Eight more days till… Halloween III : Season of the Witch (1982)

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“It’s time. It’s time. Time for the big giveaway. Halloween has come. All you lucky kids with Silver Shamrock masks, gather ’round your TV set, put on your masks and watch. All witches, all skeletons, all Jack-O-Lanterns, gather ’round and watch. Watch the magic pumpkin. Watch…”

- Commercial announcer, Halloween III

Categorized as either a huge failure or a bold experiment, depending on individual points of view, the second sequel in the Halloween franchise quickly followed just a year after part 2.
For all intents and purposes, Michael Myers was dead for good, his eyes shot out and his body burned to death along with Dr. Loomis in the finale of the second film.
The filmmakers were done with Myers as well, and this sequel proposed an ambitious new plan to make the “Halloween franchise” into a yearly anthology series of films focusing on a new storyline involving the holiday and new characters in each incarnation.
In fact, John Carpenter and Debra Hill are credited only as producers this time around, although their fingerprints and ideas are all over the finished film. Director Tommy Lee Wallace credits Hill with the original idea of “pod people”, even though he is solely credited as the writer of the film. In truth, Wallace was merely one of many who had his hand in this script, beginning with reknowned science fiction novelist Nigel Kneale. After the producers rejected Kneale’s script for unspecified reasons, Carpenter and Hill jumped in, and Wallace did a final polish before taking on the reigns of director.

Of course the biggest black mark against Halloween 3 is that our favorite masked madman Michael Myers is nowhere to be seen (unless you count the cameo he makes on the TV screen in the bar, meta before meta was cool). But, as the creators contended, Myers was dead, his story was told, and the time had come to move on to something fresh and different. If Carpenter had gotten his way, every year would have brought us a new Halloween-centric film with a new plot and new characters, and we would be celebrating over thirty years of innovative film-making right now.
But sadly, it was not to be.
Halloween 3 was a huge disappointment to fans of Michael Myers, and they were in the vocal majority at the time of the release, ultimately killing this experimental film in its opening weekend.

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Halloween 3 starts off a week before the titular holiday, where after an awe-inspiring (for the early 80s) digitized pumpkin shows off the credits, we witness the horrible untimely death of shop owner Harry Grimbridge. Grimbridge mutters “They’re going to kill us all” while clutching a children’s Halloween mask as he is being admitted to the hospital, and later is murdered in his hospital bed by a mysterious man.

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His doctor Daniel Challis (played with manly gusto by Tom Atkins) is drawn into the mysterious death, partly due to the arrival of the dead man’s attractive young daughter, Ellie (cutie Stacey Nelkin). The pair’s investigation leads them to a small company village in northern California called Santa Mira (named after the town in Invasion of the Body Snatchers), and they start to realize something big is going down right in time for the horrific holiday.

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A sci-fi throwback with a cruel streak a mile long, it is easy to see why audiences didn’t immediately connect with this material, especially when they were expecting a “knife movie” and got a weird little “pod movie”. As the mystery is revealed slowly and deliberately, the bad guy (played with relish by Dan O’Herlihy) lays out his sinister plan for world domination via party masks in long monologues like an overconfident Bond villain.

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The bleak ending is unique for its time, and for any film really. Although in a later interview, star Tom Atkins says that he thinks his character finally accomplished his mission and stopped the insidious commercial from infecting the minds of masked children everywhere. This overly hopeful outlook is not the way most audiences see it however, as the ambiguous ending suggests that the bad guys actually won and turned the heads of all the children of the world into mushy nests of insects and snakes.

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As always, when looking back at these older films, it is important to keep in mind the huge changes in the world over the intervening thirty years or so. At the time, all of the major horror franchises that we now consider classics were just in the beginning stages. Satanic panics and rumors of teenage cult memberships were considered realistic threats to society. Halloween, the holiday, was at its peak in popularity and trick-or-treaters were everywhere, despite the underlying strangeness of the customs. Technology was new and scary. All of these elements make their way into the film, and work in varying degrees then and now.

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The Silver Shamrock theme song deserves mention here, as it finds a way to burrow into the viewers head like the best of ear-worms, and lends credence to the mind control/subliminal message plot that is in motion. Set to the tune of the handily public domain song “London Bridge is Falling Down”, it takes only the briefest snatch of the song to take hold somewhere deep in the pysche of the viewer, and does not fail to make the viewers uncomfortable.

One of the coolest additions to this release is the documentary Stand Alone, featuring recent interviews with earnest director Tommy Lee Wallace. After over thirty years of criticism and being forced to defend his film, it is nice to see the cult following it developed and Wallace to finally get his props for some unbelievably bold film-making.

Ultimately, Halloween 3 inhabits a strange kind of bizarro place in the canon of the series. The red-headed stepchild of the series, abused for years, that finally reveals itself to be better and more useful than anyone ever realized. If only the minds of horror fans in the early 80s had been open to new and unique concepts, we would have been spared years of repetitive sequels in favor of something new and different to look forward to each year.
More on that tomorrow, but in the meantime…

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