HALLOWEEN III is the perfect gateway horror film for kids
Few horror movies that intentionally set out to become a franchise succeed in their objective. Rather than spawn a series of sequels, these franchise-baiting films are instead doomed to be forgotten, save for that annual tradition in which big-box retailers dig deep into their stash of unsold DVDs in order to stock the clearance shelves every Halloween. On the other hand, some of the longest-lasting and most beaten-into-the-ground horror movie series are spawned from films that were originally envisioned as standalone projects. A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, FRIDAY THE 13TH, SAW - these horror films have become synonymous with sequels of diminishing returns but they all had to have their humble origins twisted around, propped up and pumped full of steroids in order to keep prolong the series’ lives.
In 1978, HALLOWEEN was released in theaters — ushering in the slasher sub-genre and one of the longest-running franchises in horror. After the success of the first film, HALLOWEEN begat HALLOWEEN II, a direct continuation of the first film that saw masked serial killer Michael Myers continue to stalk Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis), the one victim who got away. When it came time to film HALLOWEEN III, though, John Carpenter and Debra Hill, who had written the scripts for the first two movies, saw an opportunity to take the franchise in a whole new direction and do something that had never been done before. Instead of finding new and creative ways to bring back Michael Myers every sequel, Carpenter and Hill wanted to transform the HALLOWEEN franchise into an anthology series. The two saw promise in the idea of a new film being released every Halloween, with a plot and set of characters completely independent of the other films' in the series.
HALLOWEEN III: SEASON OF THE WITCH stars Tom Atkins as Dr. Dan Challis, an alcoholic medical doctor who finds himself entangled into an investigation involving a novelty gift store owner's mysterious death. Along with the victim's daughter (played by Stacey Nelkin), Dr. Challis uncovers the true motivations behind Silver Shamrock Novelties and its owner Conal Cochran.
Cochran plans to use a line of popular Halloween masks his company is selling to kill off as many children as possible via computer chips installed in the masks that contain a fragment of Stonehenge and, when triggered, will open a portal inside the mask wearer’s head that will insert all manners of creepy animals where their brains once were.
Instead of the primal fear of the boogeyman, HALLOWEEN III melds traditional Halloween motifs such as witchcraft, costumes, and trickery with a plot heavily steeped in the fears of the ‘80s — paranoia, mass consumerism, corporate misdeeds and, most of all, the fear that television can literally rot your brain.
The film was originally set to be directed by Joe Dante (THE HOWLING). When Dante dropped out to take on another project, Tommy Lee Wallace was hired to direct the film. Wallace had worked on several of Carpenter’s previous films behind the scenes as an art director and production designer and had been asked to direct HALLOWEEN II. After SEASON OF THE WITCH, Wallace went on to direct another underrated horror sequel, FRIGHT NIGHT II, along with VAMPIRES: LOS MUERTOS, a sequel to another John Carpenter film. He was also responsible for the mini-series adaptation of Stephen King’s IT.
During pre-production, Dante had approached science fiction writer Nigel Kneale to write the screenplay for the film — letting him have free reign with the story as Kneale had not seen the original two HALLOWEEN films nor had any interest in seeing them. Kneale’s script was a huge departure from the first two HALLOWEEN films not just in plot but also in the way it handled its horror — aiming more towards psychological scares than gory violence. The film’s producer Dino De Laurentiis did not appreciate the draft by Kneale, though, and requested more graphic violence and gore be inserted. Kneale balked at the idea and requested his name be removed from the script. Wallace was assigned to rewrite the script and subsequently had sole writing credit for the movie.
SEASON OF THE WITCH owes more to THE WICKER MAN than John Carpenter's original film - and that's a good thing! As the intended launching point for an annual horror movie anthology series, HALLOWEEN III is reminiscent of both the heyday of spooky television plays like NIGHT GALLERY or THE TWILIGHT ZONE and also modern horror shows such as THE X-FILES or SUPERNATURAL. With the film’s askew take on the supernatural blending nicely with a tone that never takes itself too seriously, though, there’s another show that SEASON OF THE WITCH resembles more than any other — SCOOBY-DOO.
Yes, SEASON OF THE WITCH is one talking dog away from being a Scooby-Doo movie. From the evil old man with a larger than life plot to kill children to the almost comical ways Challis and Grimbridge stumble along with their investigation, the movie is a live-action cartoon in many ways. Even the idea that the film’s biggest threat involves a mask could be seen as an homage to the classic cartoon. It’s these comparisons that cause me to believe SEASON OF THE WITCH is actually a perfect introductory horror movie for children. While the film features quite a few gory death scenes, most of the movie’s carnage is just slightly off-screen — either obscured by a layer of latex hiding the melting of heads or hidden in the shadows of a dark room. A heavy amount of profanity and sexual situations prevents me from outright saying SEASON OF THE WITCH is a full-out children’s movie, but I do believe the film is a great way to test your young one’s tolerance for scary movies when they begin to insist on watching horror movies. The film features a scary plot — especially scary for children since the movie’s villain is keen on killing the world’s tykes by melting their noggin and having snakes and spiders crawl out the oozing cavity — but it is just an exaggerated version of a SCOOBY-DOO episode. SEASON OF THE WITCH represents a great stepping stone for children seeking to get scared and who have grown too old for GOOSEBUMPS but aren’t quite ready to watch SAW.
HALLOWEEN III was one of the least successful films in the Halloween franchise — dooming Carpenter’s plans to turn his film series into a yearly Halloween present for horror fans and leading to the return of Michael Myers in HALLOWEEN 4. Despite the commercial and critical drubbing HALLOWEEN III received upon its release, a cult following has grown around the movie in recent years — with film historians pointing out many of the deeper themes in the film that had initially been overlooked. These Reagan-era motifs of consumerism and capitalism are there to be found but I think there’s another theme lurking under the surface.
It’s interesting that for an evil scientist keen on selling as many Halloween masks as possible in a plot to melt kids' brains, he would only make three variations — a skull, a jack o’ lantern, and a witch. While in the movie, kids flock to these three variations — braying for the Silver Shamrock brand name and using the masks with a variety of different cheap, plastic costumes that give the illusion of variety — there remain only three distinct masks. I feel this is a commentary on the state of horror movies in 1982. After HALLOWEEN's success, a rash of copycat films were rushed into production — all variations of the same masked serial killer theme. Similar situations happened whenever another horror movie found success — thinly-veiled copycats were slammed into theaters. Before long, there were only a handful of types of horror movies being made — with distinctions shallow among the imitators.
Sure HALLOWEEN III is a bit weird and cheesy but it represented an attempt to do something different, to step outside the same cookie-cutter formulas that had been choking theaters since the ‘70s. By having the horror-loving children of America toppled by cheap, mass-manufactured Halloween masks, the filmmakers were pointing out the direction American horror was headed.
The slate of horror films is a lot more diverse than it was in the early '80s - and that's why I think HALLOWEEN III has been reevaluated and reembraced by fans in recent years. It took a while but HALLOWEEN III is now largely recognized as the classic it is.
Maybe that was Silver Shamrock's plan all along.