Here at Awards Radar, we’re still pretty giddy over the breath of fresh air that was Spiral, a sequel/spin-off of the popular and immensely beloved Saw franchise (immensely beloved by us, anyway). So for my first contribution to our new Sunday Scaries article series, it got me thinking about other instances where established horror franchises decided to go in a radically different direction whilst still maintaining the essence of their core series. There’s not as many as you’d think, but one of my personal favorites that I’ve always felt gets overlooked in the scheme of things is the first and only time that Halloween tried to be an anthology. So this week, let’s talk about the undervalued gem that is Halloween III: Season of the Witch, a delightfully inventive slice of madness that deserves the cult audience it has slowly attained over time.
In case you’re unfamiliar, the big controversy with this film was that it had Halloween in the title, but didn’t feature Michael Myers or indeed any characters or story elements from the previous two installments. The only real connection to be found is that the original film is seen playing on TV a few times (so technically Michael is in there, if only for a second). The idea, according to producers John Carpenter and Debra Hill (who left the franchise after this point) was that they had already concluded the story of Michael and Laurie and Loomis with the last film, and rather than beat a dead horse by finding a convoluted way to bring them back, wouldn’t it be more interesting to turn the series into a sort of Twilight Zone-esque anthology, where each chapter was a different and unrelated story that somehow related to the holiday? A noble gesture in the inevitably doomed fight against stagnation, and while it might have been fun to see what other crazy ideas they came up with, this lone attempt was almost universally panned upon release for daring to commit the cardinal sin of calling itself Halloween and not featuring the one character most viewers would associate with that title. So naturally, when the 4th film came out it immediately sought to find a convoluted way to pick up from where the 2nd one left off and bring back Michael and Loomis, never mind how they both exploded in a raging inferno last time around.
Which is a real pity, because the one glimpse we got of how this standalone concept might work is one of the most uniquely out-there depictions of the holiday ever put to film. Cut from the same wonderfully campy ’80s cloth that similarly fueled everything from The Stuff to Re-Animator to Fright Night, it’s the kind of horror film that rarely gets done well nowadays, where a silly premise could be played straight enough to elicit scares but not so straight that it forgets to have fun with itself. The plot, which revolves around a Celtic conspiracy to imbue Halloween masks with a blend of technology and magic from one of the slabs of Stonehenge in order to melt children’s heads into a mass of literal bugs and snakes (I’m not making any of that up by the way), requires a firm suspension of disbelief. Both insanely complicated and charmingly simple, it’s the kind of story that will never make any more sense than it feels like for any given stretch of time, and you can either get on board with that or move right along.
It helps to have a grounded everyman to navigate us through the elaborately conceived craziness on display, and fortunately we get exactly that with Dr. Daniel Challis, played with inebriated panache by Tom Atkins. This is the kind of character who would normally never be allowed to anchor a movie like this for fear of being too unlikable: a functioning alcoholic and serial womanizer who blows off his kids to go on an impromptu road trip with a grieving young woman he just met. Like James Bond without the sex appeal. Atkins brings a gruff, grounded quality that makes him instantly endearing despite being almost soaked in booze throughout the film. Ably supporting is Stacey Nelkin as Ellie, a young woman whose father was brutally murdered while under Challis’s care, and who convinces him to join her on an investigation into the mysterious Silver Shamrock Novelties, whose omnipresent Halloween masks and fiendishly catchy jingle (which is clearly just “London Bridge is Falling Down” with different lyrics) have been dominating the spooky season. He agrees, so long as he can grab a six-pack for the road.
Pretty soon they discover the town of Santa Mira, which appears to be entirely under the company’s control, complete with surveillance cameras and a mandatory curfew. A trail of gruesome deaths and other odd occurrences lead them to Silver Shamrock’s owner, Conal Cochran (Dan O’Herlihy), who puts on a pleasant face that’s clearly a facade for something deeply sinister. O’Herlihy makes for an effortlessly entertaining villain, striking a perfect balance between genial charm and malicious intent. As Challis and Ellie get closer to discovering the ghoulish machinations behind this deceptively cheerful little town, we are treated to one revelation after another than must be seen to be believed, and even if the ultimate motivation is somewhat poorly defined, it’s a well-paced and engaging mystery that’s far more about the journey than the destination.
It’s also consistently impressive from a technical standpoint. Director Tommy Lee Wallace, who had previously served as production designer for the original Halloween and went on to direct the TV adaptation of Stephen King’s It that’s not nearly as good as you remember, does an excellent job balancing character-centric quirks with the increasingly macabre horror elements, keeping things rooted in reality without straying too far from the sheer strangeness of the story he’s telling. There’s a montage of kids trick-or-treating towards the end, all wearing the Silver Shamrock masks, and the imagery combined with our new knowledge of exactly what the masks are going to do is impressively haunting. Carpenter and Alan Howarth provide a score that’s distinct from the previous films but no less distinctive. And a particular shout-out must be given to the special effects team for the execution (pun intended) of some shockingly visceral on-screen deaths.
While it’s a shame that Halloween III wasn’t better received upon release (Roger Ebert prominently featured it in his list of “Most Hated” films), time has at least been somewhat kind to this weird little gem. A critical re-evaluation over the years has given it a certain cult status, and in some circles it is regarded just as highly as the original film, albeit for very different reasons. It won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, and even for horror aficionados the combination of an incredibly outlandish premise with a somewhat disturbing depiction of violence directed at children will be too much to swallow (even if it is under the silliest of circumstances). But for cinephiles who like their heroes belligerent, their kills gory, their dialogue cheesy, and their stories bizarre, this wildly irreverent tale should make for a very pleasant surprise.
Let me know in the comments how you feel about Halloween III? Does the complete lack of association with the rest of the franchise keep you at arm’s length, or are you able to enjoy the film as its own weird thing? How would you rank the franchise as a whole? Let us know your thoughts, and be sure to tune in next week for another edition of Sunday Scaries!