Any horror fan worth their salt is already all too familiar with the story and mystique of the classic Michael Myers character. Not only did John Carpenter’s silent, lumbering serial killer propel the teenage slasher to heights surpassing Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but it solidified Hollywood’s revival of the horror genre. This Halloween, I took the time to re-watch the 1978 hit, as well as its two most immediate sequels, Halloween II and Halloween III: Season of the Witch. It’s this last one that would inspire me to write this piece, however. Season of the Witch isn’t a perfect movie, and its plot has nothing to do with Michael Myers or the protagonists of the first two films, but it is an uncut gem buried under a mountain of slasher schlock. Season is both a sorely underrated title with new and interesting themes, and a vast missed opportunity for a more interesting Halloween franchise.
It didn’t happen immediately. My opinion on the series didn’t suddenly flip-flop like a politician discussing gay marriage. No. Much like the first film, the idea of Halloween III’s secret greatness lurked in the shadows like a returned Myers.
I went into the third film knowing very little: That it would be about Halloween masks, and that the film ended with a man screaming at a television. And that was an image that’s stuck with me since childhood, when I caught the last couple of minutes on TV. Other than that, I went in completely blind. I was pleasantly surprised to discover a unique plot revolving around a mysterious novelty toy company’s sinister intentions for October 31st.
Unlike the first two films, the titular holiday actually plays an important role in the film’s plot, as opposed to simply setting an interesting day for the events to unfold. In Season of the Witch, protagonist Dr. Daniel Challis (Tom Atkins) partners up with Ellie Grimbridge (Stacey Nelkin) to investigate Ellie’s father’s murder, as well as uncover the Silver Shamrock company’s diabolical intentions for the upcoming halloween. I don’t want to give too much of the plot away considering how well the mystery thread is utilized. It kept me wondering until the very last act, when the film changes gears to a more suspenseful nail-biter, culminating in an ending more impactful than Halloween 2’s yawn of a resolution.
I will say that there is a pretty healthy helping of 80’s cheese in Season of the Witch. However, if that’s not a problem for you, then there’s plenty to enjoy. I actually howled in laughter at certain moments in the movie because of this. The suddenness of the obligatory sex scene was unintentional comedy gold, and the final fight that Dr. Challis gets into is nothing short of genius slapstick. Neither of these moments diminished the tense conclusion, though, demonstrating the film’s real strengths. In addition to a strong B-movie cast, a crew of skilled film makers created tension in the atmosphere of an otherwise silly spook story.
On the acting front, special commendation should be directed to Tom Atkins. As Dr. Challis, Atkins is not the pretty face typical of horror film leads. His character is an older divorcee with two children, and a tempered but rugged masculinity. I think it’s because of the mustache. As he gets sucked into a plot far larger than he could have anticipated, Atkins portrays the audience’s curiosities and rising stress levels admirably and intelligently. Very rarely does his character suffer from that profound lack of logic symptomatic of slasher protagonists.
I wish I could say the same for his co-star, Stacey Nelkin. Though her performance isn’t awful, it’s nothing special either. Bad script writing is partially to blame for this, as her character is a bit underdeveloped. It’s the “Hayden Christensen as Anakin Skywalker” problem, really. She could have benefited from a mustache… However what Season lacks in co-star, it makes up for in antagonist. As the owner of the Silver Shamrock toy company, Conal Cochran, Dan O’Herlihy fully embraces his character’s demented menace. In a particularly low point for Dr. Challis, when everything seems hopeless, O’Herlihy delivers what may be one of the best “evil plan” speeches of all time. In all of the Halloween series, this is the only villain who speaks, and that is a treasure all its own.
I was inspired by the remaining elements of the film: direction, cinematography, and soundtrack. To start, John Carpenter and Alan Howarth scored an original soundtrack for Season of the Witch, replete with high tempo synth over a gloom of deep, bassy beats. And yet again, Carpenter’s mastery of the movie theme song is showcased in Season. And though it never reached the enormity in pop culture that the Myers theme achieved, the Halloween III theme is an amazingly dreadful piece that is second to none other than its own movie franchise.
Behind the camera, Season was led by Halloween vets. Both director Tommy Lee Wallace and cinematographer Dean Cundey worked on the first two films. Interestingly, Cundey had been nominated for an Academy Award for his work in Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, and his experience shows in Halloween III. The scene setting shots of the desolate company town of Santa Mira stand out in particular. Kudos to Wallace as well, who nearly transformed Halloween from a simple slasher series to an anthology. Had this film been successful, the series would have seen different stories with new directors for each entry, but instead we got one film lost under a pile of Myers sequels whose quality range from “ok, I guess” to “I guess the monkeys with typewriters actually got something out.”
It’s really too bad what ended up happening to Halloween III. Upon release, audiences and critics panned the film for diverging away from the masked killer. Only after decades of drowning in never-ending Jason Voorhees trash, Scream’s parody of the genre, and the torture porn of 2000’s horror did this film get looked at with welcome eyes. Now a minor cult classic, I’ve come to spread the good word of Season of the Witch. The masks central to the film’s story perfectly capture the difference between this entry and the rest of the series. Both look really damn cool, but one is iconic, and the other is actually in the spirit of Halloween. Next October, give the movie a shot. Halloween III gets far more right than wrong, and deserves a spot in the annual scary movie line-up.
Obligatory Number at the End – 7.75