulish glory is brought about, so will Halloween be rightfully returned to its dark roots.

Is this ambitious, genre-bending fun or just completely unhinged? I'm not sure on what side Season of the Witch really falls. All I can say is that it works. I love the eerie atmosphere of the small town dominated by the Silver Shamrock factory, with its loud-speaker announced curfews and too-cheerful townsfolk all indebted to their benefactor. And most of all I love Tom Atkins as Dr. Challis.

As much as fans today lament the teen-ification of horror, the situation was every bit as bad twenty-six years ago in the wake of Friday the 13th and the original Halloween. So to have the pushing-fifty Atkins in the lead here was already a plus. Even better was the fact that Challis is one of the most morally bankrupt heroes to be featured in any genre film. Atkins' Challis is a womanizing drunk as well as a coward with a taste for jailbait. And to that I say, "how could anyone not love him?" Atkins had already played a borderline letch as Nick Castle in The Fog where he bedded the much younger Jamie Lee Curtis in about as much time as it takes to tie your shoes. But in Season of the Witch, he takes it to the next level by getting Ellie (Stacey Nelkin), the barely legal daughter of the slain shop owner, into the sack all while being on the trail of her father's murderer!

It's during the consummation of Challis and Ellie's affection that we best see what a sorry excuse for a hero Challis is. While they're going at it, in the next motel room over a woman inadvertently causes a Silver Shamrock chip to fatally misfire in her face. Ellie immediately voices her alarm at the sudden sound ("What was that?") only to have a preoccupied Challis mumble into her breasts with all the indifference he can muster - "...Who cares?".

If there was an Olympics for apathy, Challis would handily take the gold. It's this chronic aversion to sticking his neck out that makes Challis a very different hero than the obsessed Dr. Loomis. Then again, who can be bothered to fight evil when they're busy keeping a buzz going? Above all else, Challis likes his booze. Before they even hit to road to Santa Mira, Challis makes sure to bring a six pack for the ride. And when he and Ellie arrive in Santa Mira, Ellie is eager to scope out Cochran's factory for clues about what happened to her dad but Challis' response is "Whoa! It's getting late and I could use a drink!". For Challis, it's always Happy Hour somewhere in the world. And as soon as they catch on to the fact that something seriously sketchy is up in Santa Mira, Challis' immediate question to Ellie is not to figure out how to root out what's going on but to ask her "You wanna leave?".

Unfortunately, Challis' personal complexities are set aside once he and Ellie fall into Cochran's hands. The last third of the movie is little more than a series of chases, resourceful escapes (And improbably resourceful ones, too. Note the scene where a bound Challis manages to throw a mask from across a room to land over the lens of a security camera hanging on the wall - not bad for a drunk!) and expository (if well-delivered) dialogue from O'Herlihy.

But resorting to a few conventional action beats can't undo the undeniable quirkiness of Season of the Witch, with its alcoholic anti-hero, its sci-fi weirdness and its arcane menace to the world's children. While it'll never be the pride of the pumpkin patch, this one-time franchise killer has outlasted its initial controversy to earn its place as an October essential and a Halloween staple.


Anonymous said...

Don't know what it is about this movie but I have loved it since the first time I caught it on late night TV - and repeated viewings have made it just that much better. Love the Silver Shamrock jingle too!

Fred said...

Silver Shamrock! Santa Mira! How dare you ask me how to get to the Silver Shamrock factory in Santa Mira. Do you know that they use child labor to test those masks? Little girls and boys, no more than ten or twelve, forced to wear those things, while that Silver Shamrock jingle plays and plays, and bugs and snakes bust out of their heads. And look at this mask. Immitation latex. Cheaply made. You should be ashamed of yourself! Silver Shamrock in Santa Mira! Oh dear, I seemed to have destroyed your pumpkin mask. I'm sorry.

kindertrauma said...

Love this review. Halloween 3 is in a class all by itself and Jeff, you hit the nail right on the head. Can't wait to watch it again this year! Silver Shamrock forever!

Jeff Allard said...

Absinthe, Fred, Unk - thanks for sharing the Silver Shamrock love! I never thought the day would come when it wouldn't be awkward to say that Season of the Witch was cool. But I guess a movie this enjoyable couldn't stay hated forever.

Tenebrous Kate said...

Thanks for a pitch-perfect review of a movie I truly, deeply, madly adore. "It's almost time..." Great stuff, sir!

Jeff Allard said...

Thanks for the kind words, Kate!

Dr. Bill Harford said...

I am a MASSIVE fan of HALLOWEEN III, and this review had me rolling. You nailed it.

Enjoyed a screening of it at a small Los Angeles theater a couple years ago, and I can't tell you how enjoyable it was seeing it (and laughing along) with others who adore it as well. The more the Akkad family keeps dragging out boring Michael Myers, the more this movie shines.

Jeff Allard said...

Thanks, Dr. Harford - I'm always glad to hear from a fellow Season of the Witch fan!

demonsalone said...

I'm a big fan of halloween III, awesome film - and incredible review of an underrated cult hit. I couldn't care less about the absence of Michael Myers. Evil Irish toymakers are more fun! PS: Dr Harford, I'd like to be your Taxi driver: you give wonderful tips!

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